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Paul Butler is a professor at the Georgetown University School of Law.
In the Washington Post, where he is a contributing columnist, he writes that the disparate treatment of Nikole Hannah-Jones illustrates critical race theory. At the heart of CRT is the belief that systemic racism persists, despite legislative and judicial actions to banish it.
According to some leading critical race theorists, integration — thetraditional progressive route to racial justice — does not actually work for minorities. In this view, white supremacy is so embedded in most American institutions that people of color will never be accepted as equals — even when they are formally Reade entry.
UNC demonstrated that point after its journalism school offered Hannah-Jones, an investigative journalist for the New York Times, a prestigious professorship. The MacArthur “genius” learned that her initial appointment would be without tenure. She said she knew of no “legitimate reason” why “someone who has worked in the field as long as I have, who has the credentials, the awards, or the status that I have, should be treated different than every other white professor who came before me.” After a threatened lawsuit and huge public outcry, the university’s Board of Trustees voted 9 to 4 to extend tenure to Hannah-Jones….
Hannah-Jones’s rejection of a majority-White institution whose leaders clearly did not value her worth — and her embrace of a Black institution that did — embodied critical race theory’s foundational principles….
In a classic article published in 1976, Harvard professor Derrick Bell argued that during the Jim Crow era, Black students might have been better off if they had sought more resources for segregated schools rather than access to White schools. Bell’s premise was that actual integration would never happen, even if it were legally mandated, because of “massive white hostility.”
Critical race theorists described the heavy toll of desegregation efforts, including placing Blacks in hostile environments, in a way that resonates with Hannah-Jones’s explanation for her decision: “At some point when you have proven yourself and fought your way into institutions that were not built for you . . . you have to decide that you are done forcing yourself in….”
I have no beef with Hannah-Jones for declining a job at a journalism school that is literally named after the White man who, as he so delicately put it, “expressed my concerns” about her hiring. But, for now, I am okay with working at a university that in its early years was financed by the sale of enslaved people. I love my students and respect my colleagues, and have been part of the community’s efforts, still incomplete, to make reparations for that travesty. Sometimes, helping majority-White spaces be less racist and more inclusive feels transformative. Other times, it feels like an intellectual version of my great-grandfather’s job; he cleaned outhouses — i.e., shoveling White people’s excrement.
Much respect to Hannah-Jones for providing another example. Much respect to critical race theorists for keeping us focused on the crucial question: whether any approach can achieve racial justice in our flawed and divided country.