Casual critics of the 1619 Project usually focus on its basic conceit: the idea that the true founding of the United States occurred when the first African captives arrived in the New World. This is an intentionally provocative claim, intended to recentre Americans’ understanding of their history on the oppression and exploitation of enslaved people and their descendants. It proved so provocative that the New York Times, where the Project first appeared, stealth-edited the original wording in response to criticism. However, the animating spirit remains the same. As editor Nikole Hannah-Jones explains in her introduction to its expanded version, published as a book in 2021:
The issue [of the New York Times Magazine containing the 1619 Project] would bring slavery and the contributions of Black Americans from the margins of the American story to the center, where they belong, by arguing that slavery and its legacy have profoundly shaped modern American life, even as that influence had been shrouded or discounted. The issue would pose and answer these questions: What would it mean to reframe our understanding of U.S. history by considering 1619 as our country’s origin point, the birth of our defining contradictions, the seed of so much of what has made us unique? How might that reframing change how we understand the unique problems of the nation today—its stark economic inequality, its violence, its world-leading incarceration rates, its shocking segregation, its political divisions, its stingy social safety net?
As some critics have pointed out, the essayists who contributed to the Project made a number of historical errors. However, these inaccuracies are of secondary significance. More important is why the claims were made and why they provoked such vociferous backlash. According to Hannah-Jones, “most of the fights over the 1619 Project were never really about the facts.” Instead, she argues that her critics “did not agree with our framing, which treated slavery and anti-Blackness as foundational to America.” They contested “the idea that so much of modern American life has been shaped not by the majestic ideals of our founding but by its grave hypocrisy.” Likewise, in response to criticism, the editor of the Project at the Times admitted that
We are not ourselves historians … We are journalists, trained to look at current events and situations and ask the question: Why is this the way it is? In the case of the persistent racism and inequality that plague this country, the answer to that question led us inexorably into the past.
Here, we find the root of the disagreement: whether contemporary problems and disparities can be directly traced to the horrors of slavery and the evils of Jim Crow.
In one sense, it’s obvious that the events of 1619 and the centuries of deprivation and degradation that followed led to the present moment. But to what degree can we attribute contemporary conditions to the sins of the past? Hannah-Jones describes the 1619 Project as “an origin story. Like all origin stories, this one seeks to explain our society to itself.” While she acknowledges that it “is not the only origin story of this country—there must be many,” she insists that we can only confront the problems that plague us if we first debunk the myths that mislead us. But what if Hannah-Jones and her contributors are promulgating another myth?
Like other recent work by antiracist scholars, the 1619 Project makes the following assumptions.
- Slavery and related forms of racial oppression are foundational to American history.
- Historical oppression has caused most contemporary racial disparities.
- Much of the supposed progress towards reducing racism is illusory.
- Racism has changed its guise but remains as virulent as ever.
- Race is the lens through which all social interactions should be understood.
If understood as a supplement or a corrective to versions of our past that minimize the significance of racial oppression, efforts like the 1619 Project are worthwhile. However, the Project overcorrects by making slavery and its aftermath the essence of the American story. Hannah-Jones acknowledges this objection—“one of the criticisms of the project is that we focus too much on the brutality of slavery and our nation’s legacy of anti-Blackness”—and offers a more nuanced analysis in a chapter entitled “Democracy.” She admits that the founders were conflicted about slavery and that the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution helped lead to abolition. She rightly highlights the role played by black Americans in forcing the US to confront its hypocrisy and live up to its ideals, but downplays the very real efforts of other Americans:
“For the most part, Black Americans fought back alone.” This ignores the sacrifices made by white allies in the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements, as well as the work of people of all races who fought for women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, the rights of immigrants, etc.
The 1619 Project is as much a political endeavour as an historical one. Hannah-Jones’ central argument is that
It is common, still, to point to rates of Black poverty, out-of-wedlock births, crime, and college attendance as if these conditions in a country built on a racial caste system are not utterly predictable. But crucially, you cannot view those statistics while ignoring another: that Black people were enslaved here longer than we have been free.
The other essays in the book suggest direct connections between the historical enslavement and subjugation of African Americans and contemporary problems plaguing parts of the black community. In her chapter on “Race,” for example, Dorothy Roberts insists that
hundreds of years of state-imposed hardship and unequal treatment made … success nearly impossible for most Black people: in addition to monumental losses inflicted by enslavement, Black families had been severely disadvantaged by racist housing policies, employment discrimination, inferior schools, exclusionary banking practices, and unjust law enforcement.
In her view, structural racism extends in an unbroken line from 1619 to the twenty-first century and provides a full explanation of black poverty and underachievement. She doesn’t consider the possibility that dysfunctional cultural patterns may have emerged in response to historical oppression but are now self-sustaining, at least in part. In other words, she assumes that discrimination (whether perpetrated by individuals or embedded in systems) is directly and exclusively responsible for racial disparities and that any attention to dysfunction within the black community amounts to victim blaming.
In his chapter on sugar, Khalil Gibran Muhammad argues that “the brutal work of the enslaved created an industry whose success in producing unhealthy food … has taken its greatest toll on Black communities today.” His historical summary of the sugar trade is connected to his comments on the unhealthy diets of many black Americans. Muhammad admits that “sugar is killing all of us” but insists that it is “killing Black people faster.” He blames food deserts, an explanation that has been subjected to mounting criticism. What’s missing from Muhammad’s analysis—and from most of the other essays in the book—is any mention of personal autonomy: in this case, in the food choices people make. People’s decisions are clearly influenced by the context in which they live, which can include the continuing effects of past discrimination. But whiteness is not, as it is sometimes portrayed, a pervasive and all-powerful force that effectively determines the fate of its victims.
In Leslie and Michelle Alexander’s chapter on fear, they argue that
The specific forms of repression and control may have changed over time, but the underlying pattern established during slavery has remained the same. Modern-day policing, surveillance, and mass criminalization … have histories rooted in white fear—not merely of Black crime or Black people but of Black liberation.
They insist that the intertwined wars on crime and drugs have been waged in order to suppress black freedom, glossing over the fact that disproportionate levels of black incarceration derive, in part, from higher incidence of crime. It’s clear that poverty and the other forms of deprivation that the Alexanders rightly condemn have contributed to crime rates, but are they the only factor? Again, this neglects the possibility that dysfunctional subcultures that developed in response to historical oppression are part of the problem. This has policy implications, since, if racist structures are solely to blame for racial disparities in the criminal justice system, that system must be dismantled.
Bryan Stevenson’s chapter on punishment covers similar ground:
Recognizing the unbroken links between slavery, Black Codes, lynching, and our current era of mass incarceration is essential … As long as we deny the legacy of slavery … we will fail to overcome the racially biased, punitive systems of control that have become serious barriers to freedom in this country.
Stevenson, a celebrated defence attorney, is almost certainly correct that racial bias infects our criminal justice system. But is racism the primary driver behind mass incarceration? Was the system designed to intentionally repress black Americans, as both Stevenson and the Alexanders assert, or could that be (at least in part) an unintended consequence of higher crime rates among particular demographics? As authors like James Forman, Jr. have documented, black leaders were integrally involved in the tough-on-crime movement of the 1990s.
Ibram X. Kendi’s chapter on progress insists that the “vision of our past as a march of racial progress is ahistorical, mythical, and incomplete.” He argues against a naïve notion of steady and unbroken progress, advancing from abolition to the moral and legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement and culminating in the election of Barack Obama. It’s true, of course, that anyone who holds this pollyannaish view of American history is missing much of the story: progress always provokes a backlash; reactionary forces are often successful in reversing ethical advances. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but its contours are jagged and uneven. Kendi is right to debunk “the myth of singular racial progress,” and his account (like that of Hannah-Jones) has value as a corrective. Elsewhere in the essay, however, he refers to “the myth of racial progress” without a modifier. “Upon this myth,” he argues, “each successive generation of white Americans is let off the hook for the legacy of slavery … and … there is no need for antiracist remedies like reparations.” Kendi deplores the fact that “Black cultures and behaviors were [and are] once again being blamed for racial disparities and inequity, while anti-Black racism was exonerated.” He doesn’t entertain the possibility that cultures and behaviours could be partially responsible for group disparities.
The other chapters propound similar arguments. All include interesting and disturbing accounts of racial oppression in American history, but very few succeed in demonstrating a direct causal connection between those events and contemporary disparities. Some, like the chapter on sugar, don’t even try. Others, like Trymaine Lee’s chapter on inheritance, make a plausible case: the yawning gap between the average wealth of black and white families derives, at least in part, from the fact that blacks were systematically deprived of opportunities to build wealth due to redlining and other racist policies. Even Lee, however, indulges in hyperbole. “Instead of wealth, millions of Black families have passed down something else from one generation to the next: the mental and emotional stress that results from the constant threat of white violence and financial insecurity.” Is “white violence” really a “constant threat”? Most violence is intraracial. Also, financial insecurity is hardly unique to the black community. Blacks are disproportionately likely to struggle economically, but there are more than twice as many poor whites as poor blacks in the US.
Likewise, Linda Villarosa’s chapter on medicine makes the important point that “Black Americans are more likely to work in low-wage jobs and to live in segregated, crowded, polluted neighborhoods that lack adequate healthcare facilities and transportation.” These “social determinants of health” have “an outsized influence on health outcomes.” But it’s hard to see how the history of scientific racism that she recounts is relevant to this problem. Yes, there’s evidence that some medical providers evince bias in their treatment of black patients, but is it true that “the pervasive, long-running racial bias in the US healthcare system” is solely (or even mostly) responsible for health disparities? Villarosa points out “that at every stage of life Black Americans have poorer health outcomes than white Americans,” but individual choices may also be partly to blame (in obesity, for example), as may genetic predispositions and vulnerabilities, together with poverty and the accompanying social determinants she herself identifies.
In her concluding chapter on justice, Hannah-Jones argues in favour of reparations. After explaining how “the federal government turned its back on its financial obligations to four million newly liberated people” following the abolition of slavery, she describes how blacks continued to be locked out of economic opportunities long after emancipation.
Even Black Americans who did not experience theft and violence were continually deprived of the ability to build wealth. They were denied entry into labor unions and turned away from union jobs that ensured middle-class wages. In both the North and the South, racist hiring laws and policies forced them into service jobs even when they held college degrees. Communities legally relegated them into segregated, substandard neighborhoods and segregated, substandard schools that made it impossible for them to compete economically even had they not faced rampant discrimination in the job market.
The effects of this deprivation continue to reverberate. Hannah-Jones cites studies showing that poor white families possess (on average) as much wealth as black families earning an income almost three times higher, in part because blacks are less likely to own their own homes, and because houses in predominantly black neighbourhoods have less value. Like others before her, Hannah-Jones concludes that reparations are the only just response to “four hundred years of racialized plundering” and insists that the policy “must include individual cash payments to descendants of the enslaved in order to close the wealth gap.” Hannah-Jones acknowledges the obstacles to implementing a policy of reparations but suggests that the political barriers are more daunting than the practical ones.
Hannah-Jones badly underestimates these political obstacles. Poor whites, Hispanics and Asians might be understandably incensed by their exclusion from the government’s largesse. Even if poor whites benefit from white privilege (i.e., have more advantages than blacks who are similarly situated), that would provide cold comfort to families who are struggling. Whites often resent individual blacks who are assumed to benefit from affirmative action programmes. Imagine the intensity of the resentment if blacks were given (or repaid) trillions of dollars by the US government. It’s hard to envision a policy that would drive a deeper wedge into our already polarized polity.
Hannah-Jones and those who think like her tend to see social problems as the result of racism and to demand race-based solutions. For example, they argue that blacks are killed in disproportionate numbers by police primarily because of racism (a contested claim). The system, they argue, is irredeemably racist and only a radical solution will do: to dismantle it—a proposal that is deeply unpopular, including among most blacks.
The slogan Black Lives Matter was never meant to exclude non-black victims of police violence: it was merely intended to highlight the presumed indifference of the justice system to black lives. Some important reforms have been made in response to the death of George Floyd, but more could (and should) be done. A race-neutral approach to the issue would have been more successful, however. There’s evidence that white Americans are more likely to support progressive policies if they’re presented in a race-neutral way, even if those policies will disproportionately benefit non-whites. The same is true of affirmative action: providing advantages on the basis of social class rather than race is more popular and politically palatable. As Brian Erb argues,
Modern racial disparities have their roots in the past, but in the proximate, individual sense, black people are poor for the same reasons white people are poor. Black people commit crime and are victims of crime for the same reasons as white people. And these issues can prevent any individual from gaining entry to institutions and careers—outcomes that are downstream of the addressable problems of poverty, education, crime and so on. If we attempt to address those problems without regard to race, we will both disproportionately help black people and endorse a pluralistic vision in which we seek to expand human flourishing, without racializing either the suffering of individuals or, importantly, the human development problems that can lead to suffering and inequality.
Hannah-Jones and her allies believe that much discrimination is driven by unconscious biases and that, consequently, we can only move beyond racial discrimination by intently focusing on race and implementing race-specific strategies, including antiracism training.
I would advocate a different approach.
First, we should celebrate the enormous progress that we have made in becoming a less racist society and expanding opportunities for non-whites. We’re far from achieving a post-racial society, but it doesn’t therefore follow (as Kendi writes) that “the cause of racial inequity is either racist policy or racial hierarchy.” This false dichotomy obscures the importance of other factors and obstructs the kind of solutions that could effectively address them. Moreover, denial of progress can contribute to a kind of paralyzing pessimism.
Second, we should acknowledge the importance of class. By focusing monomaniacally on race, progressives risk alienating potential allies. Does this mean that we should pander to racists? Of course not. But working-class whites can feel resentful when they’re accused of benefiting from white privilege. Even if this privilege is real—and it is, to some degree—solving political problems requires the construction of broad coalitions. Pragmatism should take precedence over ideology.
Third, we should focus on specific, achievable goals. Will racism ever be eliminated? Probably not. The human mind is wired to favour in-groups over out-groups. Will reparations ever be paid to the descendants of slaves? Almost certainly not, even if they are justified. So what can be done? John McWhorter has offered three concrete suggestions: end the war on drugs, ramp up vocational education and change the way reading is taught in schools.
Fourth, we should encourage resilience, not fragility, as Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff recommend in The Coddling of the American Mind (reviewed in detail here by Iona Italia for this magazine). Actual incidences of racism must not be ignored, but its prevalence should not be exaggerated. As Glenn Loury writes, the
infantilization of black people on the supposition that the slightest ‘off’ word, the smallest gesture, might somehow threaten their very sense of wellbeing, is at the root of a lot of current emphasis on white privilege. But why should white people get to be the ones who are presumed resilient and impervious while black people are presumed fragile and vulnerable? (Emphasis in original)
Finally, we should aspire to get beyond our fixation with race. The US is not a colourblind society and perhaps never will be; race continues to matter socially even though it’s a fiction in biological terms. Many people reject colourblindness as an ideal because they’re concerned that aspiration will be conflated with its achievement. But is it wise to enact practices (like diversity trainings) that make racial identity more salient and may encourage some whites to see themselves as an aggrieved identity group? The 1619 Project is, at its root, deeply pessimistic. It depicts racism as an essential and probably ineradicable component of the American character and advocates solutions (like reparations) that are deeply divisive and hopelessly impractical. Instead, we need to work to move toward a society in which cultural and biological diversity is celebrated but one’s race matters as little as one’s hair colour.