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Psaki says there is ‘systemic racism’ in learning institutions amid Nikole Hannah-Jones UNC controversy


White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that there continues to be systemic racism in “some learning institutions” in the United States, in response to a question about New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones rejecting tenure from UNC citing a history of racism.

During her daily press briefing Psaki was asked about Jones’ decision to decline an offer of tenure at the University of North Carolina, and whether the controversy was an example of the “systemic racism” that President Biden has promised to fight against.

Psaki replied that she had not spoken to Biden about the Jones situation, but that “…there is no question that there continues to be systemic racism in our country, we see that in a range of sectors, including in some learning institutions.”

UNC’s Board of Trustees voted 9 to 4 to offer the Times journalist and lead author of the controversial 1619 Project a tenured teaching position late last month.

The decision comes after months of controversy that started when the North Carolina school denied Hannah-Jones tenure after she was tapped to be the school’s Knight chair in race and investigative reporting — making her the first professor in the role to not have tenure. 

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about Nikole Hannah-Jones’ decision to decline an offer of tenure at the University of North Carolina.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

While Hannah-Jones said her tenure application was “overwhelmingly approved” by the school’s Promotion and Tenure Committee, and the journalism department, the board of trustees took issue with the journalist’s 1619 Project and she was offered a five-year contract instead. 

Hannah-Jones announced Tuesday that she was turning down the position after all, tenure notwithstanding, and instead taking a teaching position at Howard University.

In a statement she said that, “I have decided that instead of fighting to prove I belong at an institution that until 1955 prohibited Black Americans from attending, I am instead going to work in the legacy of a university not built by the enslaved but for those who once were.” Howard University is a historically black university.

Nikole Hannah-Jones
Nikole Hannah-Jones will not teach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill following an extended fight over tenure.
AP Photo/John Minchillo

Psaki stated that the students at Howard were “lucky to have her.”

Psaki did not elaborate as to what learning institutions she was referring to, and did not cite any specific examples of systemic racism in American schools. A request for clarification on those points from the White House has not been returned.

The press secretary’s claim of systemic racism in the nation’s education system comes amid growing debate regarding the use of critical race theory in schools. Several states around the nation have introduced legislation to ban CRT from curriculums. This week the National Education Association, the largest teacher’s union in the country expressed their opposition to such laws.

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