A Notre Dame Racial Justice Misfire
A Failure to “Foster Social Cohesion”
Racism is a grave sin, and the roiling controversy over its persistence in the country’s institutions and in the hearts and minds of its citizens is a grievous wound to the nation’s sense of community – a wound that, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace reminds us in The Church and Racism, “mysteriously remains open.”
At the same time, the Council cautions against the “real risk” that efforts to heal that wound might “crystalize differences rather than foster social cohesion.”
Accordingly, it is Notre Dame’s opportunity and obligation to discern and to teach what is true and what is false among the charges and counter-charges being leveled by the proponents and opponents of “critical race theory” and its variants.
For reasons we describe below, Notre Dame failed in that responsibility when, on March 15, the Gallivan Program in Journalism — with the College of Arts and Letters, the History Department and the Center for Social Concerns among eight other co-sponsors — hosted a celebratory appearance by Notre Dame alumna Nikole Hannah-Jones (‘98).
Hannah-Jones is the principal author of the heavily criticized New York Times The 1619 Project and an influential proponent of the radioactive view that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country, as does the belief…that black people are the obstacle to national unity.”
Unhappily, while many videos of other appearances by Hannah-Jones are available, including a talk to the Notre Dame student organization “Shades of Ebony” the next day, there is no publicly available record of this event.
No matter. Hannah-Jones’s views have been extensively reported and surely known by the sponsors of the event. And the fact that none of the eminent historians who have challenged her work have been asked to respond shows she was brought to Notre Dame to send a message, a message that doubles down on the recent Black History Month declaration by the Executive Vice President’s Office of Human Resources that
[T]he unspoken founding principles of the nation [were] slavery, genocide, and settler colonialism”
We are in a moment where we will choose to capitulate to the grip of white supremacy or fight to build new worlds and new understandings.
The 1619 Project
The August 14, 2019 edition of the New York Times Magazine featured the first publication of an extensive journalistic endeavor whose goal was “to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.”
Launched in honor of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves on the shores of Virginia, The 1619 Project rewrote America’s historical narrative with “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center.”
The first of the issue’s 10 essays is an introduction by Nikole Hannah-Jones. The essay, which was awarded a 2020 Pulitzer Prize, begins with a brief summary of her thesis:
Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written. Black Americans fought to make them true. Without this struggle, America would have no democracy at all.
Hannah-Jones contends that the Founding Fathers did not believe in the ideals on which they purported to establish the nation — e.g., “that all men are created equal”– and argues that the treatment of black Americans throughout the nation’s history is evidence of endemic hypocrisy.
Hannah-Jones insists the stain is indelible.
Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.
The Project’s Interpretive Lens
The 1619 Project’s interpretive lens likely strikes the untrained ear as problematic. For many within the academic community, the supporting evidence was likewise problematic – and, in several cases, demonstrably false.
In a letter to the New York Times editorial page editor, five of the nation’s foremost historians
pointed to factual errors in the Project’s narrative and faulted the “closed process behind it”– that is, the project’s failure to consult leading experts in American history.
The historians wrote:
These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or “framing.” They are matters of veritable fact … They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.
Among the most decried of Hannah-Jones’ claims was that “one of the primary reasons” colonists declared independence from Britain was “because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” The New York Times softened it somewhat, but it is still under fire.
And her sour view of Lincoln has been characterized as an “outrageous, lying slander.” Lincoln, she wrote,
opposed black equality. He believed that free black people were a “troublesome presence” incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people.
One of the signatories of the historians’ letter was James McPherson, professor emeritus of history at Princeton University and author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning account of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom. In an interview, McPherson said:
I didn’t know anything about it until I got my Sunday paper…almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery….
The Pulitzer Prize Board likewise received a letter from the National Association of Scholars requesting that Hannah-Jones’s award be revoked. The 29 signatories echoed the historians’ criticisms:
The Pulitzer Prize Board erred in awarding a prize to Hannah-Jones’s profoundly flawed essay, and through it to a Project that, despite its worthy intentions, is disfigured by unfounded conjectures and patently false assertions.
And see Sycamore Trust board member Katherine Kersten’s illuminating analysis here.
Using distortions, half-truths and outright falsehoods, the Times promotes a narrative that our founding ideals, allegedly false from the beginning, remain so, by extension, today. It concludes that wholesale social, political and cultural transformation…will be necessary to redeem our nation from this original sin.
For other examples of withering criticism of Hannah-Jones and The Project, see here (“Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Hatred For America Is The Basis Of The 1619 Project”) and here (“the purest and most perfect example of woke”) and here (“trash history” that “reeks of Herbert Marcuse’s divisive ideology”).
And for additional insight into Hannah-Jones’s perspective, consider her defense of the rioting and destruction that followed George Floyd’s murder (“destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence”) and her startling declaration that “it would be an honor” for those riots to be linked to The 1619 Project.
Far-Reaching and Controversial Goals
In launching The 1619 Project, the editor-in-chief of the New York Times said its goal was to be the foundation for a school curriculum and educational outreach effort.
That goal has certainly been met. Currently, the Pulitzer Center’s webpage hosts a myriad of 1619 resources used in classrooms in all 50 states. This has resulted in heated controversies throughout the country. (“The biggest upheaval came when the 1619 Project began to be taught to kids in grade school and as college history courses.”)
And Hannah-Jones has also frequently alluded to the project’s political goals, including reparations to the descendants of slaves.
A Notre Dame Homecoming
Despite the widespread disclosure of The 1619 Project’s infirmities, Notre Dame has been eager to host her on campus. She was invited to speak at an event postponed because of COVID-19; then, to give a virtual talk for the Klau Center’s lecture series on racism; and, finally, to give the Gallivan Program’s Red Smith Lecture that is the subject of this bulletin.
Hannah-Jones has not expressed the same enthusiasm about Notre Dame. In a recent MSNBC interview she declared:
I hated my time at Notre Dame.
A sentiment that she echoed in a 2020 interview with the Observer, adding
[E]very non-white student at the University felt ostracized.
Two letters to the Observer from Hannah-Jones’ years as a student foreshadowed her 1619 perspective.
In the first, an extraordinarily fierce 1995 letter, Hannah-Jones elaborated on her theme that
The white race is the biggest murderer, rapist, pillager, and thief of the modern world.
A year later, she told of someone from a group of white football players yelling the n-word at her and declared:
This nigger is going to get her degree from Notre Dame and use it against those very people that seek to oppress my people.
The Red Smith Lecture
The Red Smith Lecture took the form of a conversation with Mark Sanders, Director of the Initiative on Race and Resilience and Professor of English and Africana Studies.
The College of Arts and Letters, the History Department, and the Center for Social Concerns were among the twelve sponsors and co-sponsors of the event.
In a communiqué announcing the lecture, Sanders hailed The 1619 Project in critical race theory parlance for its “enormous impact on how the country thinks about structural racism and its historical roots.”
Despite the wide publicity it received, and even though texts of three of the last five Red Smith lectures are posted on the Gallivan Program’s website, neither video footage nor a transcript of the lecture is available to the public.
Notre Dame’s lionization of Hannah-Jones bears a striking resemblance to The 1619 Project’s approach to American history: focus on a single voice, a single story, without consulting highly credentialed voices calling that narrative into question.
As a Catholic university, Notre Dame can and should do a lot better than this on a moral issue as important as racial justice and when the sole voice to which it attends is as divisive and flawed as Hannah-Jones’s.
See You at Our Annual Breakfast June 4
After Notre Dame’s two cancelled Alumni Reunions, our Annual Breakfast during Reunion Weekend is back on — and just around the corner. Please join Father Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C., Mary Frances Myler (’22), and Bill Dempsey (’52) in person or online for a discussion of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity in light of recent developments and some of the major challenges the university confronts in maintaining its Catholic identity.Note: Details to watch remotely are forthcoming.
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