Posted on January 12, 2022

What the 1619 Project Means

Helen Andrews, First Things, February 2022

In 1930, Lorenzo Greene traveled around the United States selling books about black history on behalf of his boss, Carter G. ­Woodson, the man who invented Black ­History Week (later Month), and his organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Greene had a degree from ­Columbia University and “could rattle off Negro history like one could the multiplication table,” according to one customer. He kept a diary of his journey, which was published in 1996. It is a fascinating record of the reception he encountered hawking black history ­textbooks from Atlanta to Philadelphia to Chicago. {snip}


After his presentations, he wrote, black students “feel proud to have these contributions made known to them. . . . White students, too, enjoy it, as I know from my experience, not only in New York but also in the South.”

This is not at all the picture Nikole Hannah-Jones paints. In her preface to The 1619 Project, she describes the attitude of white America to the teaching of black history as dismissive or even hostile. African Americans “were largely absent from the histories I read” as a public school student in Iowa, she writes. “The vision of the past I absorbed from school textbooks, television, and the local history museums depicted a world, perhaps a wishful one, where Black people did not ­really exist.” The need to remedy this absence is the motivation for The 1619 Project and its constellation of supplemental materials, ­including sample curricula and reading guides.

To support her claim that black history is still untaught today, ­Hannah-Jones cites a 2018 study from the Southern Poverty Law Center showing that only 8 percent of high school seniors named slavery as the main cause of the civil war. That study is dubious for several reasons, in addition to its provenance in a highly politicized NGO. It was an online survey of only a thousand students, and the plurality (48 percent) answered that the Civil War was caused by “tax protests,” which, needless to say, is not the line they would have read in an old United Daughters of the Confederacy textbook.

A better study was done in 2008, in which high-school seniors in all fifty states were asked to write down the ten most famous Americans in history who were never president. The three most popular answers were Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman. Christopher Caldwell writes in his recent book The Age of Entitlement, drawing on his experience as a parent, “Race is the part of the human experience in which American schoolchildren are most painstakingly instructed.” {snip}

Even if modern schools are already full of race material, the 1619 Project is by no means redundant. It marks a significant departure. Black history is no longer, as Greene put it, “in the picture with all other groups.” The 1619 Project sees “anti-Blackness as foundational to America” and insists that slavery, “sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin . . . is more than that: It is the country’s very origin.” Hannah-Jones proudly quotes a Chicago high-schooler describing what she learned from the 1619 curriculum at her school: “We were the founding fathers. We put so much into the U.S. and we made the ­foundation.”

In the two years since its initial publication in the New York Times, the scholarly rebuttal to the 1619 Project has focused on its two biggest departures from the academic consensus: the claim that the American Revolution was motivated by the colonies’ desire to preserve slavery, which no less an eminence than Gordon S. Wood has refuted, and the claim that ­American capitalism was built on the wealth generated by slavery, which has been energetically attacked by economic ­historians such as Phil Magness.

These expert refutations, however essential, will not touch the 1619 Project’s central thesis: that racial minorities are what America is about. This is not a one-time rebalancing of the attention history books give to various demographics. It is a sweeping principle of infinite application, not just to America’s history but to its future. The 1619 Project absorbs immigrants into its mission by asserting that “it was the civil rights movement [that] upended the racist immigration quota system intended to keep this country white. Because of Black Americans, Black and brown immigrants from across the globe are able to come to the United States.” The 1619 Project invites any non-white person anywhere in the world to share in its claims against the white American majority, whose moral account will never be settled as long as any would-be immigrant remains excluded from American citizenship.

As much democracy as this nation has today, it has been borne on the backs of Black resistance and visions for equality,” argues Hannah-Jones. If America is a democracy, it is thanks to black people. If we are prosperous, it is thanks to black people. And they have done it all in the teeth of white opposition. “For the most part, Black Americans fought back alone, never getting a majority of white Americans to join and support their freedom struggles,” she writes. America owes its liberties and its prosperity to black people—that is the claim we must evaluate, the claim on which the 1619 Project will stand or fall after the debates over Lord Dunmore’s proclamation have subsided.


The most fundamental liberty is the right to bodily safety. The 1619 Project describes the many ways racism has deprived black Americans of this right, and no reader can fail to be moved by stories like that of ­Celia, who was hanged in 1855 for the murder of the widower who had bought her at age fourteen to be his sex slave. Racism has a body count. Does anti-racism? In June 2020, in response to a New York Post op-ed titled “Call them the 1619 riots,” Hannah-Jones tweeted, “It would be an honor. Thank you.” (She later deleted the tweet.) {snip}

Five of the book’s eighteen chapters mention the Watts Riot of 1965 and its sequels during the long, hot summers of the late sixties, always described in political terms. Ibram X. Kendi refers to “the six-day Watts Rebellion against racism.” The authors endorse the same explanation for the riots as the Kerner Commission established by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, which multiple contributors also cite: that they were a social protest against inequality and segregation. {snip}

This is not how the violence of that era was experienced by most people. The crime rate increased by double digits every year between 1965 and 1969. Between 1960 and 1990, violent crime increased a gobsmacking 353 percent. The 1619 Project accuses white America of being “obsessed with a destructive fear of Black criminality,” but the explosion in crime was not a hallucination, nor was it only prejudice that located responsibility for the rise mainly among young black males. Most crime is intra-racial, but when criminologist William Wilbanks examined crimes committed in 1981 by black perpetrators, he found that 64 percent of robbery victims, 59 percent of rape victims, and 52 percent of assault victims were white.


{snip} Hannah-Jones has proposed a racial accounting that is, for her side, all credits and no debits. The moral response is not to start tallying the latter. It is to reject racial accounting altogether.  {snip}


{snip} Lorenzo Greene said his black history lectures left black and white students feeling ­exhilarated. The lectures of the 1619 Project have left young white listeners with feelings of self-loathing. They have somehow got the idea that in the version of America the 1619 Project envisions, there is no place for them, no noble course open except silence and self-abnegation. They are correct.