I generally assume positive intent, but that approach is being pushed to its limits by the advancement of the New York Times’ 1619 Project in schools. I cannot understand the goal of a growing number of school districts — those charged with administering curricula to thousands of schools — agreeing to use the 1619 Project as part of their history lessons. Its founder, Nikole Hannah-Jones, has acknowledged that it is not a work of history, but rather, “of memory.” She doesn’t say whose memory she tapped for the project and, as is the case with most people, memories can suffer from the Mandela effect over time. Therefore, it is unwise to use memories that are hundreds of years old as the basis for a history lesson.
For example, when they want you to believe that the Revolutionary War was fought because the British intended to abolish slavery, rather than fighting to gain freedom from a monarchy that suppressed colonists’ rights, they simply say this and many accept it as fact. We are expected to ignore the fact that slavery was not abolished in the United Kingdom until 1833, nearly six decades after the Declaration of Independence. This is what is dangerous about the 1619 Project: In its effort to prove the narrative that the black existence in America is inextricably tied to slavery, the project’s essayists and its proponents twist truths, omit facts, and change definitions.
Fortunately, there is a better way to approach this.
I grew up in Gary, Indiana, a city with a notoriously bad reputation — segregated in the 1950s, high in crime in the 1990s, and now poster child for economic devastation in America’s rust belt. When I was in my early 20s, I worked for a caterer in downtown Chicago. My co-workers were also young black men. They were all from Chicago, mostly from the South Side. I vividly remember them reacting to my being from Gary by saying, “Wow, and you’ve never been shot?” It was the early ’90s and Gary had been dubbed the “murder capital of the country.” However, like the narrative we hear about most blacks today, this was not our normal existence in Gary.
When I look back on my childhood, I can’t help but recall key moments that created a snapshot in time that drastically changed how I viewed the world. I started school in the mid-1970s. Most of the white families had moved away after the election of Richard Hatcher, the city’s first black mayor and one of the first to win election in a major city nationwide. I was born at the beginning of the now infamous “white flight.”
The remaining residents of Gary were a pretty even mix of working class and poor families; my family was barely on the working-class side. This was not much different from majority-black communities in America today. What we benefitted from at that time was an enriched education. During my years in public schools, most of my teachers were black and, although most were women, we did have several male teachers, a surprisingly high percentage by today’s standard.
Since most of the white teachers were holdovers who did not succumb to the rush to leave the city, they skewed older. Conversely, most of the black teachers were in their 20s and early 30s when I began school. This meant that many of them were in high school or college at the height of the civil rights movement. What they instilled in me and my peers is what is lacking in the 1619 Project: context and logic.
These students of the movement wanted to empower the children they taught. Like most people today, we knew about slavery, Jim Crow laws, and Martin Luther King; however, our teachers gave us a richer understanding of our history. We were taught about Hiram Revels, a minister who became the first black senator; King adviser and activist Bayard Rustin; and labor leader A. Philip Randolph. I remember having flash cards that featured inventor Garrett Morgan, explorer Matthew Henson, and surgeon Daniel Hale Williams.
We were taught about the ugliness of white supremacy, but not allowed to use it to generalize whites, so that we would not become like the racists we opposed. When taught about slaves who took immeasurable risks, such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, we also learned about white abolitionists John Rankin and John Brown, educator Samuel Gridley Howe and his wife, writer Julia Ward Howe, and the Radical Republicans, whites who put their reputations, prominence and, in some cases, their lives on the line to end slavery.
While this is the most appropriate and complete way to teach this subject, it is important to note that this was not a highlight of my formative education, but rather the method used for a small part of it. My teachers’ primary focus was to give us the skills and knowledge necessary to compete and be successful, regardless of our race or our circumstances. This is something that all students — especially black students — would benefit from, but the 1619 Project is simply not designed to do that.
Right from the start, the New York Times states that the goal of the project is “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.” Although the project rightly describes slavery, the realities are far worse — no words could properly “delineate the atrocious debasement of human nature” as Benjamin Franklin once said. The 1619 Project’s lack of context leaves an exaggerated imprint on slavery on the arc of history in America.
Additionally, the illogical conclusion the essayists draw from the history of racism is equally damaging. The conclusion the project paints for its readers is that our country was founded on slavery, whites fought to keep it and, when slavery ended, they spent 150 years trying to maintain strength through systemic oppression of blacks. In addition to this, the “consequences of slavery” determined by the 1619 Project can be summed up as every problem ever experienced by blacks in America.
It is easy to find evidence and examples to prove the harsh racism the project describes; there are too many from which to choose. The problem lies with the assumption that racism is endemic to white America. It is irrational to conclude that all, or even most, whites supported slavery. The project lists 1619 as the start of slavery — and thereby, the country — but fails to mention the efforts to end slavery that also began in the 17th century. Talk of ending slavery was so common by the country’s founding, that Thomas Jefferson and other Founders assumed it would end in their lifetimes.
Arguing that slavery is the only measure to use to gauge the country, even in the 1860s, would be akin to saying the 20 states that had no slaves were not part of America, or erasing whites who fought against slavery from the history books because they don’t fit the narrative. Blacks reached a level of achievement in the early 20th century that can be described only as amazing, based on where they were 50 years earlier. Many of them owned businesses, graduated from colleges and universities, and amassed incredible wealth. How, then, does the 1619 Project contend that slavery is still the prevailing issue in the black condition today?
The 1619 Project would be more credible if it had anything positive to say about America. Instead, it takes the “throw it all out approach.” The Founders, capitalism, “law and order” — all are racist, according to this thinking. Even things such as traffic jams and opposition to universal health care can be traced to slavery. The project goes on like this, focusing solely on negativity without offering any solutions. Many whites read these essays and are drawn to the logical conclusion that most blacks in America lead bleak, sad lives.
This is not only incorrect, but an unhealthy way to view blacks.
Yet that is what the 1619 Project does. With no context, it tells whites, deliberately or not, that they have wronged blacks just by being born; they must embrace their guilt and renounce their “privilege.” Conversely, it tells otherwise happy blacks that they should be angry for being forced to live a sad life they did not realize they were living. Once this toxic message, which is based on critical race theory, is allowed in schools, we inevitably will have a generation of angry blacks and depressed whites. Yet the push to make this part of a new standard in the teaching of American history to vulnerable youths is gaining momentum. Critical race theory teaches that all situations and outcomes are the result of a racial power struggle between the oppressed and the oppressors. It allows for no individual agency.
This warped teaching is being done without involving parents or discussing the merits of the project. Most blacks over the age of 40 can remember their parents’ talk on racism. It commonly involved an acknowledgment of racism, followed by a demand that we must “work twice as hard” to achieve. Their method gives cover to those who don’t achieve or those who choose not to try.
I suggest we take a different approach than the critical race theory approach of the 1619 Project; instead, let’s take the one my teachers took when I was a child. We learned an accurate account of American history, without negative inferences or making slavery the primary focus of our education. If schools adopt critical race theory they will sadly rob students of the opportunity to receive an education that prepares them for the future and makes them proud to be American.