The “white” world of academia?

According to Branden Tensley, writing for CNN, the brouhaha concerning tenure for 1619 project author Nicole Hannah-Jones is not about the project itself.

It is, instead, a morality play about how white conservatives fear blacks who have (too much) power. According to Tensley, Hannah-Jones was punished for “barg[ing] into the overwhelmingly White world of academia, unsettling it.”

Read his piece here.

It’s worth asking: what does he mean by “academia?”

After spending nearly ten years working in campus ministry in the context of both state and private universities, I realize that there are real barriers for people of color in the university setting. I just don’t think the Hannah-Jones case is one of them. Or, to put a finer point on it, I don’t consider the actions of the trustees to be reflective of “academia.”

For what its worth, I actually don’t think this issue–at least at UNC Chapel Hill–is about the university (or universities as an institution) per se. It’s about the intersection between the academy and politics. It’s about that part of the venn diagram where governance (which is increasingly a partisan political thing) of a public, tax-payer funded unversity system overlaps with the interests and decisions of constituent institutions, which is also political, but in a more idealogical, less pragmatic and partisan, sense.

If academia is a “white world” then it is also overwhelmingly white and politically liberal, the very group of people who would tend to support–and in fact did support–granting tenure in the instant case. There was widespread faculty, administration, and student support for Hannah-Jones.

Does the white world of academic punish powerful blacks? Sure.

I believe there is some truth to this narrative.

It is also the case that power-wielding coteries (of scholars of color) within academia also, from time to time, decline to hire black faculty whose views are not sufficiently aligned with their ideological presuppositions. Sometimes they force these faculty to resign or have them removed.

Ms. Hannah-Jones case involves political appointees. These other cases involve actual faculty, yet they rarely make the news.


The take-away here is that in today’s world there is nothing that is not political. And there is no decision that can be made that cannot immediately be scrutinized by an appeal to “whiteness.” A black scholar whose not sufficiently deferential to, say, James Cone has her blackness questionned (at least implicitly).

Thtowing around “whiteness” as a critique of an institution in a general or unversal sense is, to my mind, less than helpful. It’s problematic not because such cases (of racialized decision-making) don’t exist–and the instant case is likely one–but because they are not the only cases of unfairness that exist.

Further, media coverage tends to universalize which is, of course, something that is useful when arguing ideology but not helpful when considering facts. And when it the scale tips in this direction we move from journalism into advocacy. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with advocacy. There is, however, a time and place to engage in it.