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Opinion
Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

On My Mind: Two Names, Two Worlds, One Struggle

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John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation / chucka_nc/Flickr
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Let’s consider the lives and careers of two people. You’ll probably guess who they are, but for now, let’s just call them Person 1 and Person 2. While I’m telling you their stories, think about which one you might identify with.

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Person 1 is the daughter of a bus driver and probation officer. She started her career at the bottom, at one point doing an internship while she sold mattresses on the side. Over a 20-year career, she worked her way to the top of her profession.

Person 2 is the son of a millionaire who built a chain of business holdings that spanned four states. Person 2 inherited a key part of that business and has kept it thriving. But the defining event of his life was being born into a wealthy family.

Person 1 is Black and Person 2 is white. They grew up, culturally and financially, in different worlds. But they have two major things in common: They both work in the same field, and they both went to the same university.

That university recently offered Person 1 a job. Person 2 wasn’t so sure she should have it. And he had given a lot of money to that university, so when he picked up the phone, people listened. He says he was just expressing his concerns. But he was not any normal alumnus. He was a rich and powerful donor. So the university hedged on the job offer to Person 1.

By now, if you still don’t know who we’re talking about, welcome back to Earth.

The Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC Chapel Hill has its name because Walter Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, gave the school $25 million. That school wanted to offer a tenured faculty job to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer-winning force behind The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project.

The 1619 Project centers a view of American history around the year colonists brought the first enslaved Africans to this country. Hussman disagreed with some of the project’s key findings. For one thing, he thought white people should get more credit for their role in civil rights. So he made his feelings known. When the person who donated $25 million and had the school named after him voiced his reservations, key people who govern the university discovered they had reservations, too. That is the way the real world works, no matter how much anyone involved wants to pretend otherwise.

So Hannah-Jones was offered a lesser deal, and then the whole thing blew up, and by the time she was offered the original deal, she turned it down. Instead, she went to Howard University, which proudly offered tenure to one of the brightest minds in journalism.

So now Person 1 and Person 2 are joined in the spotlight and will be for a long time. That seems unfair. Person 1 worked her way to the top and earned her recognition. Person 2 inherited his fortune and bought his influence. If you didn’t know their names, which one would you root for?

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