The Right-Wing Assault on The 1619 Project

If you want to know whether a particular book, film, or other work has any merit, you often can get a most reliable indication by seeing who is speaking out against it. When it comes to The 1619 Project, a Pulitzer-winning history of racial inequity in America initiated by New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and compiled with contributions from a number of history experts (including distinguished Princeton history professor Kevin Kruse) , the signs are quite positive, because the reactions have been extremely negative from all the worst people (many of whom apparently have never read it).

Ted Cruz. Tom Cotton. Newt Gingrich. Mitch McConnell. Ron DeSantis. Dennis Prager. All have denounced it as un-American revisionist propaganda that somehow incites hate and division by documenting the hate and division that have always been there. Such vociferous proponents of “free speech” have pushed to have any reference to The 1619 Project banned from schools, along with anything else that has a whiff of Critical Race Theory — which they abhor without having any idea what it really is.

Even Former Guy got into the act, commenting with his usual combination of erudition, perception and eloquence:

I just look at—I look at school. I watch, I read, look at the stuff. Now they want to change—1492, Columbus discovered America. You know, we grew up, you grew up, we all did, that’s what we learned. Now they want to make it the 1619 project. Where did that come from? What does it represent? I don’t even know.

No, he certainly doesn’t. But that didn’t stop him from forming a “1776 Commission” designed to teach kids the REAL Amurrcan history — something along the order of Columbus discovered America, Betsy Ross sewed the flag, and the slaves were happy as horny bunnies on the plantation. Fortunately, President Biden disbanded this “commission” as soon as he took office.

With this kind of reaction from the reactionaries, The 1619 Project must have done something right. And it did indeed. Despite its flaws, it’s an eye-opening, numbing dissertation to any but the most highly informed. If you think you already knew how brutal, how bleak, how systematically inhuman the institution of slavery was, and the unbroken tradition of racial oppression has been, you’re in for a shock when you read this book.

There are plenty of sobering anecdotes to bring it all into perspective on the most personal level. There is the account, for instance, of one particular slave woman who was purchased as a teenager by her master for the express purpose of perennially raping her. Finally, one day she wasn’t feeling up to par (probably because she was pregnant), so she resisted him; and because of his forcefulness, she ended up striking him with a fire log, which killed him. At her trial for murder, she pleaded self-defense; but the court ruled that slaves had no right to defend themselves. So she was sentenced to death — but she had to wait to be executed until after she first had given birth, because the state didn’t want to eliminate another source of profit for someone. (They didn’t get it anyway. The child was stillborn.)

There are also general facts that are quite arresting. For example,there’s the observation that after the Civil War, some former slave holders were offered reparations for their loss of profit-generating property. The slaves themselves, however, were never offered bupkis.

Above all, the consistent central thread of the book is that throughout American history, racial disparity has been a constant. And not just an incidental constant. A deliberate, calculated constant designed to enable some people to profit from owning, exploiting and/ or subjugating other human beings. It has resulted in a great many social problems that affect not only African-Americans but all of us. One fascinating thing the book explains is how racial discrimination in Atlanta resulted in the construction of a freeway system that causes massive traffic jams to this day. Anyone driving through the city is potentially affected by the bigotry of a few people decades ago.

With the fallout from racism being so far-reaching, both across geography and history, it naturally causes those in power to feel a bit uneasy — not because they feel any guilt or shame, mind you, but because they fear being exposed. So they lash out by pretending that those doing the exposing are the ones doing something wrong.

But is there any validity to their criticism of The 1619 Project? Well, actually there is just a little. But as with everything else right-wingers make a mountain of, the book’s problems are little more than molehills. Let’s take a look at their objections, shall we?

1. Give us liberty

The one valid criticism — and it has been proffered not only by the conservative mob, but also by sensible scholars of history — is the suggestion by Nikole Hannah-Jones that slavery was a major factor in the colonists declaring their independence from Britain. This is quite a stretch, except to the extent that slavery was a factor of at least some significance in absolutely everything. Hannah-Jones addressed this point and other criticisms in a followup to her original introductory essay.

So in this one instance the right-wingers are really right, at least sort of. And that’s a very dangerous happenstance because they, not grasping the concept of the broken clock, will declare that any instance in which their claims are even marginally accurate is irrefutable proof that they are always 100 percent right about everything. In fact, even with this one small victory under their belts, their utterances about this book just get sillier and sillier.

2. Dead white men

Conservatives, even those few who belong to a minority ethnicity, regard it as crucial to deify dead white men. In their mythology, the Founding Fathers weren’t just great men, they were demigods who could do no wrong. (Of course, in order to maintain this delusion, they have to ignore/ distort many of the things the founders actually stood for, but hey.) So they get really triggered when someone points out the flaws of deceased Caucasians who wore white wigs. Such as, for example, reporting that such individuals supported slavery, and in many cases owned slaves themselves. Or with respect to Abraham Lincoln, of just reporting (correctly) that his position on slavery, and his relationship to African-Americans, was more complicated and nuanced than the 1776 Commission files would suggest.

3. Poor Ole Dixie

One thing the book emphasizes repeatedly is that slaves and their blood, sweat and tears were a major source of revenue for Southern states, and indeed the nation as a whole. Some detractors have insisted that can’t be true because the South was so much more impoverished than the North. Yes, it was; but that by no means indicates that slavery wasn’t profitable. If it hadn’t been, there would have been no slavery. End of story. Were Africans captured, transported thousands of miles in chains, beaten, and worked half to death simply for their own happiness and well-being?

4. Roots

Hannah-Jones has suggested that the nation had its de facto beginnings in 1619, with the arrival of a shipload of slaves in Jamestown. But wait, cry the critics. Has she totally forgotten about 1776 and the Revolutionary War, and the Constitution? They take her statement as literally meaning that the U.S. as a political entity began in 1619. This is their level of intellectual maturity, and they expect you to take them seriously.

5. Yeahbutwhaddabout

No right-wing attack would be complete without a false equivalence and a deflection. Or two. Or three, or seven. They don’t just say, “hey look, slavery wasn’t invented in the U.S. — other countries have done it too, so lay off. ” They also remind us that the Africans who were brought across the pond on cargo ships were captured with the aid of other Africans from rival tribes. So there, blame them, not us. And just for good measure, they toss in the old “well if it’s really so racist here, why do black immigrants keep coming”. This is a back-door approach to the fallacy of relative privation , otherwise known as the “not as bad as” fallacy, which is the attitude that you have no right to complain about A because B is worse. By this line of reasoning, nobody ever has a right to complain about anything, because there’s always (at least theoretically) something that’s worse.

In addressing the (mostly baseless) attacks against the project, Hannah-Jones notes in a new edition of the introductory essay that history is more than just names and dates. There is necessarily, she states, a certain amount of interpretation as well; and that interpretation is subject to subjective differences. In other words, there is often room for well-informed disagreement about the explanations for why certain events occurred.

Thing is, the MAGA crowd is open only to one interpretation: everything that is good about America has come about because affluent, greedy or power-hungry white men pursued their unbridled ambitions. Anything else is heresy. But deep down, they know that they are on the wrong side of history. And that sooner or later, history will defeat them. But in the meantime, they put up as much futile resistance as they possibly can. No matter how much damage it inflicts.

7 comments

  1. I don’t get this “slaves were happy” horseshit. We were never taught that. Maybe cuz I grew up in the north but that was never part of the narrative. Yeah, it was reasonable to believe that there were slave owners who treated their slaves humanely but that’s just the way you treat an investment … which is what a slave was. & being treated humanely doesn’t mean that a person was happy to be enslaved. I don’t know how anyone could be confused about that.

      • In the past,some in the right wing have argued that since black slaves had a place to sleep and food to eat, they should have been happy–even grateful? Quite an absurd rationalization!

  2. The fallacy of being on the right side of history is that judging the morals of yesterday based upon the morals of today is fluid. Tomorrow today becomes yesterday.

    • Yes, if “morals of today” means the values accepted by a given society at a given time. But that isn’t the same as morality. Slavery and racism were once accepted by society as a whole, but there were always plenty of people who knew these things are wrong.

    • Is there ever a right side of history? History is a record of various countries and individuals who were explorers, and innovators, and whose influence affected many societies, and cultures. These innovations could have been discovered and made by evil men or good men. It just a matter of which group has more energy–apprently like HItler and his Nazi’s had.

  3. Below, on Youtube, one can find a recording of a song which was a big hit in 1931, and although it is sung with misplaced passion and seriousness many of us who watch it today can’t help slapping our knees with laughter when we hear its title—“THAT’S WHY DARKIES WERE BORN.”

    The controversial lyrics are listed in Black Wiki:

    “Brothers, sisters, when this world began
    There was work to be done
    And it seemed that someone
    Left it to the colored man
    Brothers, sisters, what must be, must be

    Though the balance is wrong
    Still your faith must be strong
    Accept your destiny
    Brothers, listen to me…

    Someone had to pick the cotton
    Someone had to pick the corn
    Someone had to slave and be able to sing
    That’s why darkies were born

    Someone had to laugh at trouble
    Though he was tired and worn
    Had to be contented with any old thing
    That’s why darkies were born”

    1931 is not that long ago. My dad was 26 years old, and my mother was 16 when Kate Smith’s rendition became a hit song. As you can see the last stanza contains words which were probably considered complementary about black people at that time, but it clearly shows how racial bias is rife in American history and is still an issue today.

    I have known for a while about how southern plantation owner bought slave chained to an auction block, where they were bought by people with no comprehension of human dignity. The auctioneer doing the sale often pulled open mouths showing the condition of their teeth, like one would do to a horse or cow, to show how strong and healthy some future slaves were, and therefore were good products to buy. Mothers were separated from husbands and/or children and considered valuable only because they could help their owners benefit financially, One great movie that gives us an idea about just how cruel and savage plantation owners could be is, “Twelve years a slave,” which chronicles the years that one man had to endure, after being considered a free man in a northern state—a man that was well educated and financially well off. But this unsuspecting individual was kidnapped from his home and brutalized for years on the plantation of his southern owner.

    However, I have also seen two other movies which portray how recenlty black people were considered inferior beings and used by biased people to vent their own anger and frustrations on. One is “42” the number on Jackie Robinson’s jacket as the first black player in the major leagues. It doesn’t concern any physical crimes like beatings and hangings, which were very real at that time, but focuses on the mental ordeal Robinson had to go through to keep calm while being taunted with racial slurs at bat, slurs which came from some of his own racially biased team mates. If Robinson had done so much as repay his abuser with an insult of his own, his anger would have been used to portray him as someone who was just not good enough for major league baseball. And if he had actually struck back physically, he would have suffered much worse. His story takes place as recently as 1946 but the Jim crow mentality it reveals can still be oppressive today.

    Then there was a film called “The Help” which illustrates how badly black maids and servants were treated by privilaged and wealthy white families in the South. Here is a link to information about the movie:
    https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/dpdfilm/chapter/the-help-2011/

    Christopher Columbus, who I think landed on an island near Florida, was guilty of being cruel and inhumane to Native American tribes which he forced to work for him as slaves and even tortured! So is it any wonder how today, Native Americans find his adulation obscene and insensitive to the point of being, in some ways, as obscene as what the most ruthless dictators in history would condone, along with the many other biased ways that Native Americans experienced centuries later in the USA.

    It seems that Trumpers and various manipulators are trying to portray all these kinds of discrimination and organized abuse, some of which are still happening today, in order to bring down anger and judgement on Liberals and anyone else who speaks honestly. All of this is especially obscene because Democrats, as Americans, are consistently cast as “Socialists and commies“ just for admitting that racial bias still exists even though we are being openly reviled for taking patriotism seriously and merely trying to form a more perfect union.

    Of course Republicans in the swamp today, use many dog whistles to attack supposedly “radical left liberals,” calling them criminals, Nazis, God haters, and “Gay apologist” etc. thus seeking to portray them as being unpatriotic and without morals, all of which are ill willed distortion of facts designed to denigrate Democrats as hypocrites who are persecuting Republicans. In this way they seek to conceal all the VERY real defects in Donald Trump, and thus help the GOP to ruthlessly gain power after projecting their own faults and lies on anyone who insists that history should be taught as it really happened.

    For many years now the GOP has been portraying Democrats as those who persecute Trump and make him the supposed victim of a witch hunt . Yet each time I open my Twitter account I get the distinct feeling that the persecution is really aimed at Democrats, which the GOP hopes will lessen their own obvious faults and cause voters to abandon Democrats.

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