Future Tense

The Conservative Disinformation Campaign Against Nikole Hannah-Jones

A student holding a U.S. flag upside down stands atop the steps at the Idaho Capitol Building on April 26 in Boise, Idaho.
A student holding a U.S. flag upside down stands atop the steps at the Idaho Capitol Building on April 26 in Boise. More than 100 students gathered at the Statehouse in protest of the Idaho Legislature’s House Bill 337, a bill that includes reference to “critical race theory.” Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/TNS/abacapress.com

There was no reason to think Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure wouldn’t come through. Hannah-Jones, an acclaimed journalist, was recruited for a tenured Knight chair in race and investigative journalism in the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, a position designed to bring professionals to campus. With 20 years of newsroom experience, a Pulitzer Prize, and a MacArthur “genius” grant, Hannah-Jones’ case sailed through the lengthy and rigorous tenure process and was approved by the school, the university, and the provost. We both teach at UNC—Daniel at the Hussman school—and were thrilled to have Hannah-Jones on campus.

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But then her tenure case reached the university’s conservative majority board of trustees, where it apparently lingered without action in a subcommittee. In the end, the board took the unprecedented step of refusing to hear the case at all. When the news became public, there was a large outcry. Hannah-Jones’ legal team gave the board of trustees until Friday to reconsider tenure. Why, despite all her qualifications, did the board of trustees refuse to grant Hannah-Jones tenure?

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The answer seems to lie in conservative disinformation campaigns against Hannah-Jones, her influential 1619 Project, and the very idea of critical race theory. These disinformation campaigns muster false information, distorted stereotypes, and mischaracterizations as part of a long-term conservative battle against public higher education and the teaching of American racial history. Only by identifying these campaigns as disinformation can we counter them.

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Debate and disagreement are at the heart of academia—but conservative disinformation campaigns are deliberately spread to advance particular political and ideological goals. In the Hannah-Jones case, the board was under tremendous pressure from local conservative groups and wealthy donors to intervene in the appointment. Hannah-Jones founded the New York Times’ 1619 Project, an effort to center the history and legacy of slavery and the experiences of Black Americans in U.S. history.

The 1619 Project is a pet target of right-wing media, who imagine it at the center of its latest liberal boogeyman, “critical race theory.” Critical race theory is a decades-old branch of scholarship that analyzes the role of race in American society. It tells us that racism is not simply a matter of individual prejudices or attitudes, but something structural and systemic, underpinned by institutions. Work that is informed by critical race theory, and the 1619 Project, asks us to hold broader systems accountable for the historical legacy of slavery in the United States, and understand how laws were created to maintain racial division and inequality.

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In the past six months in particular, conservative think tanks, commentators, and news media have waged an all-out disinformation war on their version of critical race theory, which is a catch-all for diversity efforts, anti-racist education, “cancel culture,” and unconscious bias training—or any talk of racial inequality at all.

Conservatives have also cynically embraced widespread social concern over “polarization” and “declining trust” to cast Nikole Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project, and critical race theory as grave threats to American society. According to conservatives, critical race theory is a racist (aka anti-white) and “divisive” ideology that is so “dangerous” that it needs to be banned from K–12 classrooms. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis stated in March that it is “teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other.” According to the Heritage Foundation, critical race theory undermines the United States by transforming it into “a nation riven by groups, each with specific claims on victimization,” which will weaken the “public and private bonds that create trust and allow for civic engagement.”

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Unsurprisingly, these claims about critical race theory are wrong or exaggerated. They are often based on quotes taken out of context or from poorly conceived diversity training efforts—not the extensive body of serious scholarship about race and American history, institutions, and inequalities. Many of them build on long-standing antisemitic conspiracy theories about Marxism and the Frankfurt School (the group of German émigré intellectuals who were leading critical thinkers of mass culture, authoritarianism, and antisemitism during the WWII and postwar eras). And they tie into a much longer history of right-wing campaigns to undermine publicly funded higher education. In fact, one of the conservative organizations pressuring the UNC board of trustees about Hannah-Jones is devoted to scrutinizing North Carolina higher education for ideological bias, while promoting conservative free market ideology.

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Right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute, which count among their contributors conservative critic Christopher Rufo, helped engineer the campaign against critical race theory. Think tank and media strategists’ talking points are echoed in Trump’s 2020 executive order “Combatting Race and Sex Stereotyping,” which forbid federally funded diversity training. Calling critical race theory a “destructive ideology,” Trump claimed that racial sensitivity trainings are racist, and that understanding systemic racism will “divide us and … prevent us from uniting as one people in pursuit of one common destiny for our great country.” The order was reportedly inspired after Trump saw Rufo on Tucker Carlson. Since Biden reversed Trump’s executive order, Republicans in at least nine states, including Texas, Arizona, Tennessee, and, of course, North Carolina have introduced or passed bills to ban teaching critical race theory in the classroom, parroting the same disinformation. An Oklahoma community college instructor recently told local news outlets that her summer class on race and ethnicity was canceled because of one such bill.

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The 1619 Project is perhaps the most frequently mentioned target of conservative attacks on critical race theory. They use scholarly debates about and critiques of particular claims in the project to discredit it as a complete “fraud” and work of “unfounded lies.” An oft-repeated sentiment is that the 1619 Project will make white children “regard their identities as something abhorrent,” rather than disinvest from their racial privilege. Conservative pundits and publications have constructed a false narrative that claims the 1619 Project is fabricated to hurt and punish white people, and white children in particular.

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Our research has repeatedly shown that these types of lies, moral accusations, misrepresentations, and white racial appeals are often used to justify hate and harassment. In this case, disinformation is being used to deny a decorated Black journalist tenure and ban the teaching of America’s racial history in our schools.

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Of course, it’s possible that some people repeating these talking points are doing so in good faith. But what distinguishes disinformation from its less malevolent cousin misinformation is an unwillingness to acknowledge when one is wrong; in the latter case, a newspaper printing a retraction, for instance. Even given copious evidence that their characterization of critical race theory often isn’t correct—and that their targets often aren’t even examples of critical race theory—much of the conservative establishment has doubled down on its campaign. This serves conservatives well. Overly broad interpretations of critical race theory instill fear in educators and close off much discussion of white supremacy, even as these appeals to whites shore up the conservative base against the common enemy of liberals. The repetition of the same talking points by pundits, think tanks, and policymakers alike also speaks to a strategically engineered, coordinated campaign.

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It is unsurprising that the disinformation campaigns against the 1619 Project and critical race theory come directly after 2020, a year in which many Americans explicitly grappled with police brutality, anti-Blackness, and white privilege. They directly construct and reinforce the idea that traditional white American identity and whites’ status at the top of the economic, political, and cultural hierarchy in the U.S. is under threat, which many political scientists argue led to Trump’s Electoral College victory in 2016. And, like many other disinformation narratives, they build on preexisting conservative white beliefs about race and inequality—that to talk about race is to be divisive, that critiquing the United States is unpatriotic, and that racial inequality is due to individual failings rather than systemic inequalities.

And yet it is precisely actions, or more accurately inactions, like those taken by the UNC board of trustees that demonstrate that systemic racism exists and the 1619 Project is vital.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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