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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Aleta Payne: Hannah-Jones is right. Go where you’re wanted and let UNC address why she isn’t there

By Aleta Payne Charlotte Observer

I know a fair number of people who have gone where they weren’t wanted and fought every day to remain.

They’ve done it so children will know that people who look like them can be teachers and attorneys, nurses and doctors, police officers and politicians.

They’ve done it so that laws and policies might be influenced by a more diverse array of experiences.

They’ve done it to fulfill the lifelong dreams of their ancestors and to make a better life for their kids.

Often, they do this with the inherent belief that their effort can help mend something damaged long before they arrived.

At some point, however, the opportunity just might come along to exit a system that was built to consume them rather than to anchor their success. Having carried their share, they step from under an imposed burden and into a space where they are welcomed with enthusiasm.

In choosing to serve as Knight Chair at Howard University rather than deal with whatever arcane sabotage might await her next at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Nikole Hannah-Jones has opted to take her considerable talents where they will be respected. Her work, which will include founding the Center for Journalism and Democracy, comes with significant support from several major philanthropic foundations.

Good for her, good for Howard and good for the national organizations that value what they can accomplish together.

On Tuesday, Hannah-Jones released a lengthy and detailed statement about the process that has led to this point. It is worth reading in its entirety; one section particularly resonated:

“Many people, all with the best of intentions, have said that if I walk away from UNC, I will have let those who opposed me win. But I do not want to win someone else’s game. It is not my job to heal this university, to force the reforms necessary to ensure the Board of Trustees reflects the actual population of the school and the state, or to ensure that the university leadership lives up to the promises it made to reckon with its legacy of racism and injustice.

“For too long, powerful people have expected the people they have mistreated and marginalized to sacrifice themselves to make things whole. 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. I say to you: I refuse.”

While some UNC leaders could not bring themselves to take down Silent Sam, they have done their best to take down Hannah-Jones. What has been made clear, again, is the inherent dishonesty in the message that bootstrapping hard work and “playing by the rules” make the same opportunities available to everyone, shutting down animosity and earning respect.

That false promise of equality apparently doesn’t apply to a Pulitzer Prize-winning MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow any more than it applied to a president of the United States. There are not enough magical charms or amulets of respectability to drape around someone to secure their protection from people in power who are determined, at all costs, to keep others out.

Late tenure decisions, like all acts of performative justice (thanks for Juneteenth, now do voting rights), are an embarrassment that undermine the very messages they are meant to send. And people watching – thoughtful, discerning people – see through the translucent dishonesty.

Hannah-Jones is right – she cannot heal UNC. I am among those who are delighted she’ll have the chance to work where it’s not her job to fix something she didn’t break.

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