Over the weekend, The New York Times launched “The 1619 Project,” an attempt to reframe American history around the idea that the United States was truly founded in 1619 when the first black slaves came to America, rather than in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was signed. The project reframes many aspects of American life as rooted in slavery and oppression, including capitalism, the consumption of sugar, and the U.S.’s rejection of 100 percent government-funded health care.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), the candidate of radical identity politics in the 2020 Democratic primary race, praised the project as “a masterpiece.”
“We must speak this truth: the very foundation of our country was built on the backs of enslaved people. The [1619 Project]—in print today in the Sunday [New York Times]—is a masterpiece from [Nikole Hannah-Jones] and her colleagues at [New York Times Magazine],” Harris wrote.
We must speak this truth: the very foundation of our country was built on the backs of enslaved people.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) August 18, 2019
According to The New York Times, The 1619 Project “aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”
Essays in “The 1619 Project” include:
Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.
If you want to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.
America holds onto an undemocratic assumption from its founding: that some people deserve more power than others.
Why doesn’t the United States have universal health care? The answer begins with policies enacted after the Civil War.
The sugar that saturates the American diet has a barbaric history as the ‘white gold’ that fueled slavery.
These essays are part of the first installment, but “The 1619 Project” will handle various issues going forward, from news of the day to lifestyle and other arenas.
There is a kernel of truth to The New York Times project. The system of American slavery was heinous and evil, and after Reconstruction, white communities across the South — and even a few outside it — terrorized black people through lynchings, as rightly commemorated in The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. Many of the Confederate monuments across the country were erected at the height of the Ku Klux Klan’s power in the 1920s.
The myth of the Lost Cause wrongly claims that the Civil War was not about slavery — which is ludicrous considering the decades leading up to the Civil War in which the South consistently pushed for the expansion of slavery into American territories. The Confederacy was supporting this evil, and should not be defended (although Confederate flags often signify Southern pride more than any historical claims).
Black people — slaves, freedmen, liberators like Harriet Tubman, orators like Frederick Douglass, soldiers like the Tuskeegee Airmen, historians like W.E.B. DuBois, Civil Rights heroes like lawyer Fred Gray and Martin Luther King, Jr., jurists like Clarence Thomas, entrepreneurs like America’s first black billionaire Robert Johnson — have built this country in many important ways, and their contributions need to be recognized and widely known. Perhaps rather than tearing down Confederate monuments, cities and states should erect monuments to the blacks oppressed under slavery, killed in lynchings, and those who contributed to American freedom.
“The 1619 Project” is right to emphasize these stories, and Americans need to hear them more than we do. However, the project also attacks America’s heritage — the very heritage so many of these black founders worked to build, protect, and expand to more people.
“The brutality of American capitalism,” for example, has less to do with the Southern plantations and more to do with the rapidly industrializing North and West at the time of the Civil War. Yes, plantations ran for profits and were part of the market economy, but capitalism values labor as a commodity that employers should pay for.
Capitalism has been brutal, but it also brought forth a kind of prosperity unheard of in the history of the world. Think for one moment what life would be like without air conditioning, indoor plumbing, refrigerators and microwaves, widely available food transported from across the world, and much more.
The rush to connect capitalism, which has provided so much good Americans take for granted, with race-based slavery is disgusting and dangerous. The suggestion that the Civil War somehow prevented universal health care is similarly insidious. Americans like their private insurance — even Democrats are divided on the Bernie Sanders Medicare for All plan.
“The 1619 Project” seems an effort to tarnish the benefits of capitalism and American life by connecting them to slavery. While its efforts to draw attention to understudied black Americans are noble, its attacks on America’s heritage are tragically divisive.
It seems The New York Times — and Kamala Harris — is rejecting the common-humanity identity politics of Martin Luther King, Jr. — calling for the good promise of America to be extended to all people — for a noxious zero-sum identity politics of enmity.
The narrative about America that Abraham Lincoln set forth in his Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address — a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” but marred by the horrific evil of slavery, for which God judged America with a bloody Civil War — is far more sound than the attempt to frame America as founded by slavery.
For one thing, “The 1619 Project” emphasizes one slave ship that appeared at one point in time, rather than the document separating America from Great Britain. Slavery was not a universal practice in the Thirteen Colonies, and the Northwest Ordinance — the first piece of legislation passed under the Articles of Confederation and then the new Constitution in 1789 — forbade the expansion of slavery into the territories. America has a mixed record on slavery from the beginning, when the founders agonized about the institution.
“The 1619 Project” represents a historically revisionist attempt to reject the good of America’s founding and reframe it as inherently unjust and wicked. While the American project was tragically flawed before the abolition of slavery, this is an overreaction to that flaw — throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Rather than demonizing America, The New York Times should praise the black Americans who helped to make this country great, while also lamenting the evils done to so many black Americans. Attacking capitalism itself is a tremendous insult to the many black entrepreneurs who contributed so much to America’s history. Let’s honor them — and the promise of the Declaration of Independence — rather than endlessly beating ourselves up.
By praising this project, Kamala Harris is only further dividing America. Americans want to take pride in their country, and there are things to be proud of — along with things to be ashamed of. Rejecting one or the other is bad history, and divisive politics.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.