This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch. 

After four years of President Donald Trump, a global pandemic, and a culture war fueled by the false narrative that Critical Race Theory is taught in public schools, educators and their progressive allies are exhausted and understandably so, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones told attendees of the 2021 Color of Education Virtual Summit.

But America is in a “dangerous period,” Hannah-Jones warned, so educators and their allies must brush back fatigue to fight against a well-organized effort to discredit public education.

“The right [conservatives] is extremely organized,” Hannah-Jones said. “We’re looking at the takeover of school boards, efforts to set state policy around curricula, what can and can’t be taught.”

Progressives must become more aggressive in pushing back against conservatives’ efforts to control the nation’s schools, she said.

Hannah-Jones also took aim at the media, charging that the profession is failing the nation at a time when it’s needed most.

“We cannot treat this as business as usual; as “both-sides-ism” when one side does not actually believe in majority rule and democracy, but we are doing that,” she said.

Across the country, the year has been marked by protests at school board meetings over face mask mandates and CRT despite repeated science-based directives from public health officials and educators’ assurance that the obscure academic discipline that examines how American racism has shaped law and public policy isn’t taught in K-12 classrooms.

Hannah-Jones said progressives must counter such propaganda with facts and evidence.

“You have to be well-prepared,” Hannah-Jones said. “If they are organizing folks to go to school board meetings and talk for two hours about anti-CRT, then you need to organize people to go to school board meetings and talk for two hours about why it’s important for our children to learn an accurate [history].”

“A new face on Fox News”

Hannah-Jones remarks at the Public School Forum of North Carolina’s virtual event came nearly three months after she turned down a professorship at her alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill, to accept a tenured position at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

The decision to turn to Howard followed a messy legal battle with UNC-Chapel Hill after the university’s Hussman School of Journalism pursued her for its Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, but initially declined to extend her a tenure offer—a status it provided to previous Knight Chairs — after conservatives objected to her work for the New York Times on “The 1619 Project.”

At Howard, a predominately Black university, Hannah-Jones is the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. She also leads the Center for Journalism and Democracy, which will focus on training and supporting aspiring investigative journalists.

As Policy Watch has reported, “The 1619 Project” is a long-form journalism undertaking that, as the Pulitzer Center put it, “challenges us to reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation’s foundational date.” Hannah-Jones, who is Black, conceived of the project and was among multiple staff writers, photographers and editors who put it together.

Harry Amana, a professor emeritus at UNC and the school’s first Black journalism professor, reminded his former student that her groundbreaking work on “The 1619 Project” has made her a favorite target of conservatives on Fox News.

“You’re a new face on Fox News now, you know they love you,” Amana joked. “It’s a part of their seven or eight talking points that they hammer on all the damned time.”

Hannah-Jones said the project has been a great asset for educators who want to teach an accurate version of American history. That, she said, has made it easier to withstand the criticism from former President Trump, Fox News, and other conservative operatives who would rather keep students in the dark about the racial atrocities that have occurred throughout the nation’s history.

“While it has been a taxing two years—there’s nothing fun about being attacked by the President of the United States—it’s been worth it because my goal when I pitched the project was I wanted Americans to know the date 1619 as the foundation of American slavery and that has been accomplished,” she said.

A sobering assessment of N.C.’s public ed landscape

In 2018, Hannah-Jones was the inaugural keynote speaker for Color of Education event. She warned the audience then that her presentation wouldn’t leave them feeling optimistic about the future of public education.

Little has changed since that time, she told Amana, and in fact, the future of public education appears bleaker.

“I’m worse [more pessimistic] than I was before,” she said. “It’s been a long five years. A lot has happened and if you look at the indicators of educational equality, we haven’t seen improvement.”

Hannah-Jones said there has been more conversation about school segregation and inequality but nothing transformative has happened around those issues, which are cornerstones of progressive efforts to reform public education.

Instead, conservatives have effectively made the focus in K-12 education anti-Critical Race Theory laws that have left educators across the nation afraid to teach students about America’s racial history or the histories of their communities.

“We are in dark and scary times and what’s happening in education is frightening; what’s happening in our democracy is frightening,” Hannah-Jones said. “You won’t be leaving today inspired either.”

This year, North Carolina’s Republican-led General Assembly joined with legislatures in multiple states in passing legislation to restrict what could be taught in K-12 schools about America’s racial history. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed GOP-backed House Bill 324 in September saying it “pushes calculated, conspiracy-laden politics into public education.”

Hannah-Jones lived in the Triangle for six years. Her first journalism job was in 2003 covering the Durham Public Schools in the Durham bureau of The News & Observer. The county was about a decade past a volatile school merger that unified the wealthier, majority-white county schools district and the poorer, mostly Black city schools.

“I was spending my time in schools where every single kid was Black, every single kid was poor and administrators and teachers were working their asses off and were unable, clearly, to produce the same results of schools where only 10 percent or 20 percent of kids were living in poverty, and that had every resource in the world,” she told the 2018 audience.

In this week’s presentation, Hannah-Jones agreed with Amana that the political landscape around public education in North Carolina has shifted dramatically—and not for the better—since she was a young reporter covering public schools in Durham.

“We have a heavily gerrymandered legislature that has given Republicans inordinate power, and I think that power has been used to hurt public institutions,” she said. “You can look at what has happened at the University of North Carolina, and I’m not talking about my tenure, I’m talking about the closure of the Civil Rights Center; I’m talking about the closure of the Poverty Law Center.”

In addition, Hannah-Jones said education funding in the state has been slashed and the cap, or maximum number, has been lifted on charter schools, further promoting segregation.

“A place like Wake County that for years was a model of integration is now losing white population who are now going to majority-white charter schools,” she said. “So, I think that a lot has changed. Where North Carolina was really a progressive state for a Southern state, it has lost any semblance of that progressiveness in its state politics.”

Advice for students and educators

This year’s “Color of Education” summit featured a panel of educators and students who sought advice and questioned Hannah-Jones via Zoom.

Chalina Morgan-Lopez, a senior at Sanderson High School in Raleigh, asked for guidance navigating the predominantly white colleges and universities to which she has applied to attend.

Hannah-Jones quipped: “Go to Howard.”

That response drew laughs and spurred alums of Black colleges and universities began to post the names of their schools in the event’s virtual chat room.

Growing up in Iowa, Hannah-Jones said she didn’t know Black colleges existed.

“There is something about being at a place that was actually built for you,” she said. “You have spent your entire K-12 education in schools that have worked in opposition to your culture in some ways, where you have been made to feel like you are lucky to be there; where you have to always prove your intellect and your worth.”

But if a Black university is not for you, Hannah-Jones said, students of color must understand that they deserve to be at any institution they decide to attend.

“My advice to you is, get that thick skin,” Hannah-Jones said. “It’s not going to be easy. You have to control what you can control yourself. You can’t control how anyone will respond to you; not a professor, not your classmate; not your dorm mate. What you can control is your own excellence; your own confidence and your faith in yourself.”

Panelist Valerie Bridges, superintendent of Edgecombe County Public Schools, said many parents want children to wear masks at schools. They want their children to learn the truth about the nation’s history. Their voices, however, are being drowned out by those opposed to masks mandates and the honest portrayal of America’s racial past, Bridges said.

“We have been through a lot in a pandemic,” Bridges said, referring to educators.  “I think many of us are exhausted, we’re tired of some of the fighting that has had to happen.

Rodney Pierce, a Nash County social studies teacher, asked for advice on empowering parents and students to push back against efforts to undermine public education.

Pierce, who incorporates the history of local lynchings, slavery and Confederate monuments into lessons, has faced accusations that he’s biased for teaching students about the realities of slavery.

Hannah-Jones responded that she has observed that if parents have a teacher’s back, then there’s little a school board can do to a teacher.

“If you don’t have the support of your parents, then that’s what makes you vulnerable,” Hannah-Jones said.

The future of our children and the nation depends on progressives winning the fight to reclaim public schools, she said.

“What we have that they don’t have is we know we are on the side of right; we are on the side of justice; we know we live in a country that can live up to its highest ideals; we know that the least of us is just as deserving as anyone else,” Hannah-Jones said.

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