Because in surrendering to discrimination and institutional cowardice in the face of political pressure, the university — and, sadly, the students it’s supposed to be serving — lost out on learning from one of the United States’ most prominent journalists.
UNC’s loss also means Howard University has picked up two franchise players. Hannah-Jones announced that she would be taking her talents to the HBCU in D.C., where she will serve as the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Reporting and will found the Center for Journalism and Democracy to “focus on training and supporting aspiring journalists in acquiring the investigative skills and historical and analytical expertise needed to cover the crisis our democracy is facing.” And, yes, her new job comes with tenure, along with the chance to teach alongside another luminary of Black journalism: the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who also announced he will be joining Howard.
Howard 2: UNC 0. But the true slam-dunk came from Hannah-Jones’s choice to speak her full truth.
Hannah-Jones’ searing personal statement was equal parts defiant and sorrowful, and it’s worth reading in full. She spoke of her love for UNC since watching the Tar Heels play as a child, how she “cried from joy” when she learned that she had been accepted into UNC’s journalism master’s program on a full-tuition fellowship. She honed her craft there.
She also gave back. As Hannah-Jones rose to prominence in her 20-year career as a journalist, she said, she “tried to repay the university by mentoring and supporting students through the organization I co-founded — the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting — and by regularly visiting the campus to give talks and meet with students.”
Now that story, which should have ended with a fairy-tale homecoming, has turned into a nightmare. “These last few weeks have been very dark,” she said, writing of the lack of transparency from UNC’s chancellor and provost. “To be treated so shabbily by my alma mater, by a university that has given me so much and which I only sought to give back to, has been deeply painful.”
Basketball metaphors aside — where does all that leave us? On the one hand, Hannah-Jones's refusal to accept UNC’s scraps felt like a victory for every Black person who has been held back in White spaces.
But the pain she speaks of is real and visceral. Hannah-Jones did everything right. Her work has undeniably changed the United States’ conversations on race. She went through UNC’s rigorous tenure process and was approved by UNC’s promotion and tenure committee. And yet, her homecoming dream was denied. It creates a profound sense of betrayal for Black people to give so much of themselves or, dare I say, of their love to a White-dominated institution, only to be left outside in the cold due to the whims of wealthy, White gatekeepers so exceptionally skilled at moving goalposts.
Too often when White-dominated institutions slip and fall in a racist storm of their own making, Black women are expected to be diversity-and-inclusion janitors, cleaning up messes we didn’t create. Not only that, we are expected to be grateful to be handed the mop. “The burden of working for racial justice is laid on the very people bearing the brunt of the injustice, and not the powerful people who maintain it,” Hannah-Jones wrote. “I say to you: I refuse.”
But I still worry for us. Hannah-Jones is a prominent and successful journalist. She had access to lawyers and powerful allies, and still she was battered by a hurricane that is landing across the United States: White backlash to Black progress. It’s the same storm that’s bringing us high tides of voter suppression and memory laws disguised as anti-critical-race theory legislation, and it’s building in its fury.
Hannah-Jones had the stature to access tens of millions of dollars to help fund the new efforts at Howard. But most Black people who wish to teach and educate from a Black perspective won’t have the power to build their own institutional shelters from the storms of White backlash.
Three cheers for Nikole Hannah-Jones. But until White institutions decide to end their discrimination, the game will still be rigged.