When works with some merit are too forcefully publicized, they become hysterical rhetoric that require a set of illusory truths repeated ad infinitum. At that point they attract critics bent on stripping those works of all value. A good example of this phenomenon is The 1619 Project.
New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones assembled essays on America’s history and named the collection The 1619 Project, which was published by The New York Times in 2019 with great fanfare. The name refers to the year the first shipload of Black slaves landed in America.
According to the project, this seminal event in 1619 forever imprinted racism in the American psyche, causing foundational and expansion episodes to carry slavery’s imprint to this day. The project in its original publication contended that 1619 must be considered America’s founding date, not 1776.
Praises and Disdain
Immediately after its publication, The 1619 Project received accolades from liberals and searing criticism from conservatives. In 2020, Nikole Hannah-Jones received a Pulitzer Prize for her work. She also received denunciations of circulating junk history.
The great tragedy of the original 1619 Project was its missed opportunity to add detail, nuance, and reflection to our historical understanding of slavery and its legacy. That opportunity was lost not upon publication but in the aftermath, when The New York Times met its scholarly critics with insult and derision. The ensuing controversies, initially confined to Hannah-Jones’ and Desmond’s essays, came to overshadow the remainder of the project, including its other historical contributions as well as its literary and artistic sections. The 1619 Project Unrepentantly Pushes Junk History, Reason, March 29, 2022
The principal purpose of The 1619 Project is not to inform but to agitate and entice action. Hannah-Jones wants to see acknowledgement of the persistent consequences of slavery and the ubiquitous nature of racism, present in the judicial system, housing, employment, education, and all other institutions. Her premise is that without that acknowledgement, society cannot begin to erase the negative effects of prejudice. In this regard, her premise aligns with the principles of Critical Race Theory.
Action is often best achieved with focus, flexible statements, relentless publicity, and fascinating storytelling. Lest The New York Times version of the project starts losing media space, Hannah-Jones expanded it into a book, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, and a school curriculum, Reading Guide for The 1619 Project Essays.
Measures of early action enticed by The 1619 Project could be the level of sales of the book, how many school districts adopted the curriculum, and the backlash. The book is an Amazon best seller. The number of school districts that adopted the curriculum does not seem to be available; there are only article, mostly published in 2020, saying that “4,500 classrooms” are using the curriculum. As of February 2022, 38 states have introduced or passed legislation banning the teaching of race-based curricula.
Possibly because of its dependence on illusory truths and storytelling, the Project is an easy target for criticism and dismissal. Here are three of the Project’s most salient, most often repeated, assertions and the JVN Blog’s opinion of how these assertions missed opportunities to enrich American history.
- The American Revolution was fought over slavery
Traditional history does not fully discuss the crucial role slavery played in colonial economy, principally in the Southern plantations, but also Northern commerce. A deeper discussion would serve better to understand the words of the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and government-sponsored segregation.
However, other reasons for the Revolution abound: British soldiers quartered in America starting in 1763. Devastating taxation and regulation in 1765. The Boston Massacre in 1770. The long list of other grievances listed on the Declaration of Independence.
Also, the British were the middlemen who exported slaves to America. Calls for abolishing slavery in Britain did not occur until 1780, five years after the Revolutionary War began.
- The Second Amendment to the Constitution was placed there to allow White men to defend themselves against Black slaves.
Indeed, history needs to speak more about slaves’ discontent and frequent rebellion, which no doubt caused White apprehension.
History also needs to be clear that the ten original Amendments that make up the Bill of Rights were the result of the Founders’ mistrust of a central government and particularly government’s standing armies. Those Amendments, including the Second, were intended to protect the People against government, not against each other.
What, Sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty …. Whenever Governments mean to invade the rights and liberties of the people, they always attempt to destroy the militia, in order to raise an army upon their ruins. Rep. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, Annals of Congress 750, August 17, 1789.
- Slavery and racism were, and still are, root causes of unjust social, judicial, and educational systems.
There are events that could be better understood with more honest discussions of their relation to racism. For example, during the 1930s through the 1950s, the Federal Housing Administration guaranteed most private mortgages that helped build America’s suburbs. Only 2% of those mortgages went to non-white applicants. The FHA encouraged covenants that kept suburban neighborhoods “harmonious.”
Areas surrounding a location are investigated to determine whether incompatible racial and social groups are present, for the purpose of making a prediction regarding the probability of the location being invaded by such groups. If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. Federal Housing Administration 1936:233.
It is not difficult to determine what social and racial class was preferred when we consider what the American suburbs of the 1950s looked like.
Civil rights legislation of the 1960s removed housing discrimination, and many Black families did resettle to prosperous suburbs. But poverty kept more in the inner cities.
Poor Black neighborhoods share key characteristics that ensure poverty: Children living in one-parent families (64% vs. 24% of White children). Incarceration (in state prisons 5 times the rate of White incarceration). Gun violence, that results in high, mostly Black-on-Black, violent crime.
These self-inflicted wounds keep poor Black families poor and deluded by the cruel lie of victimhood.
Meanwhile, Black individuals and families that refuse to cling to victimhood prosper: Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Candace Owens, Clarence Thomas, the countless number of Black families who insist on discipline and have achieved economic well being.
Yes, slavery, government-sponsored segregation, and prejudice are the despicable triumvirate that shares a place in America’s identity. But they need not be the determining variables in anyone’s life. They need not be the relentless distraction from purposeful endeavors that Nikole Hannah-Jones and her fellow Critical Race Theorists want them to be.
A Great Experiment Goes Unnoticed
The 1619 Project’s plea to face history honestly makes sense, since nothing can be learned from an embellished version that ignores mistakes to be avoided. However, The Project’s version, stripped of understanding, has caused it to be dismissed in its entirely. Good understanding of history should include these three principles:
- History is incremental. People develop knowledge of themselves and the world around them in bits and pieces.
Earth was once the center of the universe, until it was not. Slavery was once a fact of life going back to ancient times, until it was not.
- America’s Declaration of Independence laid down a new concept of the rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness: these rights are not granted by government, but by The Creator.
At the time the Declaration was written, the Founding Fathers’ attitude toward slavery and an economy dependent on slavery was evolving. As Hannah-Jones herself pointed out Thomas Jefferson included in the Declaration a passage condemning slavery, but the passage was removed prior to ratification. One would have to speculate that the Founders must have figured that if they were to have a country at all, they could not obliterate their economy by suddenly freeing the slaves.
- America’s Constitution laid down a never-before tried system of government 1) of rule by the people through the peoples’ representatives in Congress, 2) of enumerated powers in the Articles clearly indicating what each of the three branches of government does, and 3) of restrictions in the first 10 Amendments indicating what government cannot do.
In other words, the Founders wrote the American Constitution as an experiment in self-government, something never before attempted. It turned the idea of government held since time immemorial on its head. Under this Constitution, government works for the people, not the other way around. That means the People, through their representatives, can change (amend) any part of that document if they so choose.
Baby Gone With the Bathwater
In conclusion, The 1619 Project throws away the baby with the bathwater. That is unfortunate. However, if the Project’s intent, along with that of brethren Critical Race Theory, is to agitate, distract, and solidify Black adherence to progressive politics, then rational thinking does not matter.