Movement

1619 Project

The 1619 Project is an artistic and journalistic project of the New York Times Magazine that asserts the central event in the founding of the United States was the first importation of enslaved Africans to Virginia in 1619  and not the Declaration of Independence in 1776 or the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. The project further asserts that U.S. history and modern America are best understood as completely dependent upon the institution of slavery. [1] Project director and creator Nikole Hannah-Jones has told interviewers that her “ultimate goal” for the 1619 Project is passage of slavery reparations legislation that would provide monetary payments to African Americans. [2] New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet has said the project was approved as part of the newspaper’s effort to “hold the [Trump] administration to account” and “try to understand the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump.” [3]

The factual accuracy of the 1619 Project and its use as a teaching tool in many large urban school districts has been sharply criticized by many prominent academics, [4] including Pulitzer Prize-winning and Pulitzer-nominated historians such as Gordon S. Wood, [5] James M. McPherson, [6] and Sean Wilentz. [7] Among some of many concerns, historians have criticized the 1619 Project for including a “ludicrous” assertion that slavery was the motivation for the American Revolution; [8] a “ridiculous” characterization of Abraham Lincoln as a racist; [9] and for using a ‘1619’ date that falsely places the start of race-based slavery in America many decades too early. [10] Five prominent historians (including Wood, McPherson and Wilentz) issued a letter to the New York Times, stating they were “dismayed at some factual errors in the project” and requesting corrections, but the newspaper declined to make any changes. [11]

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is the New York Times’ educational partner in the 1619 Project. The Pulitzer Center (which is not affiliated with the journalism and historical prizes using the same name) has said it delivered “tens of thousands of copies of the magazine” to K-12 schools, community colleges and historically black colleges and universities, and that Pulitzer lesson plans were adopted district-wide in five large school districts: “Buffalo, New York; Chicago; Washington, DC; Wilmington, Delaware; and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.” [12] At least $11.5 million (60 percent) of the $18.5 million received by Pulitzer during donor years 2007 through 2018 came from grantmaking foundations with a history of supporting left-leaning causes and organizations, including $1.8 million from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. [13] Project director Nikole Hannah-Jones and other 1619 collaborators have been recipients of MacArthur Fellowships—also known as MacArthur “genius” awards—$625,000 cash prizes given out by the MacArthur Foundation to what a Chicago Magazine profile described as often left-leaning recipients. [14]

Background

The 1619 Project is an artistic and journalistic project of the New York Times Magazine that was released in August 2019. It contains 18 essays and more than a dozen other artistic and multi-media contributions, such as poetry, photo essays, and fiction. With a title referencing the enslaved Africans were first brought to what would become the United States, it asserts the true founding date of the nation was 1619, rather than 1776, and that U.S. history and modern America are best understood as inexorably dependent upon the institution of slavery. [15]

According to a summary from Real Clear Investigations:  [16]

… the 1619 Project declares that much of American history unfolded from that fateful event in 1619: chattel slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, redlining, incarceration and urban poverty, as well as legacies not as widely understood, such as obesity. Its essays, written by a team of mostly African-American journalists and historians, argue that modern accounting methods, urban traffic patterns, resistance to adopting universal health care,  overconsumption of sugar – and American capitalism itself – are some of the insidious ways that the legacy of slavery shapes our society today. [17]

New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones conceived of and directed the project for the New York Times Magazine. [18] She also wrote its lead essay, titled “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” [19]

She has told interviewers that her “ultimate goal” for the project is passage of reparations legislation that would provide monetary payments to African Americans, higher social spending and stepped up prosecution of civil rights cases. She believes that a person “cannot read” the 1619 essays “and not come away understanding that a great debt is owed and it’s time for this country to pay,” and that it is unmistakably “an argument for reparations.” Challenged in one interview regarding whether reparations legislation is a realistic policy goal, she replied it felt “more realistic than, like, can we get white Americans to stop being white?” [20]

Addressing the New York Times’ reasons for embarking on the 1619 Project, executive editor Dean Baquet told a townhall audience in August 2019 that it was part of the newspaper’s effort to “hold the [Trump] administration to account” and “try to understand the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump.”  [21]

Expanding on that further, according to Slate, he told the audience: [22]

I mean, one reason we all signed off on the 1619 Project and made it so ambitious and expansive was to teach our readers to think a little bit more like that. Race in the next year—and I think this is, to be frank, what I would hope you come away from this discussion with—race in the next year is going to be a huge part of the American story. And I mean, race in terms of not only African Americans and their relationship with Donald Trump, but Latinos and immigration. [23]

Hannah-Jones has said she is “not writing to convert Trump supporters,” but instead to play on “guilt” and “get liberal white people to do what they say they believe in.” [24]

Use as Student Curriculum

After release of the 1619 Project, the New York Times and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting (a.k.a.: the “Pulitzer Center”) embarked on an initiative to promote the Project as a significant part of high school history curriculums. The Pulitzer Center’s 2019 annual report boasts of sending “tens of thousands of copies of the magazine” to K-12 schools, community colleges and historically black colleges and universities. The “curricular resources” designed for the 1619 Project, “which include reading guides, lesson plans, and extension activities” were adopted district-wide in five large school districts: “Buffalo, New York; Chicago; Washington, DC; Wilmington, Delaware; and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.” [25]

At many points the Pulitzer study materials reinforce the perception that the 1619 Project provides a factually comprehensive and unassailable historical perspective, rather than controversial, debatable and rebuttable ideological points:

  • A lesson plan for the Hannah-Jones essay asks students to identify “examples of hypocrisy in the founding of the U.S.” and to find evidence that “this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.” [26]
  • The modern U.S. industrial economy was severely criticized in one 1619 essay. Author Matthew Desmond asserted that American capitalism is “uniquely severe and unbridled” and a “low-road approach” that owes its form and function to slavery—what he calls “the gnatty fields of Georgia and Alabama,” and “the cotton houses and slave auction blocks.” The lesson plan provided for this rebuke asks students to identify “current financial systems” that “reflect practices developed to support industries built on the work of enslaved people.” [27]
  • Another 1619 author indicts the modern U.S. healthcare system as a legacy of slavery. “One hundred and fifty years after the freed people of the South first petitioned the government for basic medical care,” the writer asserts, “the United States remains the only high-income country in the world where such care is not guaranteed to every citizen.” The study guide also informs high school students that “Federal health care policy” (virtually all of which was created during and after the mid-1960s Civil Rights Era) “was designed, both implicitly and explicitly, to exclude black Americans.” [28]

The Pulitzer Center (which is not affiliated with the famous journalism prize using the same name) also organized a multi-city speaking tour of educational facilities featuring Hannah-Jones. She spoke at high schools, universities, and historically black colleges in cities such as Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. [29]

Academic Criticisms

Several 1619 Project essays, most notably the lead essay from project director Hannah-Jones, expressed highly controversial conclusions and have been criticized by numerous well-credentialed professional historians and other academics. [30]

Status of Slavery in 1619

Criticisms of the project from academics extend even to the assertion implied by the name of the project itself and stated in its preamble—that 1619 was the year in which African slavery began in what would become the United States. Nell Irvin Painter, a professor emerita of American history at Princeton University and the author of multiple books regarding U.S. race and civil rights history, contested the claim in an essay for The Guardian, a left-leaning newspaper based in the United Kingdom.  [31] Painter wrote that it wasn’t until the end of the 17th century that Africans in North America had been clearly “marked off by race in law as chattel to be bought, sold, traded, inherited and serve as collateral for business and debt services” and that this “was not already the case in 1619.” [32]

As to the status of Africans brought to colonial America in 1619, Painter wrote:

People were not enslaved in Virginia in 1619, they were indentured. The 20 or so Africans were sold and bought as “servants” for a term of years, and they joined a population consisting largely of European indentured servants, mainly poor people from the British Isles whom the Virginia Company of London had transported and sold into servitude. [33]

Explaining the gradual evolution of slavery, she wrote that a “process of turning ‘servants’ from Africa into racialized workers enslaved for life occurred in the 1660s to 1680s through a succession of Virginia laws,” and that even as late as 1700 “Africans were hardly the only unfree colonists, for a majority of those laboring in Virginia were people bound to service.” [34]

Cause of the Revolution

One highly controversial premise of the lead essay written by Nikole Hannah-Jones is that the American Revolution was triggered because of a desire by the colonists to preserve the slave trade. The five prominent historians whose objections to the 1619 Project were published by the New York Times strongly rejected to this assertion, stating that it was “not true” and that “every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.” The historians also pointed out that asserting the nation was founded on slavery was a statement “rejected by a majority of abolitionists” and yet “proclaimed by champions of slavery like [former Vice President and U.S. Senator from South Carolina] John C. Calhoun.” [35]  [36]

In her 1619 Project essay, Hannah-Jones wrote:

Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South. [37]

In an interview about the 1619 Project, historian Gordon Wood of Brown University stated this view was inaccurate: [38]

There is no evidence in 1776 of a rising movement to abolish the Atlantic slave trade, as the 1619 Project erroneously asserts, nor is there any evidence the British government was eager to do so. But even if either were the case, ending the Atlantic slave trade would have been welcomed by the Virginia planters, who already had more slaves than they needed. Indeed, the Virginians in the years following independence took the lead in moving to abolish the despicable international slave trade. [39]

Furthermore, Wood wrote that the “first anti-slave movements in the history of the world, supported by whites as well as blacks, took place in the northern states in the years immediately following 1776.” [40]

Similarly, historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton University told an interviewer that the “English government showed absolutely no interest in getting rid of slavery at all, as of 1776,” and that “the idea that American slaveholders were shaking in their boots because of an abolitionist or anti-slavery British government is ludicrous.” [41]

To the contrary, Wilentz said the “Americans were the ones who were trying to close the slave trade,” seeking to do so “throughout the 1760s and 1770s repeatedly,” and that for the British to do so would have been “economic suicide.” [42]

In a November 2019 speech referencing the 1619 Project, Wilentz made his point with a striking comparison: “It is worth noting that Jefferson Davis and the rebellious slaveholders also depicted secession as a glorious replay of the American Revolution, although they did not go so far as to claim that the patriots of 1776 fought to protect slavery.” Instead, he said it “had been American colonists who attempted to end involvement in the Atlantic slave trade only to be overruled by the Crown and its colonial officials.”  [43]

President Lincoln and Racism

In her 1619 Project lead essay, Hannah-Jones asserted that President Abraham Lincoln was opposed to equality for African Americans, and that he considered them an “obstacle to national unity” whose presence was “incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people.” [44]

This portrayal of Lincoln was “misleading,” according to the historians whose objections to the 1619 Project were published by the New York Times: [45]

The project criticizes Abraham Lincoln’s views on racial equality but ignores his conviction that the Declaration of Independence proclaimed universal equality, for blacks as well as whites, a view he upheld repeatedly against powerful white supremacists who opposed him. The project also ignores Lincoln’s agreement with Frederick Douglass that the Constitution was, in Douglass’s words, “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” [46]

Expanding on these points further in his own essay for The Atlantic, historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton University charged Hannah-Jones with deploying “partial truths” and “misstatements of the facts” to create a “fundamentally misleading impression” of Lincoln. “To state flatly, as Hannah-Jones’s essay does, that Lincoln “opposed black equality” is to deny the very basis of his opposition to slavery,” wrote Wilentz. [47]

To summarize Lincoln’s opinions regarding the fundamental equality of African Americans with white Americans, Wilentz directed readers to Lincoln’s political disputes with Stephen Douglas, in which he once said “in the right to eat the bread without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, [the Negro] is my equal, and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every other man.” [48]

Wilentz also disputed the assertion that Lincoln believed the United States was a democracy for whites only: [49]

On the contrary, in [Lincoln’s] stern opposition to the Supreme Court’s racist Dred Scott v. Sandford decision in 1857, he made a point of noting that, at the time the Constitution was ratified, five of the 13 states gave free black men the right to vote, a fact that helped explode Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s contention that black people had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

… Lincoln fully recognized the political inclusion of free black people in several states at the nation’s founding, and he lamented how most of those states had either abridged or rescinded black voting rights in the intervening decades. Far from agreeing with Taney and others that American democracy was intended to be for white people only, Lincoln rejected the claim, citing simple and unimpeachable facts. [50]

Similarly, historian James M. McPherson of Princeton University told an interviewer that Lincoln “didn’t view blacks as an obstacle to national unity, he viewed slavery as an obstacle to national unity.” [51]

And historian James Oakes of the City University of New York declared it “ridiculous” to call Lincoln a racist. In a November 2019 interview about the 1619 Project, Oakes said “most of what Abraham Lincoln had to say about African Americans was anti-racist.” [52]

Collective Guilt of White Americans

The 1619 Project has also been criticized for its deliberate exclusion of the contribution made by white Americans in securing legal equality for African Americans, and for applying a collective guilt on modern white Americans for historical injustices committed before they were born.

“For the most part, black Americans fought back alone,” wrote Nikole Hannah-Jones in the project’s introductory essay. “Yet we never fought only for ourselves.” Speaking of the era after the Civil War she wrote that “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country, as does the belief, so well articulated by Lincoln, that black people are the obstacle to national unity.” [53]

According to a report from Real Clear Investigations, she expanded on this perspective during a speech at Harvard University in December 2019, and said the 1619 Project deliberately excluded the contribution white abolitionists made toward ending slavery: [54]

“I don’t see giving you credit for fighting to end an institution that you created. That’s just the way that I think about it,” she said. “We have had plenty of stories in 400 years about white heroism. We have given outsize attention to what I would call good white people.”

And she said including those details would have blunted the moral force of her narrative: “I think it was important not to give white people that escape when they were reading this.”

“This is a bottom-up history about people who never get any credit,” she said. “Very intentionally we were creating a counter-narrative.” [55]

According to the Real Clear Investigations report, Hannah-Jones has also “extemporized upon the concept of collective guilt [of white Americans] being predicated on the continued enjoyment of present-day economic and social advantages.” To this point, the report quotes her remarks at a Xavier University event: [56]

“I’m not expecting that white people should feel guilty about slavery if you didn’t enslave anybody yourself,” she explained. “But I am saying that you can’t pretend that you’re free of that legacy. And you can’t pretend that you’re not benefiting today from that legacy.”

“Your work is not to apologize for slavery, though the federal government should,” she continued. “But your work is to look that life that you lead now is a direct connection. You inherit the good, but you also inherit the bad. You inherit the debt that is owed.” [57]

Similarly, in another interview she elaborated on the collective racial guilt of white America: “So I don’t know that this project can get white people to give up whiteness, but it can certainly expose for them what whiteness is.” [58]

Slavery as the Basis for American Capitalism

The second major essay featured by the 1619 Project portrays an alleged and very negative direct linkage between slavery and modern American capitalism. Titled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation,” the essay from Princeton University sociologist Matthew Desmond has also been criticized by prominent historians. [59]

Desmond, a proponent of imposing left-leaning economic policies such as a mandatory living wage law, used his 1619 contribution to depict modern American capitalism as a uniquely awful institution that owes its alleged modern faults to the management and economic practices created when slavery was legal: [60]

During slavery, “Americans built a culture of speculation unique in its abandon,” writes the historian Joshua Rothman in his 2012 book, “Flush Times and Fever Dreams.” That culture would drive cotton production up to the Civil War, and it has been a defining characteristic of American capitalism ever since. It is the culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs and abusing the powerless. It is the culture that brought us the Panic of 1837, the stock-market crash of 1929 and the recession of 2008. It is the culture that has produced staggering inequality and undignified working conditions. If today America promotes a particular kind of low-road capitalism — a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs and normalized insecurity; a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities not only permitting but awarding financial rule-bending; a racist capitalism that ignores the fact that slavery didn’t just deny black freedom but built white fortunes, originating the black-white wealth gap that annually grows wider — one reason is that American capitalism was founded on the lowest road there is.  [61]

In an interview with the anti-capitalist World Socialist Web Site, historian James Oakes of City University of New York extensively challenged Desmond’s linkage between modern American capitalism and slavery. Asked by the Trotskyite website to comment on “Matthew Desmond’s argument that all of the horrors of contemporary American capitalism are rooted in slavery,” Oakes replied that Desmond was repeating a common and old error: [62]

There’s been a kind of standard bourgeois-liberal way of arguing that goes all the way back to the 18th century, that whenever you are talking about some form of oppression, or whenever you yourself are oppressed, you instinctively go to the analogy of slavery. At least since the 18th century in our society, in western liberal societies, slavery has been the gold standard of oppression.

[. . . ] Desmond, following the lead of the scholars he’s citing, basically relies on the same analogy. They’re saying, “look at the ways capitalism is just like slavery, and that’s because capitalism came from slavery.” But there’s no actual critique of capitalism in any of it. They’re saying, “Oh my God! Slavery looks just like capitalism. They had highly developed management techniques just like we do!” Slaveholders were greedy, just like capitalists. Slavery was violent, just like our society is. So there’s a critique of violence and a critique of greed. But greed and violence are everywhere in human history, not just in capitalist societies. So there’s no actual critique of capitalism as such, at least as I read it.  [63]

Oakes also stated that the authors of the 1619 Project ignores the work of a major historians who have researched the development of American capitalism: [64]

One of the things that Desmond does in his piece . . .  is to leap from the inequality of wealth in slavery to enormous claims about capitalism. He will say that the value of all the slaves in the South was equal to the value of all the securities, factories, and railroads, and then he’ll say, “So you see, slavery was the driving force of American capitalism.” But there’s no obvious connection between the two.

[. . . ] This ignores a large and impressive body of scholarship produced a generation ago by historians of the capitalist transformation of the North, all of it pointing to the northern countryside as the seedbed of the industrial revolution. [65]

Similarly, historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton told an interviewer that Desmond’s essay “draws on a historical literature which I think is much less well-settled than I think he [Desmond] might have thought.” [66]

Criticisms

Request for Corrections

Shortly after the 1619 Project was published, five prominent historians submitted a joint letter to the New York Times, saying they were “dismayed at some factual errors in the project.” [67]

The co-signers were:  [68]

  • Victoria Bynum, distinguished emerita professor of history at Texas State University. [69]
  • Gordon S. Wood, emeritus professor of history at Brown University and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Radicalism of the American Revolution. [70]
  • James M. McPherson, emeritus professor of American history at Princeton University and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. [71]
  • Sean Wilentz, professor of American history at Princeton University and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his book The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. [72]
  • James Oakes, distinguished history professor at the City University of New York. [73]

After explaining some of their concerns with the project’s factual accuracy, the historians concluded their letter with a request: [74]

We ask that The Times, according to its own high standards of accuracy and truth, issue prominent corrections of all the errors and distortions presented in The 1619 Project. We also ask for the removal of these mistakes from any materials destined for use in schools, as well as in all further publications, including books bearing the name of The New York Times. We ask finally that The Times reveal fully the process through which the historical materials were and continue to be assembled, checked and authenticated. [75]

Jake Silverstein, editor-in-chief of the New York Times Magazine, responded with a critique of the concerns raised by the five historians and elected not to grant their request: [76]

Though we respect the work of the signatories, appreciate that they are motivated by scholarly concern and applaud the efforts they have made in their own writings to illuminate the nation’s past, we disagree with their claim that our project contains significant factual errors and is driven by ideology rather than historical understanding. While we welcome criticism, we don’t believe that the request for corrections to The 1619 Project is warranted. [77]

In his April 1, 2015 announcement of the New York Times Magazine hiring of Hannah-Jones, Silverstein credited her with having a “flawless bullshit detector.” [78]

Another group of twelve professors of history and political science with specialized expertise in the Civil War submitted a separate letter to the New York Times, citing concerns specific to their field. The academics hailed from numerous large and prominent institutions, including the University of Notre Dame, Yale University, Michigan State University, the University of Alabama, Princeton University, and Washington & Lee University. [79]

The New York Times elected not to publish their letter, which concluded with the following:  [80]

We do not believe that the authors of The 1619 Project have considered these larger contexts with sufficient seriousness, or invited a candid review of its assertions by the larger community of historians. We are also troubled that these materials are now to become the basis of school curriculums, with the imprimatur of the New York Times. The remedy for past historical oversights is not their replacement by modern oversights. We therefore respectfully ask the New York Times to withhold any steps to publish and distribute The 1619 Project until these concerns can be addressed in a thorough and open fashion. [81]

The History News Network, a project of George Washington University, provided a forum for publishing the letter from the 12 Civil War historians, along with the previously unpublished reply to them from Silverstein of the New York Times. [82]

“I asked our research desk, which reviews all requests for corrections, to read this letter and examine the questions it raises,” wrote Silverstein. “They did so, and concluded that no corrections are warranted. Your letter raises many interesting points, which is no surprise considering the distinguished group of signatories, but they are not points that prompt correction.” [83]

Similarly, and apparently speaking for the newspaper, 1619 Project director and lead author Nikole Hannah-Jones said: “We don’t agree that the areas that they are disputing need to be corrected.” She also noted: “Historians disagree all the time, but to go to this depth of demanding a correction, is taking this disagreement of interpretations to a realm outside of what I would consider normative historiography.” [84]

The Pulitzer Center (no relation to the Pulitzer Prize organization referenced above) responded to the criticisms from the historians by defending the 1619 Project and declining to make changes: “We have not seen compelling evidence that the 1619 Project is factually inaccurate — what we have seen are disagreements with the 1619 Project’s conclusions regarding what the legacy of slavery means to American democracy and our national identity.” [85]

An associate superintendent for the Buffalo Public Schools, one of the districts that has adopted the 1619 Project as the district-approved curriculum, declared the criticism from the five prominent historians to be “just another form of oppression.” When asked if she would allow a teacher within the district to teach the historians’ criticisms alongside the 1619 Project, she replied that the teacher would need to “have a conversation with their director of instruction to see how that instruction aligns and fits in with the larger state of the curriculum.” [86]

Other Substantive Criticisms

James Oakes of City University of New York told an interviewer that the belief that “racism is built into the DNA of America” and an “original sin” is both erroneous and dangerous: [87]

These are really dangerous tropes. They’re not only ahistorical, they’re actually anti-historical. The function of those tropes is to deny change over time. It goes back to those analogies. They say, “look at how terribly black people were treated under slavery. And look at the incarceration rate for black people today. It’s the same thing.” Nothing changes. There has been no industrialization. There has been no Great Migration. We’re all in the same boat we were back then. And that’s what original sin is. It’s passed down. Every single generation is born with the same original sin. And the worst thing about it is that it leads to political paralysis. It’s always been here. There’s nothing we can do to get out of it. If it’s the DNA, there’s nothing you can do. What do you do? Alter your DNA? [88]

Similarly, historian James M. McPherson of Princeton said: “The implication is that if racism is baked into our DNA it’s an irrevocable part of the American historical experience, and I think that’s a rather gross exaggeration.” [89]

Likewise, historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton University noted: “There have always been white liberals and white radicals standing up against white supremacy.” [90]

Oakes also noted the historical contribution of African slave traders toward perpetuating slavery in the Americas: [91]

And they [the 1619 Project authors] erase Africa from the African slave trade. They claim that Africans were stolen and kidnapped from Africa. Well, they were purchased by these kidnappers in Africa. Everybody’s hands were dirty. And this is another aspect of the tendency to reify race because you’re attempting to isolate a racial group that was also complicit. This is conspicuous only because the obsession with complicity is so overwhelming in the political culture right now, but also as reflected in the 1619 Project. [92]

Historian Gordon Wood of Brown University also reprimanded the 1619 Project for failing to provide a full context for slavery and the contribution of Americans of all races toward its eradication: [93]

I think the important point to make about slavery is that it had existed for thousands of years without substantial criticism, and it existed all over the New World. It also existed elsewhere in the world. Western Europe had already more or less done away with slavery. Perhaps there was nothing elsewhere comparable to the plantation slavery that existed in the New World, but slavery was widely prevalent in Africa and Asia. There is still slavery today in the world.

And it existed in all of these places without substantial criticism. Then suddenly in the middle of the 18th century you begin to get some isolated Quakers coming out against it. But it’s the American Revolution that makes it a problem for the world. And the first real anti-slave movement takes place in North America. So this is what’s missed by these essays in the 1619 Project. [94]

Divisiveness

In a January 17, 2020, opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Robert L. Woodson, Sr., charged the 1619 Project with damaging the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. A pioneer in the low-income neighborhood empowerment movement and a civil rights activist, Woodson and the Journal timed the essay to coincide with the national holiday commemorating the birthday of King that took place the following Monday. [95]

Addressing specifically the 1619 Project theme that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country,” Woodson wrote that this thinking represents an “an abomination of everything Dr. King stood for.” [96]

Quoting extensively from King’s 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Woodson wrote that the race-based groupthink encouraged by the 1619 Project was precisely what King warned against: [97]

Dr. King, who sought full participation in America, would never have indulged today’s grievance-based identity politics, whose social-justice warriors use race as a battering ram against the country. In fact, in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” Dr. King explicitly warned against the type of groupthink that characterizes identity politics: “Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.” [98]

“1776 Unites” Response

In February 2020 community activist, civil rights activist, and 1619 Project critic Robert L. Woodson, Sr. joined with a group of mostly African American journalists, academics and activists to form 1776 Unites, an educational project to provide a counter-narrative to the 1619 Project. [99]  [100]

“We are launching “1776” to counter the false history that the 1619 Project espouses and has disseminated as a school curriculum,” wrote Woodson in his 1776 Unites introductory essay. “We aim to highlight the victories that are possible in spite of oppression and to open the door to discussion of solutions to the moral disarray that afflicts not only minority, low-income neighborhoods but also takes its toll among the sons and daughters of the affluent.” [101]

Some examples of 1776 Unites contributors included:

  • Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated political columnist and journalist Clarence Page. [102]
  • Author and documentary filmmaker Shelby Steele, a recipient of both the National Humanities Medal and an Emmy Award. [103]
  • John M. McWhorter, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and the author of 20 books. [104]
  • Carol M. Swain, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and former professor of political science and law at both Princeton University and Vanderbilt University. [105]

“1620 Project” Response

In September 2019 the National Association of Scholars launched the ‘1620 Project.’ [106] The NAS solicited historians and other scholars to provide a response what the NAS characterized as 1619’s “one-sided, oversimplified view of American history.”[107]

“Through this campaign,” said a January 2020 NAS statement, “we aim to counter the claims of The 1619 Project and provide a broader picture of American history, one that is informed by a thorough and unbiased assessment of historical data.” [108]

Some of the scholars providing interviews, audio or written material for the project include:

  • H.W. Brands, historian and author at the University of Texas at Austin. [109]
  • Glenn Loury, professor of economics at Brown University. [110]
  • John McWhorter, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. [111]
  • Dr. Allen Guelzo, senior research scholar in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University. [112]
  • William B. Allen, emeritus dean and professor at Michigan State University and a senior visiting scholar at the University of Colorado. [113]
  • Lucas Morel, professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University. [114]

Criticisms from the Radical Left

The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), a left-wing outreach of the Socialist Equality Party, was a source of early public and pointed criticism of the 1619 Project. The Trotskyite-influenced group conducted and posted interviews with each of the five historians who signed the letter of objections later printed by the New York Times. In most cases, the WSWS interviews with the prominent historians were posted in the days and weeks prior to the New York Times’ response to the letter from the five academics. [115]

On September 6, 2019, shortly after the 1619 Project was posted, World Socialist Web Site authors Niles Niemuth, Tom Mackaman, and David North published the socialist organization’s initial criticisms. Their concerns prefigured many of the factual objections later voiced by the five academics, but also focused on what the Trotskyite organization believed was a partisan and ideological attempt by the New York Times to divide Americans by racial disputes so as to keep them from uniting based on class differences. [116]

Their analysis appears to have been part of an ongoing historical dispute between radical-left partisans over whether racial oppression or economic class should be the defining feature of the radical left’s opposition to capitalism. Those favoring a class-based focus, such as the WSWS authors, believe that attempts to divide Americans by race is a major threat to unifying all workers—regardless of race—to defeat capitalism together. [117]

Interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, a spokesman for the WSWS host organization summarized this concern:  [118]

Joseph Kishore, the Socialist Equality Party’s national secretary, says the “1619 Project” is aimed at legitimizing the politics of the Democratic Party and at “dividing workers” by race. “The interests of a black worker on the line in an auto plant and a white worker,” he says, “are fundamentally the same, and a million miles from the interests of an Oprah Winfrey or a Hillary Clinton.” He rejects the “pseudo-left politics” of identity, which “fight out conflicts within the top 10% or so over access to positions of power and privilege” through diversity programs, then “denounce white workers for being supposedly privileged even as they suffer from a decline in life expectancy and horrific social conditions.”  [119]

Likewise, in their September essay, Niemuth, Mackaman, and North wrote the following of their reasons for opposing the 1619 Project: [120]

Above all the working class must reject any such effort to divide it, efforts which will become ever more ferocious and pernicious as the class struggle develops. The great issue of this epoch is the fight for the international unity of the working class against all forms of racism, nationalism and related forms of identity politics. [121]

The three Trotskyite authors wrote that it was “no coincidence” that the “racial narrative of American history” was produced by the New York Times, which they accused of being the “mouthpiece of the Democratic Party and the privileged upper-middle-class layers it represents.” They further asserted that the 1619 Project was a “politically motivated falsification of history” creating a “historical narrative that legitimizes the effort of the Democratic Party to construct an electoral coalition based on the prioritizing of personal “identities”—i.e., gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, and, above all, race.” [122]

From their perspective, the entire working class—regardless of race—suffers “wage slavery” under the capitalist system. The alleged failure of the 1619 authors to address this point is presented by the Trotskyites as a fatal omission: [123]

In short, there is no class struggle and, therefore, there is no real history of the African-American population and the events which shaped a population of freed slaves into a critical section of the working class. Replacing real history with a mythic racial narrative, the 1619 Project ignores the actual social development of the African-American population over the last 150 years. [124]

Among many examples provided to support this criticism, the WSWS September essay raises this oversight: [125]

In the numerous articles which make up the 1619 Project, the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. appears just once, and then only in a photo caption. The reason for this is that King’s political outlook was opposed to the racialist narrative advanced by the Times. King did not condemn the American Revolution and the Civil War. He did not believe that racism was a permanent characteristic of “whiteness.” He called for the integration of blacks and whites and set as his goal the ultimate dissolution of race itself. Targeted and harassed as a “communist” by the FBI, King was murdered after launching the interracial Poor People’s Campaign and announcing his opposition to the Vietnam War. [126]

In December 2019 the Wall Street Journal reported Hannah-Jones’ response to the WSWS criticisms: [127]

To the Trotskyists, Ms. Hannah-Jones writes: “You all have truly revealed yourselves for the anti-black folks you really are.” She calls them “white men claiming to be socialists.” [128]

Funding Influences

A least two foundations with a history of support to (or from) left-of-center causes appear to have been influential in the production of the 1619 Project: the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting (i.e.: “The Pulitzer Center”) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Pulitzer Center

The Pulitzer Center (which is not related to the organization that awards annual prizes for works of journalism and history) is the 1619 Project partner of the New York Times and responsible for the dissemination of 1619 lesson plans to public school districts. [129]

Entries in the donation recordkeeping service FoundationSearch reveal that at least $11.5 million (60 percent) of the $18.5 million received by Pulitzer during donor years 2007 through 2018 came from foundations with a history of supporting left-leaning causes and organizations. Major examples include the Kendeda Fund ($4.8 million), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ($2.4 million), the MacArthur Foundation ($1.8 million), the Omidyar Network Fund ($540,000), and the Wallace Global Fund II ($115,000). [130]

Of the $1.8 million given to the Center by the MacArthur Foundation, $650,000 was granted for purposes that may align with initiatives such as the 1619 Project. According to FoundationSearch records, a 2014 grant was for support of “general operations (over two years), media, culture and special initiatives, journalism and media, reporting.” Likewise, two grants totaling $500,000 in 2015 and 2016 were for “support of a new fund for multi-media journalism collaborations between the Pulitzer center and major news organizations with large audiences.”  [131]

MacArthur Fellows

1619 Project leader and creator Nikole Hannah-Jones was a 2017 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, colloquially known as a MacArthur “Genius” grant. The fellowships are $625,000 cash grants often awarded to left-leaning activists in various fields. A 2015 profile of the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago Magazine stated its funding interests “have tended to be fairly liberal” and in particular that there “could hardly be a more liberal grant, for example, than the MacArthur Fellowship.” [132]

The MacArthur awards appear to have played an influential role in the 1619 Project. In an explanation of how 1619 came into being the New York Times noted the MacArthur Fellowship won by Hannah-Jones, and also that early in the planning of the project Hannah-Jones enlisted the help of “Kellie Jones, a Columbia University art historian and 2016 MacArthur Fellow.” Matthew Desmond, the author of the 1619 essay liking the alleged brutality of American capitalism to slavery, was a 2015 MacArthur Fellow. And Bryan Stevenson, author of a 1619 essay about the alleged connection between slavery and the modern criminal justice system, was a 1995 MacArthur Fellow. [133]

Robert L. Woodson, Sr., the organizer of 1776 Unites—an effort to rebut and counteract the work of the 1619 Project—was also a 1990 MacArthur Fellow. [134]  [135]

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