Person

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Known for:

1619 Project

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine who in 2019 created and directed of the magazine’s “1619 Project.” Her lead essay for the 100-page journalistic endeavor asserts the central event in the founding of the United States was the first importation of enslaved Africans to Virginia in 1619 and that U.S. history and modern America are best understood as completely dependent upon the institution of slavery. [1] Hannah-Jones has told interviewers that her “ultimate goal” for the 1619 Project is passage of slavery reparations legislation. [2] New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet has said the project was approved as part of the newspaper’s effort to “hold the [Trump] administration to account” and “try to understand the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump.” [3]

Many of the nation’s most prominent historians have criticized Hannah-Jones for including a “ludicrous” assertion that slavery was the motivation for the American Revolution,[4] a “ridiculous” characterization of Abraham Lincoln as a racist,[5] and for using a ‘1619’ date that falsely places the start of race-based slavery in America many decades too early. [6] At least two requests for corrections from 17 prominent historians were rejected by the newspaper and Hannah-Jones. [7] [8]

Her professional affiliations and funding have been tied to numerous left-leaning donors and organizations, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, New America, the Russell Sage Foundation, the Open Society Foundations (OSF), the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Surdna Foundation. [9] [10] [11] Describing her journalism career in February 2020, she said “I’ve always written about the worst side of America.” [12] Speaking to an audience of journalism students in October 2016, she said unbiased journalism “doesn’t exist,” and that she did not “pretend to be unbiased,” but claimed her work was “accurate” and “fair.” [13]

Background

Born in 1976, Hannah-Jones grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, on what she has described as the “wrong side of the river that divided white from black, opportunity from struggle.” A 2015 report from the Des Moines Register identified Waterloo as “Iowa’s most predominantly black city” that had experienced a “century of racial tensions.” Waterloo is 15.6 percent African-American, compared to 3.3. percent for the overall population of Iowa. With 68,000 total residents, the newspaper said Des Moines had experienced 97 “shooting incidents” in 2014. [14] [15]

Hannah-Jones has said she identifies as African-American, with an African-American father and a white mother. [16] She came from an extended family in Waterloo that she has described as mostly manual laborers, with her mother working as a probation officer and her father as a bus driver. [17]

She began her education in what she described as a “low-income school” that her mother said was “distressingly chaotic.” But in 1982, when Hannah-Jones was in second grade, her parents enrolled her and her older sister in one of the city’s “whitest, richest schools, thinking it would provide the best opportunities for us.” The two young girls took a one-hour bus ride to a school across town as part of what Hannah-Jones has described as Waterloo’s “voluntary desegregation program, which allowed some black kids to leave their neighborhood schools for whiter, more well off ones on the west side of town.” [18]

She has written that the new school provided her an “academically stimulating” environment with “rigorous classes and quality instruction.” She has also noted the cultural exposure to homes where the parents of her classmates were “doctors and lawyers and scientists” was “world-expanding” and “helped me imagine possibilities, a course for myself that I had not considered before.” She credits the school with changing her life’s trajectory: “I have no doubt my parents’ decision to pull me out of my segregated neighborhood school made the possibility of my getting from there to here — staff writer for The New York Times Magazine — more likely.” [19]

She attended the University of Notre Dame and earned undergraduate degrees in history and African-American studies. She attended University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned a masters’ degree in journalism. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, Faraji Hannah-Jones, and their daughter. [20] [21]

Career

Describing her journalism career in February 2020, Hannah-Jones told an interviewer for Essence: “I’ve always written about the worst side of America.” [22] In an October 2016 lecture at the Columbia Journalism School, she said “I only became a journalist because I wanted to write about racial inequality.” [23]

Speaking to the audience of journalism students at Columbia University in October 2016, she said objectivity in journalism was not her goal and was not possible:[24]

Hannah-Jones approaches her work with a perspective and a purpose. “I don’t believe in unbiased journalism; it doesn’t exist,” she told the Delacorte audience. “All reporters have a perspective on what they’re writing [. . .] I never pretend to be unbiased; what I do say is my work will be accurate and my work will be fair.” [25]

Hannah-Jones began work as a staff writer with the New York Times Magazine on May 11, 2015. Prior to this she had been a reporter at ProPublica. Prior to that she worked as a reporter for the Oregonian in Portland, Oregon and at the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. [26] [27]

Left-Leaning Affiliations

Hannah-Jones won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2017. Often referred to as MacArthur “genius” awards, the fellowships are $625,000 cash grants given out annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The prizes are frequently presented to left-leaning activists in various fields. A 2015 profile of the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago Magazine stated its funding interests “have tended to be fairly liberal” and in particular that there “could hardly be a more liberal grant, for example, than the MacArthur Fellowship.” [28]

She was also 2018 New America Fellow (a fellowship provided by the left-leaning New America think tank) and a 2017 visiting journalist at the Russell Sage Foundation (a funder of left-leaning social science research). [29]

In 2016 Hannah-Jones was one of three co-founders of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is dedicated to “provide the training and mentorship necessary for journalists of color to compete and succeed” in the investigative reporting field. [30] As of 2020 she remained a board member of the organization. [31] In addition to support from the New York Times, the Ida B. Wells Society receives major funding from several grantmaking organizations with a history of donations to left-leaning causes, such as the Open Society Foundations (OSF), John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Surdna Foundation. [32]

Policy Views

School Integration Coverage

The dominant theme of Hannah-Jones’s career has been the production of reports seeking to expose the segregation of American neighborhoods and “resegregation” of public schools. [33]

According to the career biography on her personal website, this began when she wrote for her high school newspaper and focused on “writing about students like her, who were bused across town as part of a voluntary school desegregation program.” It continued into her first journalism job at the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the website says she covered “the majority-black Durham Public Schools” and “wrote extensively on issues of race, class, school resegregation and equity.” For three years at ProPublica she was an “investigative reporter” who wrote about “the way official policy created and maintains segregation in housing and schools.” And her work at the New York Times is defined as coverage of “civil rights and racial injustice.” [34]

Asked at the Columbia University lecture if her work led her to conclude there was reason to be “hopeful about the future of equality in race relations,” she replied in the negative: [35]

“I’m not an optimistic person; anybody who reads my work knows that,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of optimism about race. I think if you study history, you don’t have a lot of reason to have optimism, but what I do know is we cannot continue to go as we are.” [36]

Support for Forced Integration

Hannah-Jones has expressed the belief that the United States is a “country built on racial caste.” [37] In a January 2020 interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution  she said “Show me a place where it is not true that black kids and white kid in separate schools get different resources…Segregated schools equal segregated life.” [38]

In a 2017 interview with The Atlantic, she alleged public schools were purpose-built for inequality:[39]

Our public schools are not broken, but are operating as designed. Our public schools were set up to provide unequal, inadequate education for black children. So that’s what they do. [40]

As a remedy she has proposed forced integration of public schools, saying this will allow low income black children the benefit of “[h]itching a ride to the white majority” and the resources that come with them because “if you want what white children get, you have to be where white children are.” [41]

She has written that forced integration through court-ordered busing that began in the early 1970s was “extraordinarily successful,” particularly in the southern United States where it “transformed the South from apartheid to the place where black children are now the most likely to sit in classrooms with white children” and “led to increased resources being spent on black and low-income children.” She also argues that “test-score gap between black and white students reached its narrowest point ever at the peak of desegregation” and that after the end of forced busing “has widened as schools have resegregated.” [42]

Beyond forced integration through busing, she has also said that a less practical but logically consistent policy, one that would apply if Americans “truly wanted to equalize and integrate schools,” would be to abolish private schools and thus prevent wealthy white parents from withdrawing their children and resources. [43]

Criticism of “White Liberals”

Hannah-Jones believes left-leaning white Americans represent some of the biggest obstacles to integration and has said she is addressing most of her journalism toward persuading them to change:[44]

I am only writing and speaking to liberals at this point. I’m trying to get people who say they believe in equality and integration but act in ways that maintain inequality and segregation to live their own values. The most segregated parts of the country are all in the progressive North. If you could just get white liberals to live their values, you could have a significant amount of integration. [45]

She has accused left-leaning white Americans of a form of fake integration that she refers to as “curated diversity” where the white parents are “willing to accept” schools where African-American students are no more than “10 to 15 percent” of the total population. [46]

But beyond that number of African-American children she has said left-leaning white Americans are unwilling to go:

But what you [left-leaning white Americans] want is a majority-white school with a small number of black kids and a good number of Latino, a good number of Asian. That makes you feel very good about yourself because you feel like your child is getting this beautiful integrated experience. The problem is that the public schools in New York City are 70 percent black and Latino. So, for you to have your beautiful diversity, that means that most black and Latino kids get absolutely none. [47]

She has also accused urban white Americans of desiring segregation:[48]

In communities that are gentrifying, the gentrification stops at the schoolhouse door. White communities want neighborhood schools if their neighborhood school is white. If their neighborhood school is black, they want choice. Housing segregation just becomes a convenient excuse. The problem—and I never use the phrase “white supremacy” because it’s a word that people automatically discount as soon as you use it, but that is the problem. [49]

Choice of School

When deciding on an elementary school for her own daughter, Hannah-Jones and her husband deliberately avoided a nearby school with the “curated diversity” she has criticized, and instead placed the child in a nearby school with an overwhelmingly African-American and low-income student population. Writing about this decision, she noted this was despite what she believes to have been the very significant advantages both she and her African-American husband gained from attending racially-integrated schools. [50]

“Saying my child deserved access to “good” public schools felt like implying that children in “bad” schools deserved the schools they got, too,” she wrote. “I also believed that it is the choices of individual parents that uphold the system, and I was determined not to do what I’d seen so many others do when their values about integration collided with the reality of where to send their own children to school.” [51]

Second Amendment

On June 2, 2020, in light of the riots that followed the death of George Floyd, President Donald Trump announced that he was “mobilizing all available federal resources, civilian and military, to stop the rioting and looting, to end the destruction and arson. And to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans, including your Second Amendment rights.” [52] Hannah-Jones replied to a video clip of the president on Twitter, writing, “This reference to the 2nd Amendment is a head scratcher only if you don’t know that 2nd Amendment was in fact created to ensure Southern slaveowners the right to maintain & arm slave patrols to put down insurrections amongst the enslaved. Now he’s invoking agnst their descendants.” She then replied to her tweet with a few links to articles and an announcement of a new book on the subject. [53]

1619 Project

Hannah-Jones was the creator and project director of the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project. The artistic and journalistic endeavor asserts the central event in the founding of the United States was the first importation of enslaved Africans to Virginia in 1619 and not the Declaration of Independence in 1776 or the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. The project further asserts that U.S. history and modern America are best understood as completely dependent upon the institution of slavery. [54]

According to a summary from Real Clear Investigations: [55]

… the 1619 Project declares that much of American history unfolded from that fateful event in 1619: chattel slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, redlining, incarceration and urban poverty, as well as legacies not as widely understood, such as obesity. Its essays, written by a team of mostly African-American journalists and historians, argue that modern accounting methods, urban traffic patterns, resistance to adopting universal health care,  overconsumption of sugar – and American capitalism itself – are some of the insidious ways that the legacy of slavery shapes our society today. [56]

Hannah-Jones has told interviewers that her “ultimate goal” for the 1619 Project is passage of slavery reparations legislation that would provide monetary payments to African Americans. [57] New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet has said the project was approved as part of the newspaper’s effort to “hold the [Trump] administration to account” and “try to understand the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump.” [58]

Academic Criticisms

The factual accuracy of the 1619 Project has been sharply criticized by many prominent academics,[59] including Pulitzer Prize-winning and Pulitzer-nominated historians such as Gordon S. Wood,[60] James M. McPherson,[61] and Sean Wilentz. [62] The historians have criticized Hannah-Jones’ lead essay for including a “ludicrous” assertion that slavery was the motivation for the American Revolution,[63] a “ridiculous” characterization of Abraham Lincoln as a racist,[64] and for using a ‘1619’ date that falsely places the start of race-based slavery in America many decades too early. [65]

Nell Irvin Painter, a professor emerita of American history at Princeton University and the author of multiple books regarding U.S. race and civil rights history, contested the ‘1619’ date in an essay for The Guardian, a left-leaning newspaper based in the United Kingdom. [66] Painter wrote that it wasn’t until the end of the 17th century that Africans in North America had been clearly “marked off by race in law as chattel to be bought, sold, traded, inherited and serve as collateral for business and debt services” and that this “was not already the case in 1619.” [67]

As to the status of Africans brought to colonial America in 1619, Painter wrote:

People were not enslaved in Virginia in 1619, they were indentured. The 20 or so Africans were sold and bought as “servants” for a term of years, and they joined a population consisting largely of European indentured servants, mainly poor people from the British Isles whom the Virginia Company of London had transported and sold into servitude. [68]

Explaining the gradual evolution of slavery, she wrote that a “process of turning ‘servants’ from Africa into racialized workers enslaved for life occurred in the 1660s to 1680s through a succession of Virginia laws,” and that even as late as 1700 “Africans were hardly the only unfree colonists, for a majority of those laboring in Virginia were people bound to service.” [69]

Request for Corrections

Five prominent historians (including Wood, McPherson, and Wilentz) issued a letter to the New York Times, stating they were “dismayed at some factual errors in the project” and requesting corrections. New York Times Magazine editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein declined to make any corrections, saying:[70]

Though we respect the work of the signatories, appreciate that they are motivated by scholarly concern and applaud the efforts they have made in their own writings to illuminate the nation’s past, we disagree with their claim that our project contains significant factual errors and is driven by ideology rather than historical understanding. While we welcome criticism, we don’t believe that the request for corrections to The 1619 Project is warranted. [71]

Similarly, and apparently speaking for the newspaper, Hannah-Jones said: “We don’t agree that the areas that they are disputing need to be corrected.” She also noted: “Historians disagree all the time, but to go to this depth of demanding a correction, is taking this disagreement of interpretations to a realm outside of what I would consider normative historiography.” [72]

In his April 1, 2015 announcement of the New York Times Magazine hiring of Hannah-Jones, Silverstein had credited her with having a “flawless bullshit detector.” [73]

Funding Influences

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is the New York Times’ educational partner in the 1619 Project. The Pulitzer Center (which is not affiliated with the journalism and historical prizes using the same name) has said it delivered “tens of thousands of copies of the magazine” to K-12 schools, community colleges and historically black colleges and universities, and that Pulitzer lesson plans were adopted district-wide in five large school districts: “Buffalo, New York; Chicago; Washington, DC; Wilmington, Delaware; and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.” [74] At least $11.5 million (60 percent) of the $18.5 million received by Pulitzer during donor years 2007 through 2018 came from grantmaking foundations with a history of supporting left-leaning causes and organizations, including $1.8 million from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. [75] Hannah-Jones and other 1619 collaborators have been recipients of MacArthur Fellowships—also known as MacArthur “genius” awards. [76]

Pulitzer Prize

On May 4, 2020, Nikole Hannah-Jones was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her work on the 1619 Project. The Pulitzer Center, the 1619 project’s official education partner, announced in a press release, “The Center congratulates Hannah-Jones on her historic win and looks forward to continuing to collaborate with her and the team at the New York Times Magazine on this important work.” [77]

 

References

  1. Murawski, John. “Disputed NY Times ‘1619 Project’ Already Shaping Schoolkids’ Minds on Race.” Real Clear Investigations. January 31, 2020. Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.realclearinvestigations.com/articles/2020/01/31/disputed_ny_times_1619_project_is_already_shaping_kids_minds_on_race_bias_122192.html ^
  2. Murawski, John. “Disputed NY Times ‘1619 Project’ Already Shaping Schoolkids’ Minds on Race.” Real Clear Investigations. January 31, 2020. Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.realclearinvestigations.com/articles/2020/01/31/disputed_ny_times_1619_project_is_already_shaping_kids_minds_on_race_bias_122192.html ^
  3. Feinberg, Ashley. “The New York Times Unites vs. Twitter.” Slate.com. August 15, 2019. Accessed February 28, 2020.. https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/08/new-york-times-meeting-transcript.html ^
  4. Anderson, James. “U. professors send letter requesting corrections to 1619 Project.” The Daily Princetonian. February 6, 2020. Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2020/02/u-professors-send-letter-requesting-corrections-to-1619-project ^
  5. Mackaman, Tom. “An interview with historian James Oakes on the New York Times’ 1619 Project.” World Socialist Web Site. November 18, 2019. Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/11/18/oake-n18.html ^
  6. Painter, Nell Irvin. “How we think about the term ‘enslaved’ matters.” The Guardian. August 14, 2019. Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/aug/14/slavery-in-america-1619-first-ships-jamestown ^
  7. “We Respond to the Historians Who Critiqued The 1619 Project.” New York Times. December 20, 2019. Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/20/magazine/we-respond-to-the-historians-who-critiqued-the-1619-project.html ^
  8. Anderson, James. “U. professors send letter requesting corrections to 1619 Project.” The Daily Princetonian. February 6, 2020. Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2020/02/u-professors-send-letter-requesting-corrections-to-1619-project ^
  9. “Our Funders and Partners.” Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. Accessed February 27, 2020. https://idabwellssociety.org/about/funders-partners/  ^
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  13. Vernon, Pete. “Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks on schools, segregation, and systemic racism.” Columbia Journalism Review. October 6, 2016. Accessed February 27, 2020. https://www.cjr.org/the_delacorte_lectures/nikole_hannah-jones_video_new_york_times_schools.php ^
  14. Hannah-Jones, Nikole. “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City.” New York Times Magazine. June 9, 2016. Accessed February 27, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/12/magazine/choosing-a-school-for-my-daughter-in-a-segregated-city.html ^
  15. Munson, Kyle. “Waterloo a window into challenges faced by black Iowans.” Des Moines Register. July 11, 2015. Accessed February 27, 2020. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/local/kyle-munson/2015/07/11/african-american-black-iowa-waterloo/29942799/ ^
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  22. Burton, Nylah. “Nikole Hannah-Jones Made Black History With The 1619 Project, And She’s Not Done Yet.” Essence. February 3, 2020. Accessed February 27, 2020. https://www.essence.com/feature/black-history-now-nikole-hannah-jones/ ^
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  36. Vernon, Pete. “Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks on schools, segregation, and systemic racism.” Columbia Journalism Review. October 6, 2016. Accessed February 27, 2020. https://www.cjr.org/the_delacorte_lectures/nikole_hannah-jones_video_new_york_times_schools.php ^
  37. “The Atlantic Interview: Are Private Schools Immoral? A conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones about race, education, and hypocrisy.” The Atlantic. December 14, 2017. Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/12/progressives-are-undermining-public-schools/548084/  ^
  38. Downey, Maureen. “Nikole Hannah-Jones wants progressives who say they believe in integration to live their values.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution. January 27, 2020. Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.ajc.com/blog/get-schooled/journalist-with-education-message-white-america-may-not-want-hear/ormuPWfFvXR5cwkdBlVVVM/ ^
  39. “The Atlantic Interview: Are Private Schools Immoral? A conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones about race, education, and hypocrisy.” The Atlantic. December 14, 2017. Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/12/progressives-are-undermining-public-schools/548084/  ^
  40. “The Atlantic Interview: Are Private Schools Immoral? A conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones about race, education, and hypocrisy.” The Atlantic. December 14, 2017. Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/12/progressives-are-undermining-public-schools/548084/  ^
  41. “The Atlantic Interview: Are Private Schools Immoral? A conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones about race, education, and hypocrisy.” The Atlantic. December 14, 2017. Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/12/progressives-are-undermining-public-schools/548084/  ^
  42. Hannah-Jones, Nikole. “It was never about busing.” New York Times. July 12, 2019. Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/12/opinion/sunday/it-was-never-about-busing.html ^
  43. “The Atlantic Interview: Are Private Schools Immoral? A conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones about race, education, and hypocrisy.” The Atlantic. December 14, 2017. Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/12/progressives-are-undermining-public-schools/548084/  ^
  44. “The Atlantic Interview: Are Private Schools Immoral? A conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones about race, education, and hypocrisy.” The Atlantic. December 14, 2017. Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/12/progressives-are-undermining-public-schools/548084/  ^
  45. “The Atlantic Interview: Are Private Schools Immoral? A conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones about race, education, and hypocrisy.” The Atlantic. December 14, 2017. Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/12/progressives-are-undermining-public-schools/548084/  ^
  46. “The Atlantic Interview: Are Private Schools Immoral? A conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones about race, education, and hypocrisy.” The Atlantic. December 14, 2017. Accessed February 28, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/12/progressives-are-undermining-public-schools/548084/  ^
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