According to some leading critical race theorists, integration — the traditional progressive route to racial justice — does not actually work for minorities. In this view, white supremacy is so embedded in most American institutions that people of color will never be accepted as equals — even when they are formally granted entry.
UNC demonstrated that point after its journalism school offered Hannah-Jones, an investigative journalist for the New York Times, a prestigious professorship. The MacArthur “genius” learned that her initial appointment would be without tenure. She said she knew of no “legitimate reason” why “someone who has worked in the field as long as I have, who has the credentials, the awards, or the status that I have, should be treated different than every other white professor who came before me.” After a threatened lawsuit and huge public outcry, the university’s Board of Trustees voted 9 to 4 to extend tenure to Hannah-Jones.
But this week, Hannah-Jones announced that she was instead accepting a tenured position at Howard University, a historically Black school. This wasn’t just a “drop the mic” moment. Hannah-Jones’s rejection of a majority-White institution whose leaders clearly did not value her worth — and her embrace of a Black institution that did — embodied critical race theory’s foundational principles.
The doctrine was first articulated during the 1980s as a way of understanding why, decades after the civil rights movement, African Americans still experienced discrimination in virtually every aspect of their lives. Columbia University law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “critical race theory,” has argued that the law can often be interpreted in a way that benefits the ruling class, no matter what the law actually says.
Or, as Hannah-Jones wrote this week, “We have all seen that you can do everything to make yourself undeniable, and those in power can change the rules and attempt to deny you anyway.”
Critical race theorists advanced concepts such as structural racism and intersectionality. Some were skeptical of civil rights strategies that relied on integration, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” schools were inherently unequal and, therefore, unconstitutional.
In a classic article published in 1976, Harvard professor Derrick Bell argued that during the Jim Crow era, Black students might have been better off if they had sought more resources for segregated schools rather than access to White schools. Bell’s premise was that actual integration would never happen, even if it were legally mandated, because of “massive white hostility.”
Critical race theorists described the heavy toll of desegregation efforts, including placing Blacks in hostile environments, in a way that resonates with Hannah-Jones’s explanation for her decision: “At some point when you have proven yourself and fought your way into institutions that were not built for you . . . you have to decide that you are done forcing yourself in.”
Most professors of color work at majority-White schools, which remain better resourced than historically Black universities. Hannah-Jones’s platform allowed her to quickly raise $15 million to fund her chair at Howard, as well as another for the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. Few scholars enjoy that level of access to capital.
People of color in majority-White spaces often find themselves having to do “diversity” work that is not part of their job description. This can be draining and frustrating, making it difficult to refute the wisdom of Hannah-Jones’s observation that “for too long, powerful people have expected the people they have mistreated and marginalized to sacrifice themselves to make things whole.”
Nevertheless, some of us persist, based on another lesson from critical race theory: that those Hannah-Jones described as the “powerful people who maintain” racial injustice are unlikely to seek change, because the status quo provides them with too many benefits. Unfair as it is, that work remains up to people of color and our allies.
I have no beef with Hannah-Jones for declining a job at a journalism school that is literally named after the White man who, as he so delicately put it, “expressed my concerns” about her hiring. But, for now, I am okay with working at a university that in its early years was financed by the sale of enslaved people. I love my students and respect my colleagues, and have been part of the community’s efforts, still incomplete, to make reparations for that travesty. Sometimes, helping majority-White spaces be less racist and more inclusive feels transformative. Other times, it feels like an intellectual version of my great-grandfather’s job; he cleaned outhouses — i.e., shoveling White people’s excrement.
Much respect to Hannah-Jones for providing another example. Much respect to critical race theorists for keeping us focused on the crucial question: whether any approach can achieve racial justice in our flawed and divided country.