Chicago public schools adopt the 1619 Project

September 9, 2020 • 12:30 pm

I’m not a big fan of the New York Times’s 1619 Project, though I think its aims—letting people know that the aftereffects of slavery still weigh down America—are admirable. But I’m wary of its historical inaccuracies, called out by several prominent historians, of its main message that America is affected in nearly every aspect by “systemic racism”, and, above all, by the efforts of the paper to propagandize American schoolchildren with its own unvetted view of history. (What other bit of NYT journalism has been explicitly designed to be part of a school curriculum?).  In view of this, I thought it was a travesty that Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Project’s creator, got the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her essay on the Project. It seemed to me that the Prize was given not for quality but for wokeness.

On the other hand, it’s out of line for Trump to de-fund school districts who adopt the project into its curriculum, as school curricula are the ambit of local school districts, cities, and states—not the President. Here’s his Big Threat.

But I was surprised to hear that in fact the Chicago Public Schools, as reported in this Tribune article (click on screenshot) have quietly adopted that curriculum, for I’d heard no intimations of it previously. And I don’t know how it got adopted.

The report of Chicago’s ideological curriculum came in one short sentence (my bolding):

Mayor Lori Lightfoot fired back at President Donald Trump’s weekend threat to cut federal funding for public schools that teach the “1619 Project,” calling it “more hot air.”

. . .The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project” looked at slavery and how it shaped America. Although widely celebrated, the Pulitzer Prize-winning project has drawn criticism from some conservative politicians and scholars. [JAC: It’s not just conservatives who have criticized the project, so this sentence is editorializing.]

But Chicago Public Schools has adopted it as part of its curriculum, which Lightfoot defended on Tuesday by saying it’s important for students of all backgrounds to understand slavery. Lightfoot also said Trump has “no power to try to take funding from any school district.”

“If he does, obviously, we will see him in court,” she said.

Now I like Mayor Lightfoot: she’s tough and a straight shooter, and she even called out violence and looting when they occurred as part of the demonstrations in Chicago. But I wonder if she was able to get that curriculum adopted on her own. For it’s not just an understanding of slavery that the project teaches, but also some aspects of Critical Race Theory, including the prevalence—indeed, ubiquity—of racism in every aspect of American life. It’s also historically inaccurate, but neither Hannah-Jones nor Lightfoot seem to care too much about that.


h/t: Cate

20 thoughts on “Chicago public schools adopt the 1619 Project

  1. I just hope that the Chicago schools follow the example of the Smithsonian’s museum of African-American History and teach that hard work, punctuality, and bland food are all the domains of white people.
    I was cautiously optimistic about Biden winning. Now I’m pessimistic.

  2. Here I’m reminded of something from the Fake AP Stylebook: “A fact that is contrary to the misconceptions of the majority of your readers is ‘opinion’ and should be avoided.”

  3. I think what bothers me about the ‘systemic racism’ charge is that it’s going to cause us to waste our time looking for solutions in the wrong place. We’re going to spin our wheels trying to make hiring heuristics, admission criteria, etc. less biased when they already are mostly unbiased, when that effort could be spent on helping the people making the decisions be less biased.

    I’d go back to the much-reference resume test as the poster child here; when the exact same resume can be evaluated differently depending on the name, then you don’t have a systemic scoring problem, you have an evaluator problem.

  4. I think proper, modern history can cover the issue without 1619. As some good historians have noted, the statement that slavery was the reason behind the revolution is simply not true. It is a bridge too far for me.

    Exactly why the three fifths a person representation was allowed during the convention is not really known. The southern states got everything they wanted in this deal and the rest of us paid for it. It gave the south great power for a number of years that should not have been there but that does not have a thing to do with the earlier revolution. Some people attempt to scramble things together that were not together. The small states together with the southern states of North and South Carolina got together and defeated the large states at the constitution. That is how it happened.

    1. I was going to leave a similar comment but you beat me to it. The 1619 Project addressed several issues that need addressing, but a good history teacher should already be covering them.

      And the central premise of the 1619 project, regarding the supposed character of the Revolution should not be taught at all, except as a sampling of what some non-historians like Jones think.

      Like PCC I was bothered by the Tribune’s assertion that criticism of the Project came entirely from “some conservative politicians and scholars.” One would never guess from such dishonesty that several of the prominent historians of the period had also called the Project reductive and sometimes wrong-headed.

  5. My fear is not so much the 1619 Project itself but that its adoption in school districts will signal the Woke that they now can dictate to schools how they should think. It’s a bit like when a school decides to “teach the controversy” with respect to evolution. The wokeness is about to get worse.

  6. I have defended the 1619 Project many time before. I won’t repeat myself here. The unknown, at least for me, is exactly how it will be taught in the schools. In what class will it be taught? I will have no trouble with it if it makes the following points:

    1. Slavery and racism have been endemic in American society since the earliest settlement of the colonies, symbolically starting in 1619 through the Civil War.

    2. Racism has been pervasive in both the North and South to the present day, although racism is now practiced by a much lower proportion of the white population than at any other time in American history.

    3. To understand the pre-Civil War history, one must realize that perhaps a majority of the people in the North and some in the South considered slavery evil and hoped to see it disappear someday. However, being against slavery did not mean a person was not a racist. Historians have understood for decades that the populace of both North and South was overwhelmingly racist as we understand the term today, including anti-slavery people. There were many people that opposed slavery for racist reasons, in particular, they feared black people as competition for jobs. Some things haven’t changed. Many people that opposed slavery for moral reasons had no desire to see black people as social equals. Some of the abolitionists, a distinct minority in the North that called for the immediate beginning of the ending of slavery as opposed to sometime in the hazy future, were not racists as we understand the term. But, until the Civil War was under way, they were reviled in the North as almost as much as the South.

    4. The Reconstruction period that ended in 1877 offered hope for black people to achieve a modicum of equality. But, in 1877, they were basically betrayed by the Republicans and the stage was set for the Jim Crow era.

    5. The Civil Rights era, running approximately from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, resulted in legislation that on paper granted blacks political equality. Still racism persisted throughout the country, but slow progress has been made, but there is a ways to go.

    In teaching the major role of slavery and race in American history, the teacher should make it clear that this theme was not the only one. Other themes such as industrialization, labor, and immigration need to be taught as well. How individual teachers choose to teach about slavery and race will determine whether a much neglected subject in the high schools (it is far from neglected from history courses on the college level) is taught in context. Such a course will disturb those who cannot abandon the fairy tale version of American history, just as many religious folks cannot give up the tales in the bible. It seems that it is as difficult to give up national myths as religious ones.

    1. … … in re ” period that ended in 1877 offered hope for black people to achieve
      a modicum of equality, ” Ms / Mr Historian,
      accuracy in folks’ statements dictates
      ” a modicum ” n o t for ” people ” but o n l y
      for ” men ” so I, seemingly all of the time,
      continue to have to make this inaccuracy
      … … made stated.


  7. In regard to slavery in America, the school pupils of the 1619 Project version of history will learn that Africans were “kidnapped from their homes and brought in chains across the Atlantic Ocean”. The woke history they will learn goes no further, leaving out how most of these Africans came to be slaves. It elides the venerable African institution of slavery; and omits mention of the African states like Dahomey, Benin, the Bamana Empire, and the Khasso Kingdoms, in which the ruling class grew very rich by enslaving other Africans and selling them to European traders.

      1. Yes, that is the claim that put me off. Maybe in many ways it would be best in this country to start over with education on the whole issue. Going forward from now and how to do that is more important than getting yesterday right.

        I heard some of the Woodward dialogue with Trump today. Woodward attempted to put to Trump the White Privilege that he and Trump both come from and Trump cut him off and said, I don’t see that at all. You have been drinking the kool-aid. That Trump does not get it at all is baked in and it is baked in to thousands of white people in this country. How the hell do we bake it out.

    1. Kidnapped is the correct word, unless you want to say “sold” or something equivalent. If I steal your child, and then I trade them to someone else, both I and the recipient are guilty of kidnapping your child, right? It’s not like the recipient is less guilty because of what I did, right?

      Second, I find your whataboutery distasteful. While it may be true that (e.g.) the kingdom of Benin traded in slaves, there is no reason to include a unit on that in American history. By all means, they can learn about how prevalent slavery was in the 17th-19th centuries around the world, in world history. There’s no problem there.

      But the only reason I can think to cover such world history in a U.S. history class is to try to normalize what the U.S. did, teach less about what the U.S. did, or distract the students from thinking about what the U.S. did.

      1. There is no need to “normalize” slavery anywhere because slavery has been largely normal in human history.

        “1619” attempts to paint slavery in the United States as if were totally sui generis. And I bet many of those teaching will do all they can to make it as such.

        BTW, already there are students entering college who actually think that slavery is an American invention and phenomenon.

        Much of the thrust of “1619” is precisely to give that impression in order to construct a totalizing indictment.

      2. While it may be true that (e.g.) the kingdom of Benin traded in slaves, there is no reason to include a unit on that in American history.

        There’s every reason to include it. There seems to be a misconception that slavery is something that white people did to black people. This is false. Slavery is what the strong do to the weak.

  8. The very title of the “1619” project is based on a lie. The first Black/African slaves in America were brought in by the Spanish conquistadors in 1520. Oooh, but you won’t see the Wokey-dokes admitting that!

  9. The origin of the caste system up to 1776.
    People with land and power had land and needed lots of exploitable labor. They tried to enslave American Indians but they were vulnerable to European diseases, they could escape to return to their tribes, and their tribe could fight to free them. Blacks had a history with European diseases so did not all die off. They had no family to help free them. European indentured servants were used before enslaved people were available. They could escape and blend into the population. They did poorly in the Deep South. Black skin made it hard to run away and blend into the paler European population. Originally, they were not Christians and that could be used as an excuse why they could be enslaved. As they became Christians, they needed another rationalization for enslavement so they invented a racial inferiority excuse. At first, there were the rare court case that went in the black’s favor. Those loopholes were filled by new laws to tighten the noose.
    Recommended: “Caste”(2020) by Isabel Wilkerson
    (Chapter 4 at 5:30 of the audiobook)
    She summarizes it much better than I do here.
    Pinker uses her writing as an exemplar in his “Style” book. The only other example he uses is a Dawkins excerpt.

Leave a Reply