273 : Jacob Blake, COVID-19, & Black Equity (w/ Nikole Hannah-Jones)

Zach speaks with Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones about the state-sanctioned shooting of Jacob Blake, her personal career journey from the high school newspaper to The New York Times, the opposition she’s experienced as director of The 1619 Project, and so much more. Click the links in the show notes to find out more about Nikole and The 1619 Project!

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TRANSCRIPT

Zach: What’s up, y’all? This is Zach with Living Corporate, and yo… look, so every week we have a great guest, and I say this every time, but, like, don’t front–who else but us? Like, we drop gems on Living Corporate, right, for the free. Like, y’all don’t even pay nothing for this, right? Like, we just be givin’ it to y’all weekly, and, you know, I mean, I’m smiling despite the pain I’m feeling, the frustration–you know, for those who follow me on LinkedIn or whatever, like, I had to let some things go ’cause I was just upset. I still have some stuff to say, but I’ma wait on it. I’ma wait on it for a couple more months, but that day is soon coming. But anyway, that’s a story for another time. [laughs] Look, even with all the pain and frustration that’s going on right now with the continuous brutalization of Black bodies in both white America at large and corporate America specifically, their just slough-footed shuffle in not really addressing systemic inequity. I’m excited. I’m excited about the guest that we were able to have, that was able to grace our platform, our flagship show Living Corporate today, and the guest we have is Nikole Hannah-Jones. Now, look, I’m not gonna go into some long biography of Nikole Hannah-Jones, also known as Ida Bae Wells, is one of those most prolific writers of our time. Shout-out to Black women. She holds it down. She advocates and speaks to the reality and lived experience, the historicity, of our struggle, and she’s one of the people. She comes from–you’ll hear in the interview, but she comes from a similar just, like, humble background that I do and doesn’t tolerate disrespect similar to how I don’t tolerate disrespect, so we just vibe on a certain level. I appreciated our conversation. The next thing you’re gonna hear is the discussion, the interview, that I had with Ms. Hannah-Jones. Make sure that you listen to the whole thing, make sure that you check out the show notes, and we’ll catch y’all next time. Peace.

Zach: Nikole, welcome to the show. To say this is an honor would be an understatement, and I recognize, especially today, this is a loaded question, but how are you?

Nikole: Hm. Thanks for having me on the show and for your persistence. You know, I’m fine. This is a hard time to be in. It’s always a hard time to be Black in this country, and I am more blessed than most, so I’m just trying to maintain perspective.

Zach: Yeah. With that in mind, I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the state-sanctioned shooting of Jacob Blake. Of course I have some questions about your work specifically and The 1619 Project, but I’d like to get your perspective on just the historically cyclical nature of violence against Black bodies and, like, in this moment, what if anything do you think can happen to break this centuries-long pattern?

Nikole: You know, a few months ago I was feeling a tinge of something that is very unusual for me, which was a slight tinge of hope, and that is gone, and there’s a reason I don’t often feel it. So I just looked at some data, and despite months of protests, despite all of the back to back media coverage following George Floyd, despite corporations having a so-called “come to Jesus” moment, the stats on police-involved killings have not changed. We are seeing just as many people killed by police in the first half of this year as we saw last year, and I don’t know what can force this country to change practices that have been 400 years in the making. In this moment where we know everyone is recording, where there’s been months of protests against police violence, that an officer would, in the public view, grab a man who was not fighting him whatsoever and shoot him in the back seven times, it’s extremely discouraging, because you would think–at least in this moment–there would be more care and more fear of consequences of treating Black people like they’re still in slavery and like their lives don’t matter, but we’re not seeing that, and it’s hard.

Zach: Yeah. You know, I think about the fact that–I’m a fairly new father myself, so I have a 5-month old daughter, and I think about the fact that he was shot seven times in the back in front of his three kids in his car, and I was holding my daughter at the time–or rather I was splitting time, so I was cooking and I was feeding my daughter and I just so happened to look at my phone and see that, and then just, you know, I looked at Emory and I just started crying, ’cause I was just, like, this is–just the inhumanity of it… anyway, I’m really curious as we continue forward because I think this project and the work that you do, that you continue to do–thank you for your work, by the way, bless you for that–is just highlighting how inhumanely we’ve been treating, ’cause there’s no way that you just treat human beings like this. And, you know, speaking of the work, I’ve read stories about editorial bias and how Black journalists will stop submitting certain stories that center Black people because they keep getting shot down or any, you know, Black or brown people. Your work beautifully and tragically captures our stories and experiences, and I’m curious what the internal journey has been like for you to find your voice, and then how long it took before your pitched stories started getting greenlit by different editorial powers that be?

Nikole: Yeah, so I started writing about Black people as a high school journalist. That’s why I joined my high school newspaper. I had a column called “From the African Perspective,” and I joined my high school newspaper because–if your listeners know my story at all, they’ll know I was bused into white schools as part of a voluntary desegregation order starting in the second grade, and as a high school student at a predominantly white high school where most of the Black kids were bused from the Black side of town, I knew even then that we were being left out of the story and the power of you shaping the narratives for your own communities, and the only reason I ever wanted to be a journalist was to write about Black folks, period. I was interested–I’m a news junkie in general, I’m interested in the news, I’ve always read the news, I used to read the paper with my father–I wanted to be a journalist to write about Black folks, and there were–when I started my career I had an excellent editor who encouraged me and supported me in wanting to write. I was an education reporter and I was writing a lot about school segregation and school inequality and disparate discipline that Black students were facing, and I was encouraged to do that. My next job was not the case, and I was penalized and punished for writing about Black stories or people of color in general and was told really that it was showing my bias, that these stories were not reflective of the readership of the newspaper, and had story idea after story idea killed. And this was during the historic Obama run for the presidency, so if you can’t be encouraged to write about race when the first Black man has a chance to be president, when would be the right time? And I remember I would pitch these stories and my editors would say, “No, that’s not a story,” and then I’d see a story almost just like what I had pitched run in The New York Times and I’d be like, “Okay, it’s not that I don’t have good ideas, it’s that they’re not interested in this coverage,” and I nearly left journalism. I was stuck. This was at a time when the journalism industry was in a death spiral. Newspapers were laying off all over the country, and so there wasn’t another job to be had. Like, if you had a job you’d better keep it, and I was so depressed because that’s what I got into journalism to do, and I considered leaving the industry, and the only reason I didn’t leave the industry is because I just couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do with my life. I’d wanted to be a journalist since I was in high school and really felt journalism was my mission. Luckily I was rescued when I was recruited to come to ProPublica, and I remember when Steve Engelberg, who’s the editor of ProPublica, asked me to interview and then ultimately offered me the job, I had a very honest conversation with him and I was like, “If I cannot tell these stories, I don’t want to come. Like, I’m not gonna jump from this job to another job where I’m punished for wanting to write about race.” He assured me that I wouldn’t be, and I wasn’t, and so ProPublica was really the place where I was able to develop the style of writing that I’ve become known for.

Zach: To your point, like, with ProPublica and now, you know, the New York Times, I’m curious to know what it’s like to write and work with an institution that publishes pieces and projects like The 1619 Project but then also has puff pieces about Trump supporters and then editorial pieces like Tom Cotton’s. Like, I’m curious, is there any duality there that you have to straddle or frustrations that you have to manage? 

Nikole: Yeah. I mean, I’m assuming that’s a rhetorical question because of course, right? [laughs] I mean, this is the nature of Black folks working in any white institution. It is the reality of Black people in America. There’s always a duality, and yes, you can work at a place that simultaneously will support with every resource a project like The 1619 Project and run the Tom Cotton editorial, and I think we all, as Black and brown and Asian and indigenous people in these white spaces, struggle with trying to produce the work that you think is important and necessary because of the platform. I could certainly work elsewhere, but there’s no megaphone like The New York Times. So understanding that platform does something for the work that you’re trying to do, but also staying true to who you are and the work you’re trying to do and fighting those internal battles to try to bring the actual institution in line with the work that you do. So I have, you know, my outward work that gets published, and then I have my inward work, which is working with other folks to try to push the institution to be better.

Zach: And what I find so intriguing about that is, like, it’s activism in two fronts, right? Like, you have what everyone sees, and then you have the work that you’re doing to push systemic change internally. Can we talk a little bit about portions of white academia’s response to The 1619 Project? Like, to an extent I would imagine negativity from members of the GOP as ignorant and dumb and doofy and goofy as they are don’t shock you, but has any of it caught you off-guard? 

Nikole: Yes, of course. So I fully expected that conservatives would not be pleased with The 1619 Project, and I also fully expected–because I studied history for a long time and I understand the field of historiography–that there would be historians that didn’t agree with all of our framing or who would quibble with “Why would they put this in? Why did they not put this in? Why did they focus on this and not that?” That was all expected. What I didn’t expect was that there would really be an orchestrated campaign, a small group of historians, to not just say, “We wouldn’t have done it that way,” but to actually try to discredit the project. Because these historians, some of them, are highly respected and regarded, I mean, I’ve read their work myself, it lended a credibility and really gave those who didn’t have good faith criticism of the project, who just didn’t want the project to exist, it gave them the meat that they needed, and that’s then really disappointing and disconcerting, because the truth is not one, and literally not one, of that small number of historians who opposed the project has never contacted me, ever. They’ve never said, “Hey, I think you’ve got this fact wrong,” or “Hey, maybe you should change this,” which is what you do in a normal circumstance if you feel a reporter has misrepresented something or not got something right. You contact that reporter and ask for that correction. I’ve never to this day received a single contact, and when the group of five historians who submitted a letter to The New York Times against the project, they included people on that email who weren’t even involved–men on that email who weren’t even involved with the project, but not me. So I think that speaks to motivations, is what I’ll say.

Zach: So I was gonna say–and, you know, continually we talk about just the role that Black women play in, like, you know, saving everybody and historically not having the advocacy and support that they need, and to your point around just, like, the misogyny of and presumption that, you know, you’re being excluded in your project, and then on top of that being, like, somehow simultaneously being attacked and erased at the same time, right? Like, that’s–and my question following up is I would imagine… so first of all, I think, for me, like, in this moment, Nikole, what I’ve been thinking through and coming to peace with is that it’s not that people don’t understand or don’t see it. A lot of them just don’t care, right? So for me, as opposed–I used to get into this thing around, like, trying to educate folks some years ago, and I think I’m just past that, right? I’m curious, like, how do you manage the emotional labor of folks being intentionally obtuse, misogynistic, of course racist. Like, you’re so much in the spotlight, and as you continue to flex and grow folks get madder, and so I’m curious as to, like, what does your process look like as someone who is so actively in the forefront as a voice in this moment to take care of yourself.

Nikole: Yeah. [lightly] Who the hell knows? I think that I’m a human being, and some days I have dealt with it better than others. Some days I’ve dealt with it in ways that I’m proud of and some days I’ve dealt with it in ways that I’m not. People forget, you know–and it’s a good problem to have in some ways, but when the bigger your platform gets, people think that somehow you don’t care anymore about what people say or how people try to treat and attack your work or you personally, but that’s not true. I’m just a girl from Waterloo and never expected anybody would ever know my name. I just wanted to be a reporter, and to–and I think that because of that I also don’t deal with disrespect in the way that people who come, I think, from more privilege or don’t come from, like, such a scrappy background, like, things roll off their back in a way that they don’t for me. Respect means a lot to me, and so I fight back, and I also understand that part of the kind of, like, vitriol that I get and my work gets is because someone like me should not be in the position that I’m in. Not just that I’m Black and a woman, though that’s a huge part of it, but I’m also a Black woman who presents in a very specific way. I don’t look the part that they think I should look. I don’t talk the way they think I should talk. I don’t defer the way that they think I should defer. And all of these are intentional decisions, right? I’m not a stupid woman. I know how I’m “supposed to” present and I refuse to, and so I understand that it’s all of that, and, you know, I think what I try to internalize is the venom of your enemies speaks to the importance of your work, and if this work wasn’t meaningful, if there wasn’t some sense of fear or consternation about what this work could do, they wouldn’t care about me and they wouldn’t talk about me and they wouldn’t write about me, and I have to always remind myself of that, that I’m doing this work for a mission. This is where it’s helpful, you know, to have–Ida B. Wells is my spiritual godmother. Nothing that they could throw at me even comes close to what she had to deal with or even what my own grandmother had to deal with or my own father had to deal with, so I can deal with any of it.

Zach: So, you know, we’re gonna talk about my wife in a moment–and it’s gonna make sense in a second–but when that series, that piece came out really seeking to discredit and undermine The 1619 Project and I looked at those names–because I have a network of academics as well, and so a lot of the people that were–well, some of the people rather that were in that group folks in my network knew personally and, like, really highly regarded, and I really looked at it and I said, “Wow. Nikole, this is a lot of power.” Like, she has this much power that all these well-to-do white folks got together in a little Google document and started typing away to create, to do all this work, and that was my very first response was like, “Wow. This further lets me know that this is incredibly powerful and that she is seen as a threat to the institutions that be.” So that’s incredible. Thank you. Kind of continuing about your work, right, it’s focused on segregation and its impact on marginalized populations. The New York Times recently helped produce Nice White Parents, which highlights a lot of the historic and present resistance to meaningful integration. That also reminds me of the interview you had on This American Life sometime ago. After your years of research, I have two questions, like, kind of back to back. One, does it seem like meaningful integration is possible, and then two, do you believe that integration is necessary to achieve equity?

Nikole: Hm. So Nice White Parents is excellent, and Chana Joffe-Walt is the producer I worked with on my This American Life piece on Michael Brown’s school district. What I love about it is that she–I mean, I’ve always said white parents are the most powerful force in any school district, whether they’re in those schools or not, and that they often hold school districts hostage. School districts simply won’t do certain things because they are so afraid of losing white parents, and I haven’t seen anything that has spent that much time really exposing the way that that power operates with white parents who are supposed to be on your side. So if your listeners have not heard that podcast, they definitely should. And I saw some folks who were like, “I don’t know if I want to listen to that podcast because I just can’t stand to hear another white person who’s shocked that racism exists.” Chana is not naive, and there’s no sense of naivety like, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe these white parents are doing this.” It’s really like, “This is how we operate, and I’m going to expose it.” So it’s great. To answer your question, so possible and probable of course are two different things. Do I think meaningful integration is possible? Of course it’s possible. We’ve rarely seen it, but it is possible. But in order for it to be possible it has to be–like Baldwin said, like, white people have to give up whiteness, and we also have to understand how much resources [?], everything from amongst private citizens, businesses, local government, state government and federal government went into creating the school inequality, still maintains the school inequality, and then if you’re going to undo that and create a truly equitable, integrated school system, you have to apply equal amounts of power and resources, and we won’t, right? The reason all of that power and influence was applied was because it was to the benefit of those who hold the power, and they’re not going to apply the equal amount of resources in a way that doesn’t benefit their power. So possible? Yes. Probable? Of course not. In terms of is it necessary? So in a practical sense absolutely. Nearly every school integration lawsuit that gets filed by Black parents or on behalf of Black parents initially begins as a simple lawsuit about equity and resources. You never see large-scale that Black people are just dying to have their kids in majority white schools, and so these lawsuits typically begin by saying, “Our schools are underfunded. They are not well-resourced, and we are suing because we just want the same resources in our schools as you allot for white schools,” and then they begin that way and then they end with a push for integration as parents come to realize that they will never get those resources without white kids, and that’s just true. It holds true in every region of the country. It holds true in rural areas, suburban, urban. It doesn’t matter. In a country where we still have to assert that Black lives matter, which is really Black lives matter too, we know that the whole point of the separation is to deprive Black kids of resources and equality. The whole point of the separation is to ensure white parents get an inordinate amount of resources, and we just have never shown willingness to ensure that Black kids, and particularly poor Black kids, get the same quality of resources, and integration is the means to do that. There are things that we accept for Black kids that you can’t imagine ever accepting for white kids, period, and we don’t. So I wish that it wasn’t necessary, but we’ve shown no other way that we’re willing to treat Black kids the same as white kids unless they’re in the same classrooms, and even then they’re not treated the same.

Zach: Right, and that leads into my next question. So I mentioned my wife Candis earlier. She’s an educator teaching high school, and her district is starting remote. I know you’ve addressed concerns about the feasibility and effectiveness of remote learning during this time. As both a parent and a journalist who has specialized in equity and in education, what advice do you have for educators who want to provide a quality education from home to their students right now and what considerations do you think they should be keeping in mind?

Nikole: God, this is so hard, and the public conversation has tried to make this simple. 

Zach: Really binary, yeah.

Nikole: Yeah. It’s either “open the schools” or “it’s not safe, we can’t open the schools,” and either you care about kids’ education and the inequality or you want teachers to die, right? This is the hardest thing, because one, we already have these structural inequalities that we have long known existed that are clearly being exacerbated, and there’s no great answer. I know how much I struggled as a parent who is highly educated, who has a ton of resources, whose daughter has her own computer, to really implement online learning and the early data and research on the effects, particularly on Black kids, are absolutely devastating, and Black kids have the least wiggle room. They’re already the furthest behind, so they have the most to lose. So I don’t know what the answers are. I think where my frustration has come is you cannot, as educators, simultaneously say, “It’s not safe for us to open schools at all, but I also don’t want to be forced to do live instruction.” You can’t do both of those things. There’s got to be compromise, and I think every parent has a newfound understanding for how hard teachers’ jobs are as we’ve had to try to play a bit of that role in our own households, but we’re all struggling to adapt to online. I didn’t expect that I would be working from home either and having my child set off the fire alarm while I’m giving a talk, which has happened, but we have to really think about what this is going to mean for our kids in school districts that suffered to get proper funding for those kids before the pandemic and now are going to be dealing with slashed budgets, which I guess is my really long way of saying I don’t know what the answers are, but I can tell you what is planned right now is gonna be devastating for low income Black and brown kids, and we have shown–I mean, look at the Democratic Convention and the Republican Convention. Nobody’s even talking about “What are we gonna do for these kids?” No one’s talking about “Okay, we need a massive funding package to ensure that these kids are going to be able to catch up once this is all over, to ensure they have technology, to ensure the internet is gonna be connected, high speed, to their homes.” Like, there’s no one even talking about this, and I know that what’s gonna happen is ultimately we’re just gonna have to–those kids are just going to have to deal with it, and they’re gonna deal with it by falling further and further behind and being even more disadvantaged after this than they were before.

Zach: So, you know, you spoke on something which leads me to my last question. It does seem, both the RNC–well, the DNC for sure from my perspective and as you listen to other folks, like, largely focused on this imaginary or not-so-imaginary white conservative in the quote-unquote middle of America who is debating voting for Donald Trump or not, and it reminds me of–kind of going back to the initial question I had around just the cyclical nature of history–a little while ago we had Dr. Jason Johnson on as a guest, and we talked about that, like, just how history repeats itself, and as we prepare for one of the most consequential elections of our lifetime, do you believe America is truly in a place to not re-elect Donald Trump?

Nikole: In a fair election? Yes, but yeah… who knows if we’re gonna have a fair election? It does not bode well, but yes, I think in a fair election, yes.

Zach: Okay. Mrs. Hannah-Jones, this was phenomenal. Thank you so much for your time.

Nikole: Thank you for your persistence, and thanks for having me on the show.

Zach: No, God bless. Goodbye.

Nikole: All right, bye.

Zach: All right, y’all. That was–I mean, my gosh, y’all know what this is. Every single week we’re having incredible guests, and this one was, like I said at the top, an honor, a privilege. Really excited. Make sure y’all check us out. Check out all the links in the show notes. Learn more about Nikole Hannah-Jones if you’re not familiar, if you’ve been living under a rock. But the thing about it is, when it comes to Black media, even sometimes Black media posted on huge platforms like The New York Times, we miss it, so I want to make sure y’all check all that out. Make sure y’all check out Nice White Parents. This is not even an ad. I just got love for Nice White Parents. Shout-out to the team over there. And ’til next time, y’all, this has been Zach. Peace.

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