Commentary

‘1619 Project’ creator Nikole Hannah-Jones talks George Floyd, the legacy of racism and solving disparities

December 8, 2020 6:00 am

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones joined Tawanna Black of Minnesota’s Center for Economic Inclusion during the organization’s annual conference Dec. 3, 2020.

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the “The 1619 Project” at The New York Times, joined Minnesota’s Center for Economic Inclusion during the organization’s annual conference last week.

The 1619 Project,” published in August 2019, “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” the project states. It included essays, fiction, poems and photo essays, and was developed this year into a curriculum for use in schools.

The project was published to wide acclaim but also received high-profile criticism from politicians and academics, including a prominent group of historians who published a letter disputing some claims in the work. The New York Times and Hannah-Jones defended the project.

Tawanna Black, founder and CEO of the Center for Economic Inclusion, interviewed Hannah-Jones in a wide-ranging discussion about the Pulitzer-prize winner’s work, the United States’ legacy of racism, addressing racial inequalities and the police killing of George Floyd.

 Here are a few highlights from the conversation.

On addressing the legacy of racism in “interconnected” ways

Black: So often in business and policy, we go about constructing solutions in very siloed ways. Can you talk to us about why you think that is, and how we can go about helping organizations policymakers, businesses start to think differently … to go about tackling these issues more in a more interconnected way?

Hannah-Jones: The reason why “The 1619 Project” is not simply an article or an essay, is we wanted to show how comprehensive this legacy is, that it wasn’t just in one aspect of American society, but it was all across our society. Anti-Blackness, the inequality that stemmed from it, was never siloed. It was never just contained to one area … What we often forget, or aren’t properly taught, is that slavery was at its heart, an economic system.

Slavery wasn’t about racism — slavery was about creating an exploitable class of workers that you could work and drive as hard, even to the point of death, in order to gain the highest profit as possible … So racism was created to justify the system of economic exploitation. If you understand that, then you understand why to this day Black Americans and Native Americans have the highest poverty rates, as well as the lowest access to capital and the lowest rates of wealth.

When we look at (economic disparities, uninsured rates and food insecurity), it all stems from our decision that you can do anything to people, as long as it will make wealthy people profit. And we all suffer for that. So I think it’s really important to show that this history affects all of us as Americans, and that unless we confront that history — that history based on slavery and anti-Blackness — it’s not just going to keep hurting Black people, it’s going to continue to hurt millions of Americans of all races.

How businesses can recruit and retain the best and the brightest

Black: Can you talk to us about … what you think employers should really be thinking about in today’s climate as they’re trying to attract the best and the brightest, as we’re often referred to? When corporations say, ‘It’s so hard,’ what should they really be thinking about?

Hannah-Jones: Corporate America so often wants to hire people who are phenotypically different, but who think like them, who, in a corporate environment, will just assimilate into these white structures. When they hire someone who is not only racially different, but who also comes from a very different perspective, they often try to beat that out of the person. You try to penalize the person and force that person to assimilate — and you don’t get their best work.

I won the Pulitzer because I got to the New York Times, and I was allowed to be Nikole Hannah-Jones. I was allowed to do the work that I wanted to do, that at my last newspaper I couldn’t even get on the front page. I hope that the lesson in that is: Don’t just seek diversity because you can check a box. Understand that in getting that diversity, you actually create a better product, you actually create a better service.

I was not a diversity hire. And what hiring someone like me does at the New York Times, is it actually allows us to be more accurate, to better cover our country. So we need to stop seeing this as being politically correct, and understand the real asset of hiring people of color, and then supporting them, and allowing them to show up as their full selves and to bring that diversity of thought that one would hope you get. And I just don’t see that enough.

Black: I call it the Stepford Wives kind of club. We recruit and we recruit and we recruit, and we tell people, ‘We want you to be different. I want you because you’re different.’ Then the moment people get there, we say, ‘Hold on, we don’t do that. Let me tell you what the rules of the club are.’ … Then we say, ‘How come they don’t want to be here? … or how come we’re not getting great performance?

On allies, action and race-neutral policies

Black: One of the things you’ve talked about is that perhaps there are too many people who see themselves as allies, and we need more action. Can you elaborate on that? 

Hannah-Jones: I get asked all the time, ‘What can I do to fix this? What can I do to fix inequality? What can I do about these disparities? What can I do about the unwelcoming environment in an institution?’

My answer to that is: No one consulted Black people on how to create any of this mess we’re in. No one consulted us on slavery. No one consulted us on Jim Crow. No one consulted us on redlining, or on school segregation. But then when it comes to fixing it, there’s this learned helplessness — all of a sudden, the very people who have created these structures have no idea how to undo them …

I can’t tell you how to be an ally versus an actor, except to say that you know what to do. And if you don’t know what to do, you can certainly read and learn what to do … I really don’t see it as being my role as a Black American to tell you what to do, when you can figure out what to do.

And what I’m going to tell you to do, you’re probably not going to do anyway because it’s not going to be something easy and simple, like write a check somewhere or put out a sign or go on a march or start a club. It’s going to be really hard, and all you have to do is read my work and the roadmap is there.

Black: For a long time, all our policies have been about centering white people, building wealth for white people, jobs for white people, transportation and housing for white people. … There really isn’t room for tinkering around the edges because we’ve tried that for too long, and it hasn’t resulted in any measurable, sustainable change.

Hannah-Jones: We know that we are in a system of inequality, with structures of inequality that were created using a race-specific approach — white people will get access to this, Black people will not — but now we want to fix them by implementing race-neutral policies.

Because what happens as soon as the civil rights movement ends, and you can no longer deploy race legally to harm Black people, then we say, well, we don’t want to look at race at all. Now we can’t use race to help Black people who have had to bear the burden of race-specific law and policy for 350 years …

Simply class-based approaches will not close racial gaps. We know that to be true because these gaps were not created just along class lines — they were created along racial lines. That’s really what it’s going to take. But I think we need to really take some time and reflect on why we’re so uncomfortable. Reparations, for instance — why are we so uncomfortable with the idea of making restitution to people who have been economically plundered for 350 years? We can do both: we can do anti-poverty programming, and we can also do race-specific programming that will close the racial wealth gaps and opportunity gaps as well.

On George Floyd’s death

Hannah-Jones: It’s impossible to have this conversation and not talk about what happened with George Floyd. But it is critical to understand that police are just the enforcers of the racial caste system. Police are doing the job of patrolling these boundaries and controlling a population that’s always, since we landed on the shores, been considered troublesome.

When you look at the larger issues — for instance, I remember one of the grocery stores that burned down, someone said, ‘That’s the only grocery store for miles.’ That’s the problem. Yes, the problem is that the grocery store burned down. But the larger problem is that you have a community where there was only one grocery store … Solving police inequality is just the first and most basic step because that is just a manifestation of the larger network and web of inequalities that Black communities face all the time …

Minneapolis is not a poor city. Minneapolis is a wealthy city, relatively speaking, with so many resources. Yet so few of those resources are going to address the inequality that residents experience on a daily basis — and most of the time, that inequality kills and hurts, and it’s not because of a police officer.

So we should solve that problem, but there’s going to have to be much more difficult work — undoing the architecture of inequality that takes many more Black lives on a daily basis, and that we’re much more comfortable with. We responded to George Floyd because we saw — with no hyperbole — a man lynched on national television. But we turn a blind eye every day. If George Floyd had just been the struggling man he was the day before, we wouldn’t even know his name. We turn a blind eye to that all of the time. I’m saying both acts are immoral.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.

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