It is often said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Sound advice though this may be, it does not get one very far in practice. The reason is that there is no agent called “history” which teaches unambiguous moral lessons. Study World War II and you may come away believing that nation-building works. Study Iraq and you may come away believing the opposite. In the end, the historical episodes we choose to study –– and to ignore –– say less about the wisdom offered by “history” and more about the lessons that we consider relevant today.
So as I read the New York Times’s “1619 Project” –– a series of essays intended to reframe American history by placing “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans” at its center –– I kept returning to one question: Which episodes from American history teach lessons that are most relevant to black children today? This question is not merely of intellectual interest; the CEO of the Chicago Public School system has pledged to send at least 200 copies of the project to every high school in the city.
The essays in the project answer this question in one voice: slavery. Bryan Stevenson argues that slavery is behind the cruelty of our criminal justice system; Jeneen Interlandi says that slavery explains why America lacks universal health care; Matthew Desmond claims that slavery explains the brutality of American capitalism; and so forth.
I support teaching Americans of all ages about the horrors of slavery. Textbooks that whitewash this history –– for example, by portraying slavery as a “side issue” in the Civil War –– are a moral embarrassment. But the 1619 Project is not an honest attempt to educate Americans about our history. It is an attempt to weaponize that history to fight ideological wars in the present.
There’s no doubt that slavery is among the most important chapters in the American story. The 1619 Project exaggerates only slightly when it says that “no aspect of the country … has been untouched by” the peculiar institution. Yet by claiming that slavery has touched everything, the project raises a question about its own prejudice: If slavery is linked to every aspect of America, why single out certain institutions and not others?
The project could have argued, for example, that labor market regulation is rooted in slavery because the Black Codes used occupational licensing to keep blacks in menial positions. Or it could have argued that attacks on free speech are rooted in white supremacy by citing the destruction of the black-owned anti-lynching newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech, by a white mob in 1892. Yet these arguments –– despite being just as plausible as those offered in the project –– would have targeted two progressive-friendly values: market regulation and speech restrictionism. The absence of any such arguments in the project is, at best, suspicious, and at worst, proof of the ideological prejudice at its core.
If the central historical claim made in the 1619 Project is that slavery has touched everything, then the lesson they want readers to learn is that –– to quote the project’s director Nikole Hannah-Jones –– “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” As popular as this refrain has become, it’s an imperfect analogy at best. For one thing, DNA, by definition, remains with you for your entire life. To say that white supremacy is in America’s DNA is, therefore, to suggest that it will remain with us forever. As James Oakes, a leading Civil War historian, observed, this attitude leads to “political paralysis.” By ruling out the possibility of progress, it makes nihilism the only logical option. “What do you do,” Oakes asked, “alter your DNA?”
More importantly, to the typical black kid today, how relevant is the idea that racism is in our DNA? Without doubt, a variant of this idea was relevant to intellectuals such as Martin Delany and Frederick Douglass in the 19th century –– when the debate over whether blacks should emigrate from America hinged on whether legalized white supremacy would be permanent or temporary. But that debate long since has ended, and blacks born in America are staying put. So we must ask ourselves: What good does it do to tell a black child in 2019, based on nothing but thoughtless pessimism, that the only country he’ll ever live in will forever reject him?
If we are going to import heavily editorialized essays about black history into the minds of our children, then we should at least arm them with historical lessons that are relevant to the challenges they face today. One such challenge is posed by the widening gap between those with and without a college degree. Accordingly, we might highlight the heroic efforts made by formerly enslaved blacks to become educated: Almost completely illiterate at the end of the Civil War, by 1910 about two-thirds of former slaves could read and write. Observing such efforts –– which included forming secret schools, pooling together money to pay teachers’ salaries and, at times, voluntarily forgoing recess and holiday breaks –– the national superintendent of schools for the Freedmen’s Bureau remarked: “What other people on earth have ever shown, while in their ignorance, such a passion for education?” 1
Another challenge we face today is low geographic mobility. As high-income opportunities increasingly concentrate in specific cities, Americans in general, and blacks in particular, are moving less frequently than ever before. In “The Complacent Class,” economist Tyler Cowen notes that the overall interstate migration rate is down 51 percent from its 1948-1971 average. This is partly because moving to cities has become so expensive, but as Cowen argues, it also may be because American culture has lost a certain dynamism. 2 In this vein, another episode of history we might highlight is the Great Migration, during which blacks moved en masse to the North, Midwest, and West. In 1916, over 90 percent of American blacks still lived in the South, where opportunities for upward mobility were virtually nonexistent. By 1970, only 53 percent remained there.
Instead of teaching black children lessons they can use to improve their lives –– such as the importance of education and geographic mobility –– the 1619 Project seems hellbent on teaching them to see slavery everywhere: in traffic jams, in sugary foods and, most suprisingly, in Excel spreadsheets. As Desmond puts it, “When a mid-level manager spends an afternoon filling in rows and columns on an Excel spreadsheet, they are repeating business procedures whose roots twist back to slave-labor camps.”
Without doubt, America would be a very different place –– in ways both large and small –– if not for slavery. Yet the arguments marshalled in support of this fact too often rely on an intellectual sleight of hand that would be plain to see if applied to any other historical event. For example, the legacy of World War II includes the creation of penicillin. But few would take seriously the argument that antibiotics are “rooted in” violence.
Because arguments about history can seem pedantic, it’s worth pausing to reflect on what’s at stake. Most people can agree that we want to raise the next generation of Americans to be more enlightened than the last, less likely to make assumptions about others based on their race, and more focused on what unites us than what divides us. We want them to be smarter, more productive, more prosperous. In sum, we want them to be less distracted by trivial conflicts and more focused on solving problems of existential importance. Fulfilling these goals will be no simple task, and I do not pretend to have all the answers. But one thing is certain: If a century from now America has made massive strides in any of these areas, it will not be because we taught our progeny to see the remnants of slavery hiding in the rows and columns of an Excel spreadsheet.
For black Americans in particular, the stakes are equally high. In the history of multi-ethnic societies, it is difficult to find a single example in which a minority group rose from poverty to affluence by pursuing a strategy that focused primarily on nursing historical grievances (however valid), seeking atonement for them, and stigmatizing those within its ranks that advocated an inward-looking strategy. By contrast, history is replete with examples of minority groups –– even ones who have suffered routine political repression and violence –– rising to affluence by pursuing the opposite strategy: avoiding politics entirely and focusing single-mindedly on entrepreneurship and education.
Rarely does history offer a lesson as unambiguous as this one.
1 Stuart Buck, Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of De-Segregation,(2010: Yale University Press), 45-50.
2 Tyler Cowen, The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, (2017: Picador), 28-30.