On March 18, 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama began an oration that Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic called a “searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal, and deeply, deeply Christian speech” and “the most honest speech on race in America in my adult lifetime.”
“‘We the people, in order to form a more perfect union,’” Obama began, quoting the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. “Two hundred twenty-one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy.”
Standing in the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Obama argued that, despite America’s original sin, the abomination of slavery, he was optimistic that future generations would continue to make progress toward “a more perfect union,” precisely because our nation was founded on the principles enacted in the Constitution in 1789.
Obama’s speech is relevant amid today’s fierce debate as to what to teach young Americans about the nation’s origin story and true birthdate. Like Obama, some posit that it is 1789, the year the Constitution went into effect, establishing the American form of government. Most Americans believe it was 1776, upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the enumeration of the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Some historians say it is technically 1507, when a map, known as “America’s Birth Certificate,” first bore the name “America.”
Against this backdrop enters the 1619 Project, an initiative from the New York Times that commemorates “the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery, and aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
Suffice it to say that some of the country’s most well-respected American historians disagree with the 1619 Project “re-framing” and have provided withering critiques of the re-writing of American history. Here is one: “The 1619 Project and the falsification of history: An analysis of the New York Times’s reply to five historians.” Here is another: The 1619 Project “provides a fundamentally distorted narrative whose effect is to radically discredit the Founding.”
Even Leslie Harris, the Northwestern University historian who was engaged by the New York Times to fact-check the 1619 Project, rebuffed the central claim that protecting the institution of slavery was a major reason the American colonies rebelled against British rule. Yet the Times ignored Harris’ objections. In her own brave piece, Harris writes “On August 19 of last year I listened in stunned silence as Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times, repeated an idea that I had vigorously argued against.” Clearly, the legacy of slavery is abominable enough without false embellishment.
In addition to convincing New York Times magazine readers that “our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written,” the 1619 Project is making a concerted effort to warp the next generation’s view of America, as well. Random House Group has acquired the rights to the 1619 Project and will develop a graphic novel and a series of four publications for young people. The Pulitzer Center has become the project’s education partner. According to its annual report, the Pulitzer Center has provided free reading guides, extension activities, lesson plans, and physical copies of the magazine to hundreds of schools and teachers across all fifty states, who have brought curricular resources into some 3,500 classrooms.
Indeed, some of the poorest school districts in the country, with the lowest performance levels in reading and math, have adopted the 1619 Project as a mandatory curriculum for their high school students. In cities such as Chicago, Newark, and Buffalo, with high concentrations of minority students, what will these young minds now be learning?
Central to the thesis of the project is that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a “slavocracy,” that white racist supremacy is irrevocably intertwined in the country’s DNA, that plantation slave-labor camps were the catalyst for an enduring system of brutal American capitalism, and as Nikole Hannah-Jones, the person who spearheaded the 1619 Project, asserted in this video, that it is “time for this country to pay what is owed.” She explains that reparations, in the form of cash payments, would be due to anyone who can “trace a descendant back to American slavery” and who can “prove that ten years prior to the discussion of the reparations bill, you actually lived as a black person.”
Since 2010, I have run a network of public charter schools that now educates more than 2,000 predominantly black and Hispanic students in the heart of low-income communities in the South Bronx and Lower East Side of Manhattan. Because of frustration with their zoned schools, parents must enter a random lottery to gain entry to our open enrollment schools.
Although parents themselves have faced structural barriers around race and fear that their children will as well, they know that a great education can make all the difference. They do not believe that their children are doomed to be shackled by the horrors of America’s legacy of slavery. On the contrary, they want our teachers to provide the kind of quality education that equips children with the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind to thrive in America.
That is what is so disturbing and dangerous about the 1619 Project’s aspiration for children: to create in the minds of students and teachers of all races a vision of America that is imbued with a permanent malignancy that is hostile to the dreams of students of color.
As one of the blistering reviews of 1619 wisely questions: “Can a liberal democracy function when it starts teaching its children that its founding was not simply flawed but made up as a cynical excuse for white men to hold on to their slaves?” It’s time to put aside all of the virtue-signalling and faux “wokeness” to answer this fundamental question.
As educators, we must reject these tired ideas, which lead to the soft bigotry of low expectations. We do our scholars no favors by treating them as victims because of a group identity or teaching them to become dependent on a government system such as reparations to succeed in their lives.
As Burgess Owens once wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “At the core of the reparation movement is a divisive and demeaning view of both races. It grants to the white race a wicked superiority, treating them as an oppressive people too powerful for black Americans to overcome. It brands blacks as hapless victims devoid of the ability, which every other culture possesses, to assimilate and progress. Neither label is earned.”
Black students growing up in low-income communities are inundated with messages from many adults in their lives that they will be preyed upon because of their race. Rather than reinforce this false idea of powerlessness in the face of a system rigged against them, why not educate young people of color about the forces within their control that are most likely to put them on a path to power and economic success?
For example, in 2014, a team of researchers led by Harvard’s Raj Chetty investigated the intergenerational mobility of more than 40 million children and their parents. What factors led to communities having high rates of economic mobility across generations and others in which few children escape poverty? The Land of Opportunity study they produced found that “the strongest predictors of upward mobility are measures of family structure such as the fraction of single parents in the area.”
A growing body of research underscores the transcendent role that individual decisions about the timing of family formation can play in achieving the American dream. Indeed, a staggering 97 percent of millennials who followed the “success sequence” (getting at least a high school degree, working full time, and marrying before having any children, in that order) avoided poverty. And “Black Men, Making It in America: The Engines of Economic Success for Black Men in America,” reveals that a number of factors, including education, work, marriage, church participation, military service, and a sense of personal agency, are all highly correlated to black male economic success in America.
Shouldn’t our young people be taught to understand the pathways more likely to have them flourish financially, rather than perpetuate the noxious notion that black children are owed something and that their path to success must be paved by a massive government handout?
It is ironic that Hannah-Jones created opportunity for her children simply by sticking to this middle-class script in her life. In the autobiographic New York Times story, “Choosing a school for my daughter in a segregated city,” and in discussion about busing and desegregation, Hannah-Jones courageously shares the fears that she and her husband had about enrolling 4-year-old Najya in a segregated, low-income school in Brooklyn.
After describing all of the machinations that went into their decision, Hannah-Jones makes a revealing statement: “I also knew that we would be able to make up for Najya anything the school was lacking.”
Consider the confidence and privilege that Hannah-Jones expressed in her and her husband’s ability to ensure their daughter succeeds. No amount of anti-black racism and no amount of poverty or lack of diversity in her daughter’s school could overcome the power of the stable, two-parent home that she and her husband provide.
Ultimately, I know that the black and brown children from the schools I lead are entering a world in which factors related to race, class, and gender will force them to confront extraordinary challenges while simultaneously being exposed to extraordinary opportunities. The question is, what will make the difference in whether these young scholars succumb to challenge or thrive on opportunity—whether they develop a mindset of enslavement or of empowerment?
We cannot deprive young black children, or children of any race, of the knowledge of the series of decisions that Hannah-Jones, millions of black Americans, and I have pursued on our pathway to economic prosperity and the American dream.
Many of us in the black community must preach what we have practiced in the never-ending challenge to achieve our own levels of professional success—and, more importantly, share what we are teaching our children to help them have the greatest likelihood to achieve their chosen path of fulfillment. For many of us, this goes well beyond just having “The Talk” with our black sons about avoiding police brutality.
It also means communicating to our sons and daughters that they have power in their individual choices, and that those decisions can shape their destiny despite structural barriers associated with race, class, and poverty.
As the 1619 Project correctly points out, America’s history will forever be scarred by the horrific stories of chattel enslavement. But where are the empowering stories of progress of the millions of ordinary black Americans who are both descendants of slaves, and who adopted middle class norms to achieve the American Dream, despite racial barriers? What the project completely misses is the peculiar duality of America. As Hendrik Hertzberg and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote in the 1996 New Yorker special edition, Black in America, “For African Americans, the country of oppression and the country of liberation are the same country.”
In closing his 2008 speech on race, Obama described the path toward a more perfect union:
For the African American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances, for better healthcare and better schools and better jobs, to the larger aspirations of all Americans: the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who has been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for our own lives—by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that, while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism. They must always believe that they can write their own destiny.
Regardless of where the pushpin falls on America’s timeline of discovery, what really matters is its future and the power of black Americans, and all Americans, to shape this shared destiny.