Guest post: A scholarly critique of the 1619 Project finds many omissions and distortions

January 3, 2022 • 9:30 am

A friend of mine who’s followed the New York Times‘s 1619 Project sent me a link to an article that you can access by clicking on the screenshot below. It’s in the Catalyst Journal, and my friend adds “don’t confuse it with Catalyst Magazine, which is pure woo!!” First, though, be aware that Catalyst seems to be largely socialist and anti-capitalist, but you shouldn’t dismiss anything they say simply because of that. Here’s its mission as stated on its website:

Discussion of capitalism is not off the table any longer. Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy launches with the aim of doing everything it can to promote and deepen this conversation. Our focus is, as our title suggests, to develop a theory and strategy with capitalism as its target — both in the North and in the Global South. It is an ambitious agenda, but this is a time for thinking big.

Catalyst is a peer-reviewed journal sustained by the support of over 7,500 individual subscribers and our institutional readers.

This explains the remarks on capitalism included at the end of this critique by historian James Oakes. (Note: it’s long: 47 pages as I’ve printed it out, but if you’re interested in the 1619 Project, its implications, its benefits, or its dangers, you should read it.). Click on the screenshot or go here; both afford free access.

And if you’re worried about Oakes’s credibility, below are his credentials from Bookreporter. You can also go to his Wikipedia bio, where you can see his impressive list of books relevant to the issues of slavery and race. One simply can’t dismiss his critique on the grounds of his credentials!

My friend’s take on Oakes’s piece was sufficiently eloquent and thoughtful that I asked him/her—not a pronoun but a disguise!—if I could use it to introduce the article, and he/she agreed. It’s between the two lines below. At the bottom I give a few quotes from Oakes’s piece:

The beating heart of wokeness is racial guilt––sincerely felt by remorseful white liberals, but amplified by BLM advocates seeking to convince the liberals that they and all of their ancestors have always been “supremacists” and nothing else. Although repentance and reparations are called for, the demand is made without an expectation that the original sin will thereby be purged. Whiteness itself is construed as an indelible sign of racism.

The New York Times is impressive and invaluable in many ways, but it has become desperately trendy in others. With its recent 1619 Project, the paper has lent its well-deserved prestige to the woke worldview. The Project amounts to a recasting of American history that turns racial domination into an all-explanatory factor––the only significant motive in “the white mind” from the seventeenth century until today. The result is a moralizing simplification of the key issues in our national development.

As the following essay by James Oakes––Distinguished Professor of History and Graduate School Humanities Professor at the Graduate Center, CUNY––reveals, one of those distortions has to do with the work of historians themselves. According toThe 1619 Project, all preceding experts have whitewashed the record. They have minimized the importance of 1619, when the first British slave ship landed in the Colonies, while jingoistically celebrating 1776 instead. And they have misinterpreted the Revolution itself, Abolitionism, the Civil War, and the economic development of the country, which, it is said, was powered above all by slave labor.

As the author of such books as The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War, James Oakes is well situated to assess those claims. You will see that he shows them to be libels of nuanced studies by major American historians––liberals, one and all. And you’ll be left to wonder whether the New York Times, always so insistent on fidelity to facts, will now apologize to its readers and cease recommending its deeply flawed Project to schools and colleges across the country. (Don’t wait up for it.)

JAC: Here are a few quotes from Oakes’s piece:

If the 1619 Project was not actually introducing Americans to an aspect of their history they were never taught in school, why the controversy? If all the Times was doing was restating what we already knew, why the complaints? What was it about the way the Times presented that history that caused so much strife? There were the egregious factual errors, of course, but it’s more than that. It’s the ideological and political framework of the project that led its editors to those inaccuracies and distortions. The 1619 Project is, to begin with, written from a black nationalist perspective that systemically erases all evidence that white Americans were ever important allies of the black freedom struggle. Second, it is written with an eye toward justifying reparations, leading to the dubious proposition that all white people are and have always been the beneficiaries of slavery and racism. This second proposition is based in turn on a third, that slavery “fueled” America’s exceptional economic development.

. . . If nearly everything was caused by racism and slavery, it must follow, as night follows day, that the defense of slavery had to be one of the “primary” reasons for the American Revolution. This absurd, insupportable claim is derived from a syllogism rather than source material. The jury is not out on the question, because juries deliberate over evidence. When confronted by the absence of evidence, the Times changed to wording that read that protecting slavery was the primary reason “some” Americans rebelled. That may be true, but there’s more evidence that “some” Americans rebelled so they could begin to undermine slavery. Either way, the effect of that rewording is to destroy the intellectual architecture of the entire project, for if — whatever the individual motives of “some” people — the revolution itself was not driven primarily by the defense of slavery and racism, it follows that slavery and racism cannot explain one of the most important events — if not the most important event — in US history.

. . .The political goal animating the 1619 Project is reparations. “If you read the whole project,” Nikole Hannah-Jones has said, “I don’t think you can come away from it without understanding the project is an argument for reparations. You can’t read it and not understand that something is owed.”But if the case for reparations rests on distorted history, it can’t be a good case. On the subject of slavery, the distortions of the 1619 Project are numerous, and they are significant. It conflates the wealth of the slaveholders with the wealth of the United States. It asserts without evidence that slavery “fueled” the growth of the Northern economy. It betrays a stunning lack of familiarity with the basic facts of cotton cultivation. It stresses the expansion of the cotton economy but ignores the South’s relative decline in the national economy. Slavery consigned generations of Southerners, black and white, to poverty and economic backwardness. Its legacy is hardship and misery, not widespread wealth.

Most of what the 1619 Project has to say about Southern slavery is contained in an essay by sociologist Matthew Desmond that grossly distorts the history of the slave economy and is riddled with factual errors. . . .

Read the rest for yourself; it’s the most powerful takedown of the 1619 Project I’ve seen, and I thank my friend for calling it to my attention.

26 thoughts on “Guest post: A scholarly critique of the 1619 Project finds many omissions and distortions

  1. Create your own bingo card….

    Ideology trumps economics
    Ideology trumps science
    Ideology trumps history
    Ideology trumps education
    Ideology trumps philosophy

    …which you could *almost* justify if ideology wasn’t continually re-defining itself to step around the problems it creates.

  2. Looking forward to reading this. I’ve never read anything by Oakes, but you can’t read about the ante bellum period without encountering his name in the footnotes. Several of his books are on my reading list. As for Catalyst being Socialist, the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) has been a leader in reporting on and challenging the 1619 Project. I suspect that, as Trotskyists (see the “About” section), they are offended by the attempt to replace the “class” in class struggle with race.

    1. One wonders what the remarkable Eugene Genovese might have written about this issue. He was perhaps the most brilliant historian ever of the antebellum South; having been a Communist during his youth, he did change ideologically over the years (as did his very distinguished wife Elizabeth, who died several years before her husband), but his scholarship was always superbly-researched and well-written.

  3. It is unfortunately helping conservatives win elections and take over school boards, as it gets conflated with critical race theory. Once again the Left is botching the job.

  4. This is what happens when Historians collide with poor journalism. Before you conclude anything in history, get it from the best. The Times should have known better and excuses do not cut it.

  5. For sure, Oakes is a distinguished historian and his arguments must be taken seriously, but not uncritically. In an article as long as this one, it would take scholars to write equally long articles to critique and discuss his views. Oakes repeats the now familiar criticism of the 1619 Project that in contrast to what Hannah-Jones said, the American Revolution was not fought primarily to preserve slavery. Interestingly, though, Oakes now concedes that “some” colonists may have revolted to preserve slavery. The catch is that the word “some” is ambiguous. We may never know how many people the word “some” refers to. He goes on to say that some Americans fought to undermine slavery. Now, even if that is true, the only thing we can conclude is that the undermining was a total failure short of a violent civil war. Within a few decades of American independence, slavery, at least politically, was as strong as ever. Oakes also devotes a lot of space talking about slavery’s need to expand and whether it would have died out without the war. There is not enough space in this comment to address the question, but I will say that this issue may never be resolved because the debate is not over what happened, but what could have happened.

    Finally, the last paragraph of the essay is this:

    “The problem of slavery is not that it was a forerunner of modern capitalism. It wasn’t. The problem is not that slavery ‘fueled’ the economic growth of the North. It didn’t. The problem, all along, was capitalism itself. And once the problem of slavery was resolved by the Civil War and emancipation, there remained, and still remains, the problem of capitalism.”

    So, I wonder: how many of those that are so willing to accept the socialist critique of the 1619 Project are equally willing to accept its critique of capitalism and reject it as the desired economic system for the United States? The essay is well worth reading, but it is hardly the last word in attempting to understand the role of slavery and racism in American history. As I’ve said before, there is “no” true history.

      1. I embrace the basic thesis of the Project: that slavery and race have been a major, among others, factor in explaining the unfolding of American history. The socialists wish to replace race and slavery with social class and the evils of capitalism as the major factor. As much as social class is important in understanding American history, in contrast to other countries, it is race and slavery that explains so much more. This is because the ruling class has been eminently successful in dividing the working class by racial demagoguery. It has been done by perpetuating the myth of a classless society, at least for white people.

        So, I do not accept uncritically everything thing that Hannah-Jones states in regard to slavery and race, such as the American Revolution was fought by some, at least in part, to save slavery or how racist Lincoln was, but these issues are debatable, despite what some critics may say.

        1. No, the thesis of the Project is not “that slavery and race have been a major, among other, factors…..”

          Rather, it is that slavery has been the superordinate factor explaining the United States’s existence. Put more succintly, that the United States began in 1619 as a slave-ocracy and that the Revolutionary war was 99.9% waged to preserve that slave-ocracy.

          You have temporalized the very clear aim of the Project in order to rationalize support.

          Race and slavery are subsumed by issues of class/economics. I am not a Marxist, but am grateful to the World Socialist Website and the current essayist for their scrupulous and extraordinary critiques.

          (I remember when discussions of 1619 Project began at the website you attributed critique and hostility to the 1619 as coming from right-wing backlash. But you now revise……)

          BTW, looks like Ms. Hannah-Jones doesn’t know the dates of the Civil War…..she was caught, but of course, typical of her, the tweet is erased with no correction or acknowledgement of the error thus far by her. Totally “1619”. And note also, if you click on the link below that many people have learned of her strategic erasures and now link to downloads of her tweets instead of her Twitter account.

        2. “the American Revolution was fought by some, at least in part”

          Well, this is getting extremely watered down now. I think you agreeing with Mr. Oakes that the claim that the American Revolution was fought for the purpose of preserving slavery is a false one (except for “some” at least “in part”).

          I don’t think the 1619 project has those caveats, at least not as promoted and advertised.

          The entire point (as advertised, seems to me) of the 1619 project is that slavery was the central driving purpose and raison d’etre for the United States and its secession from Great Britain.

          I just downloaded a pdf of the original issue. I will have a look for its specific claims.

          1. I just printed out the original NYTM piece. The “banner bronze plaque” (what could they by this styling except they are giving the new law from on high?) reads:

            In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. America was not yet America, but this was the moment it began. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.

            Claims (just in the headline):
            Everything in the USA is derived from or driven by slavery.
            No one has told the truth about US history in the past.

            I’m sure there are many more claims in the text.

    1. You’re presenting a false dilemma. We can accept capitalism as problematic, as Oakes urges us to, without completely rejecting it (which Oakes never actually urges us to). Who here would say the problems of capitalism aren’t still with us?

      Nor can Oakes’s argument be reduced to a simplistic socialist screed of blaming capitalism for everything. He makes the crucial point that “for its first 150 years, the Atlantic slave trade was dominated by the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal, neither of which had experienced a transition to capitalism, and neither of which was propelled into a capitalist transition by the profits of slavery or slave trading.”

      Not until the middle of the 17th century did Britain launch the first truly capitalist empire, “but the same capitalist revolution that was stimulating the spectacular growth of American slavery was prompting the emergence of powerful arguments against slavery…opponents of slavery adopted the premises of ‘possessive individualism,’ the conviction that the right of property originated in the right of self-ownership…Thus did the principal ideological justification for capitalism become, at the same time, the principal rationale for opposing slavery.”

      And when the American Revolution established such principles “as the ideological basis for American nationhood, a century of antislavery sentiment suddenly generated the world’s first major moves toward abolition in those same Northern colonies.” Furthermore, “the unprecedented wealth of the North once again stimulated the demand for the products of slave labor, above all cotton. At the same time, however, the basis of Northern wealth — ‘free soil’ extracted from dispossessed native peoples — became the foundation for rising Northern hostility to slavery.” So Slavery was “not the forerunner of modern capitalism,” nor did it fuel the economic growth of the North.

      Oakes has produced one of the best critiques of the problems with the 1619 Project and its flawed treatment of economic issues. Defenders of the Projects’s worst errors will now have to grapple with it.

    2. “some Americans fought to undermine slavery. Now, even if that is true, the only thing we can conclude is that the undermining was a total failure short of a violent civil war.”

      A total failure? (This 1619 project seems to generate a lot of sweeping categorical statements.) The northern states fought a long hard battle against the growth of slavery. And they largely succeeded (contained it). The south did not give up slavery short of a bloody civil war. Why would anyone think they were going to give it up without some overpowering reason for doing so?

      WRT to capitalism: I think capitalism (with regulation and a support system for the poor and disadvantaged) is the best system we’ve devised for economies. It isn’t perfect. What’s the suggested alternative? Seems to me communism was an abject failure. The socialisms of Europe are a flavor of what I outlined above: Capitalism with regulation and a support system for the poor and disadvantaged.

      “how many of those that are so willing to accept the socialist critique of the 1619 Project are equally willing to accept its critique of capitalism and reject it as the desired economic system for the United States?”

      It’s commonplace for someone to be right about one thing and wrong about others. (I’m sure it’s true of me!)

  6. I find it hard to take the word of an enemy of capitalism about anything. Sure, capitalism as practiced has its problems but none so bad that we should replace it by socialism. But that’s a discussion for a different day.

    While the messenger’s opinion may be suspect, based on the excerpts here, he’s not wrong about the 1619 Project. It’s not about its take on history — I’ll gladly leave that to the historians — it’s the agenda behind it and the fact that the NYT has lent its credibility to that agenda. The project is clearly outside mainstream thought and that alone should have been enough to prevent the NYT from pushing it out as if it was their position paper. Worthy of discussion, sure, but not being nailed to the courthouse door.

    1. I guess you reject EVERYTHING that Bernie Sanders says, then. You are committing the genetic fallacy here, saying that enemies of capitalism shouldn’t be paid attention to. That means you’re dismissing Karl Marx’s analysis of religion as a way to distract the poor and downtrodden from their miseries. Nope: WE CAN’T TRUST MARX ON ANYTHING!

      1. It’s true that I don’t much care about Bernie Sander’s opinion but I doubt I’d reject everything he says. That would be an extreme position and I’m not generally in favor of those. Similarly for Karl Marx. It bothers me that some on the Right who comment here keep accusing the Left of being Marxian. It seems simply an attempt to attach a “Kick Me” label to the back of an issue. The Right’s marking of something as “socialist” appears to be losing its power so they are now going with “Marxist”. It’s just as unhelpful to reasonable discourse. But I digress.

        Isn’t it reasonable to distrust the opinion of someone on one subject when you disagree greatly with their opinion on some other subject? I certainly didn’t suggest we ignore Oakes on the 1619 Project, just remain on guard. As I noted in my comment, I happen to agree with him in this case, though based only on your summary here. I’m no expert on fallacies but I don’t think I’m committing one here.

          1. I did. And his comments about capitalism came sort of out of the blue to me. I was like, wait, what? Where did that come from?

            Seemed quite unrelated to overall thrust of the piece, which I thought was excellent.

            I wish he would have quoted from the project itself more. I am having troubling finding direct quotes of the claims of the project. Perhaps, like most post-modern work, it doesn’t speak clearly. I just downloaded a copy of the original NYTM piece and will read it.

  7. Don’t forget that the most extensive critique comes from the World Socialist Website…..who gather great historians for essays and interviews.

    Socialists understand to the nth degree that identity is eclipsing totally issues of class. (Which is why in no small part corporations fell over each other to support BLM.)

    1. Exactly. You don’t have to be a socialist to understand that the relentless focus on identity by the cultural elite has become a way of dodging the issues of class, at a time when out-of-control robber-baron capitalism is running rampant.

  8. ” “If you read the whole project,” Nikole Hannah-Jones has said, “I don’t think you can come away from it without understanding the project is an argument for reparations.” To a limited degree, the entire project that we label “woke” is directed toward reparations, but paid to a very specific class of operators. These reparations take the form of the outlandish speech and consultation fees paid to such operators as Ibram Kendi, Robin DiAngelo (not Black herself, but with an eye for good business), and others. And, of course, the salaries and status of the DEI nomenklatura.

    In an exactly comparable manner, the ritual of Diversity Statements helps the employment prospects,
    not so much of members of minority groups, but rather of applicants who are fluent in the formulas and lingo of DEI-speak. Every now and then, this feature of the process is announced openly. Last year,
    at a computer science meeting, there was a panel on “Valuing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Our Computing Community”. A speaker from USC named Timothy Pinkston proclaimed the following: “Much
    more attention and contributions to this important issue are needed from members within our community who are not from racial/ethnic populations currently underrepresented in the field. That is, what’s sorely needed are more advocates, allies, and champions.” [My italics.]

    Champions! This nicely sums up the whole trend of Diversity Statements, the 1619 Project, the DEI Committees and offices, and so on: all an operation to yield… a breakfast of champions. Long ago, in a galaxy far away, the imposition of certain doctrines in Biology on academic life also elicited a breakfast of champions in that society’s educational world.

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