Meet The Women Of Color Legal Team Fighting For Nikole Hannah-Jones And Racial Justice
(L-R) Janai Nelson, Jin Hee Lee, Jennifer A. Holmes, Amber Koonce | Courtesy of NAACP LDF

Over the summer, ESSENCE cover star Nikole Hannah-Jones announced she was rejecting a tenure offer from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and heading to Howard University. While the journalist’s decision made headlines, a team of women have been working behind the scenes to address the wider implications of UNC’s actions that led to her surprising move.

Hannah-Jones— the brains behind the New York Times Magazine’s The 1619 Project and author of its Pulitzer Prize-winning opening essay— was pursued by UNC to join its faculty as a tenured professor and a prestigious Knight Chair. UNC then announced they would no longer offer tenure, despite it being offered to every Knight Chair in the school’s history.

What seemed like a niche controversy in media and academic circles possibly revealed something deeper: issues with freedom of speech, employment discrimination, and civil rights violations in service of conservative, wealthy interests throughout the country.

An all-women-of-color team at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund— consisting of Janai Nelson, Jennifer Holmes, Jin Hee Lee and Amber Koonce— not only supported Hannah-Jones during her ordeal, but they raised legal and policy questions that will undoubtedly affect Black people more broadly heading into the new year.

“First and foremost, this is a violation of First Amendment rights,” Koonce told ESSENCE. “In Nikole’s particular case…we are concerned with what is described as viewpoint discrimination,” which applies to government actions that restrict free speech. This in turn affects UNC, since it is a public university system.

Koonce continued: “Someone can’t punish you or stop you from speaking just because they disagree with your viewpoint. With former President Trump’s executive order there was a similar thing where it was even more drastic. It was flat out banning certain viewpoints, not just punishing you for speaking about it, but flat out forbidding speech of that viewpoint. This is something that we are deeply concerned about, punishment for holding certain views.”

These “views,” as conservatives have made clear, are perspectives that discuss America’s history in all its painful truth. With The 1619 Project centering America’s brutal institution of slavery in the country’s founding, Hannah-Jones became a target. The special issue magazine was raised like an enemy flag among hyperbolic right-wingers, a symbol of some terrifying force that undermines true, American patriotism.

In Hannah-Jones’ case, local reporting uncovered that Walter Hussman, Jr., a wealthy donor to UNC Chapel Hill for whom its journalism school is named, was possibly behind the school’s about-face in denying her tenure. His disaffection with The 1619 Project was allegedly at the heart of it.

Hussman reportedly took issue with a part of her opening essay, emailing a school official that it “denigrates the courageous efforts of many white Americans” who fought against racial injustice and slavery. He also emailed multiple administrators various concerns about her hiring.

For NAACP LDF attorneys, UNC’s reversal (which Hussman may have influenced) raised free speech questions.

There’s a “chilling effect we’ve already seen materialize in Nikole’s circumstance, where we’ve seen faculty members at UNC leave [and] plan to leave the university. So I think it’s important for folks to realize that the First Amendment belongs to all of us, and that we should all be concerned about the government trying to control what views we may write about, what views we may hold, and what views we may espouse,” Koonce told ESSENCE.

Beyond a possible infringement of free speech, the Hannah-Jones case also serves as a reminder that Black women, regardless of their accolades, are frequently undermined in the workplace.

There is “rampant employment discrimination and difficulty [for] Black people and other people of color to just get the same kind of opportunities, to be treated fairly. [And there are] false stereotypes that are often associated with someone’s race and people make assumptions, whether you’re a woman or because of your race, that you can’t take on certain positions or certain responsibilities,” said Jin Hee Lee, Senior Deputy Director of Litigation.

The LDF team believes UNC’s actions violate federal law and anti-discrimination state laws. “There could certainly be a 14th amendment violation under the equal protection clause, but also a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race or any other protected class,” shared Jennifer A. Holmes, LDF’s Assistant Counsel.

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“If you look at the prior individuals who were appointed to be named [Knight] chairs, since the 1980s, they’ve all been white, and they have all been appointed with tenure,” Holmes noted. “And then suddenly, you have a Black woman candidate, and her tenure is stymied and taken off the table, and she’s given this inferior term-limited contract. So we felt that certainly showed a differential treatment on the basis of race.”

“That’s what I think was so terrible about the executive order that President Trump had issued, which really attacked employment diversity trainings, and diversity, equity and inclusion training,” Lee stated. “Because now employers are actually wanting to do something about these problems, and certainly should do more than just training. And yet even the federal government under the Trump administration [was] saying that that is somehow divisive, as opposed to the underlying discrimination being something that’s divisive and something that should be remedied.”

Janai Nelson, the incoming LDF President and current Associate Director-Counsel, sees the attacks on Hannah-Jones and The 1619 Project as part of a larger backlash to the 2020 protest movement.

“This case is just one of the most visible manifestations of the assault on truth, the assault on history, and the assault on racial justice that we’re experiencing in this moment,” Nelson said. And the concern, to Nelson, is “three-fold.”

“If you don’t have language to explain the inequality and inequity that you see in society, if you don’t understand it, you can draw conclusions that are deeply, deeply hurtful.”Janai Nelson, NAACP LDF Associate Director-Counsel

First, she describes censorship in the academy and in public school curricula. “We see that through the proliferation of state laws that are banning the teaching of critical race theory, even though critical race theory is rarely taught in K-12 education, and most people don’t even understand what critical race theory is,” Nelson told ESSENCE.

“But basically conservatives and extreme ideologues have converted that well-established body of scholarship into a boogeyman for all things race. And that has the effect of stifling the ability of a whole new generation of people in this country to understand the historical underpinnings of racial inequity.”

“As we can imagine, if you don’t have language to explain that inequality and inequity that you see in society, if you don’t understand it, you can draw conclusions that are deeply, deeply harmful,” she stated.

In addition to discussing issues with censorship, Nelson also noted conservative backlash to both voting rights and protest activity.

“We see an onslaught of laws that are aimed at not only making it difficult to vote generally, but also aimed at some of the very specific ways that Black and white people exercise their right to vote. And so it’s quite obvious what the aim of those laws is.”

In addition, there is an “invitation to crackdown on protests to absolve people from violence that they may commit upon protesters,” she stated.

“All of this is a way to silence and erase the voices of Black and brown people in this country and to erase this country’s racist and white supremacist past. Rather than reckon with it, rather than resolve it, the people who are sponsoring these laws, the politicians who are engaged in this fight, would rather not only sweep it under the rug, but stamp it out entirely and criminalize the discussion of it. And that’s a very, very dangerous place to be. That’s a descent towards authoritarianism.”

For Hannah-Jones, Nelson added, “this was one example of the punishment that these extremists seek to impose on anyone who tells those truths. And because we think telling that truth is essential to any aspect of racial justice in this country, we felt it important to defend her right to express herself in that way and to defend her against race and gender discrimination.”

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