Nikole Hannah-Jones: Speaking Frankly About Progress, Hope, and the Present

In August 2019, The New York Times Magazine published “The 1619 Project,” led by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. The series reframes the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center of the national narrative. As one book description indicates: “The 1619 Project is a visionary work that casts a sweeping, introspective gaze over what many have aptly termed the country’s original sin.”

Hannah-Jones was born in Iowa, is Knight Chair of Race and Journalism at Howard University, and is a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine. She co-founded the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, which seeks to increase the number of reporters and editors of color. She was passed over for tenure in North Carolina after a donor objected to her ability to be an unbiased journalist; we have quoted her from a Knight Forum discussing the fallacy of objectivity.

Hannah-Jones was part of a free public discussion held at Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis. We attended the lecture and offer a few thoughts of her from the 75-minute event.

The Natures of Our Silence

When you genetically test Black Americans, 25 percent of our DNA goes to Europe through the paternal line, because that is how pervasive the rape of Black women was. And yet we have buried this [reality]. And then thinking about the way we still perceive of Black women today, and the children that Black women bear — that we have marked our children somehow as “super predators.” {see more on this term below]

The other thing I realized [in the development of “The 1619 Project”] is that we have not contemplated nearly enough [the fact of] resistance. There is a clear reason that Black people were resisting constantly in ways big and small. Resisting in a country where we are, at our peak, a 20 percent racial minority. So we couldn’t win. When we ran away, nine times out of 10, we knew the outcome, and yet we did it all of the time.

We’re not taught about resistance because if we were, we have to contemplate “what were they resisting and who?” in a country founded on [these ideals] — “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet one half of your population is in bondage, fighting you.

Overlooking the Present

[Focusing on past wrongs] alleviates the urgency for us to do anything about the conditions we allow right now. We say, “Things were really bad back then. Slavery was wrong, we can admit that now. Jim Crow was a bad idea, we shouldn’t have done those things. Things aren’t all the way equal right now, but they’re getting better and they will be better in the future. Things are always moving forward. The arc of the universe is long. It bends toward justice.”

No, it doesn’t. Unless you bend it. It doesn’t bend on its own. I argue it is a circle that just keeps coming back on itself. It’s never the same circle. The period [of] Jim Crow, which was a period of racial violence, was enforced terroristic racial apartheid. That was not slavery, but it wasn’t that much better. We can’t pat ourselves on the back just because Jim Crow wasn’t slavery.

Now, we want to pat ourselves on the back because we no longer have legalized discrimination, though the conditions of Black people have largely remained unchanged. We are in the city of Minneapolis, where a Black man was lynched [in May 2020].

I am not arguing that the America I grew up in is the America my father grew up in. It was not. But we shouldn’t take heart in that. We have been here 400 years and I am supposed to be grateful that I wasn’t born into apartheid? Apartheid, by the way, that [was present] a decade before I was born.

I was born in 1976. Until 1968, you could discriminate against Black people in housing just because they descended from slavery. A year before that, it would be illegal for my parents to marry — because my mom is white and my father is Black — in more than half of the states in this country. Two years before that, it was legal to discriminate against Black people in every aspect of American society — what school we could go to, what park we could go to, what restaurants we could eat in, what jobs we could have. You could explicitly discriminate against people.

Claiming Progress

The Black-white wealth gap has been unchanged since the time Martin Luther King was assassinated. The gap between Black-white income, unchanged. Incarceration rates, worse. Life expectancy, declined because of COVID. … We now can look back and say, “okay, that’s because we had structural inequality. Now all that’s gone, so we don’t know where this comes from.”

Critical Race Theory teaches that if you are going to architect inequality into a society for 350 years, you can take down the laws, but it doesn’t change the structure.

That George Floyd moment, where a white police officer will kneel on a man and lynch the literal life out of his body, knowing he is being filmed, and does not worry that he will pay a single consequence — society creates that moment. That’s not about Derek Chauvin. That is about him understanding he exists in a society where he can do that in front of witnesses and nothing will be done.

This idea of progress allows us to look at this moment and say, “but we’ve come so far.”

The typical Black household has one-tenth of the wealth a typical white household. Poor white people have more wealth than middle-class Black people. White people with less than a high school degree have more wealth than Black people who graduated from college. Black people who are married have less wealth than white single mothers.

Black people are told that if we just got ourselves together — boot-strapped ourselves up — we would have the same thing as everyone else. This has been disproven by data and facts. Nothing can replace 350 years of extraction.

On Hope

I don’t find hope. I believe in it for other people … but it is not what motivates me. Because, frankly, I don’t think we are going to fix it. Everything we see in our society — all of this inequality, all of this suffering — it is not natural. We chose it. We built it. If you know it was all constructed, then you know it can be deconstructed. But all the power of our society went into constructing it. Now when it comes time to fix it, we want to do almost nothing. Power is not lined up to fix it. We don’t want to put any resources, really, into fixing it. I don’t know that we ever will.

Some people have hope [because] our country’s demographics are changing. Inevitably, we will have to [change]. No, we won’t. How many majority Black and brown cities exist now?

We see the model. One major political party is saying, “if democracy is multiracial, we actually don’t believe in democracy.”

Honestly, I only have hope about things I can control. I don’t have hope about anything outside of myself because I don’t think we will ever do right. I feel like when people ask you for hope, they just want to be let off.

I am not saying the question is not sincere. What they are saying is, “you’re talking about all these terrible things. We’ve done so many terrible things, and there are so many terrible things in our society. But they are going to get better, right?”

Nicole Hannah-Jones portrait after winning MacArthur grant (Photo credit:James Estrin/The New York Times)
[You want to] leave [this lecture] with a kind of optimism about it. And what I’m saying is, it’s not working. I don’t want us to feel okay. I want you to leave with a pit in your stomach, that we could have a better society than we have.

And I want to be clear, this is not the story of Black people. This is the story of America. Black people may suffer the worst, but we all are suffering. We are an exceptional nation in ways we should not be proud of.

We are the most carceral nation of people in the world, but the majority of people in prison are not Black. We have the highest rates of child poverty in the developed world, in the richest nation. Most of those children are not Black. There are millions of white Americans who cannot go to the doctor when they are sick because we are the only western industrialized country where your health care is determined by whether you have a job that wants to offer it to you or not. Life expectancy — white Americans live longer than Black people, but live shorter lives than white people in other countries.

We are all suffering by our inability to get over our original sin, and we are content with that suffering as long as we think there are people at the bottom who have it worse than us.

I don’t have hope that we will do the right thing, because every cross-racial, cross-class movement that is attempted in this country has been destroyed when white people ultimately choose their race over any other form of solidarity. I have never seen that practice broken for longer than an instant.

Nikole Hannah-Jones received a standing ovation at the end of her conversation


1619 Reading Guide

The concept of ‘super predators’

Kim Taylor-Thompson, law professor at New York University: “The super predator language began a process of allowing us to suspend our feelings of empathy towards young people of color.”

John J. DiIulio Jr. coined the term for a November 1995 cover story in The Weekly Standard, then a new magazine of conservative political opinion, titled “The Coming of the Super-Predators.” A young professor at Princeton University, DiIulio was extrapolating from a study of Philadelphia boys that calculated that 6 percent of them accounted for more than half the serious crimes committed by the whole cohort. He blamed these chronic offenders on “moral poverty … the poverty of being without loving, capable, responsible adults who teach you right from wrong.”

It became a centerpiece in media stories and political discussions. In 2001, DiIulio admitted his theory had been mistaken, saying ”I’m sorry for any unintended consequences.”