There’s no doubt that America has been marked in a big way, with many people still marginalized, by the presence of slavery in our history. I see this every week in Chicago, America’s most segregated city, where (except for Hyde Park, where I live), white and black communities are largely separated, with the latter having poorer schools, deficient government services, and, of course, lower incomes. This cannot be understood without apprehending the context in which black people came to America: as slaves.
And so I applaud the New York Times‘s “1619 Project”, described in Wikipedia and whose contents are at the NYT link just below. Its goal is to educate Americans about the legacy of slavery in America, and to produce materials to supplement secondary school history curricula. This is timely and needed: for example, a Southern Poverty Law Center survey showed this:
Only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. Most didn’t know an amendment to the U.S. Constitution formally ended slavery. Fewer than half (44 percent) correctly answered that slavery was legal in all colonies during the American Revolution.
Clearly, a corrective is needed. And even the critics of the 1619 project applaud its aims and much of the material (essays, documents, and so on) used to set the historical record straight.
But the reception of the project by scholars and historians has not been unmixed. Scholars on both Right and Left have contested the project’s contention that virtually all American phenomena and institutions since 1619 (when the first African slaves arrived in America) have been profoundly shaped by slavery and racism. Particularly distressing to scholars is the Project’s notion that the American Revolutionary War was caused, in large part, by the colonist’s desire to preserve slavery, and the fear that continued subjugation by England would abolish it.
Another big bone of contention is the Project’s theme that racism is still “in America’s DNA”, and that progress in eliminating it, and bringing true equality to African-Americans, has not nearly been as profound as “progressivists” claim. (This criticism of progressivism is behind a lot of the opprobrium that Steve Pinker gets for his books Enlightenment Now and The Better Angels of Our Nature.) Further, scholars claim that many of the facts adduced in the 1619 Project are either wrong or distorted, though much of the criticism is based on how one interprets the facts. For instance, the paper’s view is that African-Americans fought their battle for equality almost completely alone, while others emphasize abolutionists and other white groups committed to equality and the end of slavery. (The North, after all, went to war to end slavery.)
Critics also claim that the New York Times is implicitly engaged in an ideological project that bends the truth to elevate minorities, while critics of the critics dismiss them as white historians whose judgment is clouded by their own race.
My own view is that both sides are partly right. Progress in freedom and rights for African Americans has been palpable and huge, even since I was born (n.b., I don’t believe that anything like near equality has been reached, and I think that correctives like affirmative action are still needed). Further, as I’ve written before, the Times is indeed becoming more woke, which is apparent to anyone who has eyes to see. And that wokeness means sticking to a narrative that often slops over into its journalism.
On the other hand, one has to question those who criticize the Project on factual grounds when they don’t really adduce facts as much cherry-picked anecdotes (the Times is also guilty of this). This is clear from the letter that five historians wrote to the paper nine days ago, questioning two aspects of the Project (the indictment as slavery as a major cause of the Revolutionary War and the contention that Lincoln wasn’t as much of an emancipationist as he was made out to be). The historians, as has been pointed out, are white, but they are also experts in the history of slavery and thus have historical credibility that many of the NYT writers don’t have.
The criticisms in the letter (which was apparently abridged) were answered by NYT editor Jake Silverstein, who basically bats them all aside. You can see the letter and the editor’s response by clicking on the link below:
It’s hard to know how to evaluate that exchange because the letter is short and anecdotal, and the paper’s response defensive and a bit arrogant. Fortunately, the to-and-fro has been evaluated at greater length in two fairly centrist places: the American Institute for Economic Research(AIER) and The Atlantic. Both evaluations conclude that the Times project is generally good but has problems, and that the difference between the paper and critical scholars are largely but not entirely unresolvable matters of interpretation. But the first piece, by historian Phillip Magness at the AIER, concludes that in general the critics are more right than the Times.
Magness evaluates the four criticisms of the historians against the Times‘s responses, giving a final judgment after each. I’ll present those contentions and Magness’s responses, which are indented below:
1.) Was the American Revolution fought in defense of slavery?
The [Magness’s] Verdict: The historians have a clear upper hand in disputing the portrayal of the American Revolution as an attempt to protect slavery from British-instigated abolitionism. Britain itself remained several decades away from abolition at the time of the revolution. Hannah-Jones’s argument nonetheless contains kernels of truth that complicate the historians’ assessment, without overturning it. Included among these are instances where Britain was involved in the emancipation of slaves during the course of the war. These events must also be balanced against the fact that American independence created new opportunities for the northern states to abolish slavery within their borders. In the end, slavery’s relationship with the American Revolution was fraught with complexities that cut across the political dimensions of both sides.
2.) Was Abraham Lincoln a racial colonizationist or exaggerated egalitarian?
The Verdict: Nikole Hannah-Jones [NYT writer] has the clear upper hand here. Her call to evaluate Lincoln’s record through problematic racial policies such as colonization reflects greater historical nuance and closer attention to the evidentiary record, including new developments in Lincoln scholarship. The historians’ counterarguments reflect a combination of outdated evidence and the construction of apocryphal exonerative narratives such as the lullaby thesis around colonization.
3.) Did slavery drive America’s economic growth and the emergence of American Capitalism?
The Verdict: This one goes conclusively to the five historians. Echoing other critics, the historians point to serious and substantive defects with Matthew Desmond’s thesis about the economics of slavery, and with the project’s overreliance on the contested New History of Capitalism literature. By contrast, the Times has completely failed to offer a convincing response to this criticism – or really any response at all.
4.) Did the 1619 Project seek adequate scholarly guidance in preparing its work?
The Verdict: The historians have a valid complaint about deficiencies of scholarly guidance for the 1619 Project’s treatment of the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War. This comparative lack of scholarly input for the years between 1775 and 1865 stands in contrast with the Times’ heavy use of scholars who specialize in more recent dimensions of race in the United States. It is worth noting that the 1619 Project has received far less pushback on its materials about the 20th century and present day – areas that are more clearly within the scholarly competencies of the named consultants.
Overall, the critics come out looking better than the paper, and perhaps this is because the paper is recruiting mainly journalists and those historians whose views conform to the NYT’s ideological bent. But everyone, including the critics, still praises the Project. My own view is that if the paper were less defensive and more willing to listen to criticism, it would not only give the Project more credibility, but emphasize the messiness of history and the subjective nature of some of its judgments. Although the editor says that he’s always open to constructive criticism, it doesn’t show in his defensive response. And in the article below, even Nikole Hannah-Jones has backed off on her claim that protection of slavery was a major cause in fomenting the American Revolution; now she says it is a contributing factor, which of course is true for some people at some time, but isn’t a sweeping historical conclusion.
The second article, by Atlantic staff writer Adam Serwer, is equally judicious though less knowledgable about history. Serwer is more concerned with the ideological battle between critics and the paper, though he comes to no conclusion about motivations, except to say, properly, that ideology has no place in this dispute, not to mention accusations of people of having this or that view only because they are black or white (both sides have been guilty of this).
What is most interesting in Serwer’s piece is his analysis of the idea that racial progress has been and will continue to be made, an issue that puts the two “sides” in stark contrast. (I note that this is one contention where, if you specify what you consider “progress” in advance, you can actually get quantiative data bearing on the issue.)
The most radical thread in the 1619 Project is not its contention that slavery’s legacy continues to shape American institutions; it’s the authors’ pessimism that a majority of white people will abandon racism and work with black Americans toward a more perfect union. Every essay tracing racial injustice from slavery to the present day speaks to the endurance of racial caste. And it is this profound pessimism about white America that many of the 1619 Project’s critics find most galling.
. . . The project’s pessimism has drawn criticism from the left as well as the right. Hannah-Jones’s contention that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country” drew a rebuke from James Oakes, one of the Wilentz letter’s signatories. In an interview with the World Socialist Web Site, Oakes said, “The function of those tropes is to deny change over time … 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?”
These are objections not to misstatements of historical fact, but to the argument that anti-black racism is a more intractable problem than most Americans are willing to admit. A major theme of the 1619 Project is that the progress that has been made has been fragile and reversible—and has been achieved in spite of the nation’s true founding principles, which are not the lofty ideals few Americans genuinely believe in. Chances are, what you think of the 1619 Project depends on whether you believe someone might reasonably come to such a despairing conclusion—whether you agree with it or not.
My own views are these. Yes, racism remains a tough problem, and is more pervasive than people realize. People may not consider themselves racists, but every time I drive through the ghettos of Chicago, or encounter the many black homeless people who sleep on the streets, I see the legacy of racism. There is work to be done.
That said, who can deny that there has been progress in race relations, even since I was a child. When I took the bus to college in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1967, the Greyhound station had two water fountains, two men’s rooms, and two women’s rooms. I didn’t realize until later why that was (the “white” and “colored” signs were removed three years earlier). Legal and moral progress has been made: it is no longer acceptable to act like George Wallace or usual racial slurs, and there are numerous legal strictures preventing discrimination. None of this was in place until the mid-1950s.
So yes, the Times should continue to emphasize the continuing effects of slavery, but it shouldn’t declare that civil rights are terribly fragile, when it’s pretty clear they aren’t. But the Times has apparently backed itself into a corner, to the point where the editor, acting like a scientist wedded to a defective theory, shows obvious confirmation bias in his response. The whole project would be better if the paper paid attention to its critics, and worked more closely with scholars of all stripes, of all colors, and of all ideologies.