Conservatives called the New York Times’ project “divisive,” progressives hailed it as the “real” history of America – all before publication. We gave it a read, and found the US’ new myths about itself as flawed as the old.
For all the right-wing outrage engulfing Twitter now, the conclusions reached by the 1619 Project could have been guessed from the start.
After all, an “initiative” that “aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 [the year the first African slaves arrived in Virginia] as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are” is hardly pursuing a hidden agenda.
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The political stance of the New York Times is no mystery either, while the recent leaked staff “town hall” meeting showed that with the failure of the Mueller investigation to displace Donald Trump, race will be its main line of attack on the incumbent in the election year. The constantly updated online project, with a dedicated page and an ethos that will permeate the entire newspaper, is presumably the flagship of this effort.
Nor is there anything subtle about its constituent articles, which all follow the same formula: blaming slavery, a white historical figure, or white people as a class, for present-day shortcomings of American society, which in turn affect black people disproportionately. According to what has already been placed online, dead white slavers and their inheritors are at fault for a lack of a functioning democracy, rapacious capitalism, incarceration rates, political gridlock, poor healthcare, traffic jams, and the country’s sugar addiction.
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But for all that, the articles (which can be accessed for free here) cannot be waved away en masse. Many are well-researched, fluently written, and provide plenty of genuine insights.
And a host of highly dubious assertions.
Black people have done more for American democracy than white people
The truth is that as much democracy as this nation has today, it has been borne on the backs of black resistance. Our founding fathers may not have actually believed in the ideals they espoused, but black people did… We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, NYT author, in the opening essay.
Thesis: the Founding Fathers (note the lack of capitalization in the original) were slave-owning hypocrites, while blacks had the civil rights movement for true equality, then all African-Americans are the true “perfecters” of democracy.
Just the sheer gall it takes to strip the historic figures that fought for the country’s independence, wrote an example-setting constitution, and implemented the most egalitarian major government of their time, of all credit in a couple of paragraphs, to accuse them of being frauds.
The wilful historical ignorance that negates all difference between the 1780s and the 1960s.
The cultural chauvinism that it takes to take a shared national achievement, the work of millions of individuals over centuries, and breezily assign it to one group.
But then, statues must be toppled.
Slavery caused the 2008 crash and the capitalist exploitation of workers
[US capitalism] 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.
Matthew Desmond, sociologist at the University of Princeton
You can make all the eye-popping Gladwellesque connections you want between Antebellum cotton farmers, squeamish British abolitionist investors who wanted to “profit from slavery without getting their hands dirty” and reckless Mississippi bank lenders from 1833, but they did not invent modern capitalism or its financial systems. That’s a tendentious simplification of a global process that started long before the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth.
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Besides, is capitalism really the worst thing that could have happened to America? The world’s second-biggest economy, the home of Google and Apple, of Nike and Amazon.
What would Desmond have preferred as America’s historical economic path? Russian serfdom? Chinese communism? African feudalism? How many of even the poorest black Americans would even now choose to go back to their ancestral homeland of the Congo or Liberia, where average GDP per capita is 50 times lower.
No one says US capitalism is perfect, but that myopic self-obsession seems ironically an extension of the American exceptionalism the writers here rail at. Look at us, even our suffering is without comparison!
Biased white doctors mistreat black patients because of old racial theories
The centuries-old belief in racial differences in physiology has continued to mask the brutal effects of discrimination and structural inequities, instead placing blame on individuals and their communities for statistically poor health outcomes. Rather than conceptualizing race as a risk factor that predicts disease or disability because of a fixed susceptibility conceived on shaky grounds centuries ago, we would do better to understand race as a proxy for bias, disadvantage and ill treatment.
Linda Villarosa, freelance journalist
This is where we move from suspect sociology to straight anti-science.
Yeah, 19th century assumptions that blacks have a smaller lung capacity might have been rooted in prejudice, but it doesn’t follow from this that races do not exist, and that all people regardless of their genetic origin must receive identical medical treatment. And the doctors who are not giving it are racists.
To advocate this denigrates the valid research that shows that most African-Americans carry different genes, including ones that make them susceptible to, say, high blood pressure or diabetes. This is one step away from the conspiratorial “AIDS is a white man’s disease,” trope, and the kind of thinking that is more likely to kill than to save black Americans.
A ‘curriculum’ fit for children?
This is just a sample: throughout the series there are plenty more of these far-reaching claims, and not at the margins, but at the heart of the arguments being made. There is nothing wrong with narrowly-conceptualized revisionist history to drive an argument in a partisan newspaper.
But the partnership with the Smithsonian and the Pulitzer Center, which has turned these articles into a curriculum for schoolchildren, suggests that the New York Times is seeking not just legitimacy, but desires to genuinely rewrite the prevailing narrative of American history. It should not be allowed to do so.
By Igor Ogorodnev
Igor Ogorodnev is a Russian-British journalist, who has worked at RT since 2007 as a correspondent, editor and writer.