Pulitzer Center Update

A Message From Jon Sawyer

Hundreds of Philadelphians kneel in protest of system police violence and other forms of systemic racism in memory of George Floyd and other victims modern-day lynching at City Hall in Philadelphia, PA, on May 30, 2020. Image by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images. United States, 2020.

Hundreds of Philadelphians kneel in protest of system police violence and other forms of systemic racism in memory of George Floyd and other victims modern-day lynching at City Hall in Philadelphia, PA, on May 30, 2020. Image by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images. United States, 2020.

Diverse voices. A commitment to equity, elevating the voices of under-represented and disadvantaged groups. Inclusiveness at the core of our work.

The diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policy that we announced last month was the product of months of staff research and discussion. It was a reflection of the values we hold—our determination that in surfacing under-reported issues we would be conscious of our own biases and to the best of our abilities tell those stories whole.

We were surprised that some corners of the Internet assailed the policy and us, accusing us of “cultural Marxism” and of an abdication of professional journalism standards. The criticism was fueled in part by our role as education partner on another initiative, The 1619 Project, The New York Times Magazine issue aimed at reframing how we view the significance of slavery in American history.

I didn’t see the logic of the critiques when they first surfaced. I see it even less today, in the wake of a dreadful week that has reminded us, for the umpteenth time, of how racism permeates too much of American life.

Policemen in Minneapolis standing blandly by as a fellow officer puts to death George Floyd, a Black man, by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for eight-plus excruciating minutes.

Murder charges in coastal Georgia against the three white males complicit in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger—charges that almost certainly would not have been brought had a video of the event not surfaced weeks later.

A white investment banker in New York’s Central Park, all too ready to weaponize her sex and race to put in jeopardy the safety of Christan Cooper, a Black birdwatcher.

An American president, invoking some of the most incendiary rhetoric of the Civil Rights era, threatening that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” and invoking “vicious dogs” and “Secret Service agents just waiting for action” against protesters in front of the White House.

The critiques on our DEI policy and on The 1619 Project were driven in part by news that Nikole Hannah-Jones, the inspiration for the project and the writer of its lead essay, won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. (The Pulitzer Prizes, administered by Columbia University, have no relationship with the Pulitzer Center.)

The 1619 Project wasn’t perfect. Journalism rarely is. Hannah-Jones and The Times have both acknowledged that some of the claims in the essay were overstated, especially about the extent to which defense of slavery was an impetus for the American Revolution. But the larger point, slavery’s central role in the origin of America and its continuing legacy today, is beyond dispute. We see it in the flagrant police abuses detailed above. We see it in the appalling symmetry between race and adverse effects in the health and economic consequences of the coronavirus.

In our role as education partner on The 1619 Project we have written curricular materials and organized classroom engagement that have reached more than 4,500 schools across every state in the country. On our website you’ll find the many ways that students and schools have engaged in the work, from Chicago and Washington to St. Louis, North Carolina, and beyond.

We stand by the commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion that we voiced in the new policy, just as we stand behind the standards and ethics policy aimed at ensuring that the reporting we support is fair, based on rigorously vetted fact-checking, and sensitive to the vulnerabilities of the people whose stories are told.

As for The 1619 Project, this past week also saw new recognition of the value of that landmark initiative: two first-place prizes from the National Magazine Awards, one of them for public interest. We believe the project was just that, in the public interest. We are honored to work with The Times, and with our school and university partners across the country, to promote an honest debate about issues that we have too long ignored.

Jon Sawyer