The 1619 Project:
A New Origin Story
created by nikole hannah-jones
one world, 624 pages, $38
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. This visit took place in Riverton, New Jersey, in January 1931:
There were some 350 to 400 children present—the majority of them white. I told them some of the many achievements of the Negro, not in isolated fashion but in relation to similar contributions of other races and nationalities. I merely placed the Negro in the picture with all other groups. Everyone seemed to be pleased . . . The white superintendent and the principal, Mr. Bryan, took me to their office and had me relate much more to them than I had told the children. . . . They took two sets of books.
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.” That more closely reflects my own experience attending public school in North Carolina in the 1990s. Somewhere in our attic is the speech I wrote for a class project on Menelik II, boasting that Ethiopia would never be colonized by Europeans.
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.
One important American liberty is the right to a trial by jury. This right depends on the secrecy of jury deliberations, which are protected from outside scrutiny for the same reason that legislative debates are exempted from ordinary laws of defamation and slander—to permit free discussion. The Supreme Court has rejected attempts to carve out exceptions to this rule in cases where jurors were drunk or high or revealed that they had lied during jury selection. In the 2017 case Peña Rodriguez v. Colorado, however, the court ruled that jury deliberations could be the basis for a new trial if a juror said something indicating racial bias. The defendant in the case was a Mexican immigrant accused of sexual assault and a female juror reportedly said, “Mexican men take whatever they want.”
Many equally venerable liberties have been likewise superseded by claims of racial justice. The protection against double jeopardy is undermined when federal civil rights laws are used to give prosecutors a second bite at the apple against defendants accused of crimes against protected minorities. (The Department of Justice was reportedly ready to arrest Derek Chauvin in the courtroom if the jury in the state criminal trial acquitted him.) The right to vote is one of the liberties Hannah-Jones credits black America with bringing into fullness, but as the bureaucratic apparatus created by the civil rights revolution grows more powerful, millions of voters—whether Californians who want to end affirmative action in their state or immigration restrictionists who want to control the border—find that their right to vote does not entail the power to affect government policy if that apparatus can cast their goals as discriminatory.
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.) This was less than three weeks after retired St. Louis police captain David Dorn became the seventeenth person to die during that summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, shot outside a pawn shop he was trying to protect from looters.
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. “This was not purposeless criminality, as many white observers claimed,” argue Michelle Alexander and Leslie Alexander in their chapter. “It was a sustained revolt.”
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.
The result of this crime wave was a mass exodus out of America’s cities, dwarfing in numbers the Great Migration that preceded it. Cities that had been more than 90 percent white in 1940 (New York, Chicago, Milwaukee) saw their white share drop into the 30s. Between 1970 and 1975, seventy-three of the Fortune 500 companies moved their headquarters, the most frequently cited reason being crime. In human terms, this represented enormous dislocation for tens of millions of people, lost social networks, parishes that disintegrated, wealth built up in houses lost. Hannah-Jones cites, in connection with the black-white wealth gap, a study totting up how many Americans today had ancestors who benefited from the Homestead Act (which incidentally was open to black Americans). Has any such minute accounting been made of the wealth lost by the people chased from their homes in this way?
No, and one hopes there never will be. 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. American history is full of episodes of racial injustice and racial progress, episodes when pursuing greater equality for black Americans redounded to everyone’s benefit and when doing so required non-black Americans to bear great costs, and episodes in which race played hardly any role at all. Nothing could be more toxic to our ongoing effort to build a multiracial democracy than to cast any race as a perennial hero or villain.
Before she launched the 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones was celebrated for her articles on public education. In a typical one, she describes New York City as having a “two-tiered system: one set of schools with excellent resources for white kids and some black and Latino middle-class kids, a second set of underresourced schools for the rest of the city’s black and Latino kids.” This mechanical invocation of “underresourced” minority schools, which does not reflect the current reality of the New York City Public Schools budget, is typical of the selective amnesia that runs through The 1619 Project. Loath as Hannah-Jones may be to admit it, the effort to address racial disparities has been central to American politics for as long as she has been alive, and it has never been more central than at this moment.
Hannah-Jones poses as an embattled underdog. Evidence suggests the opposite. The headmaster of a $70,000-a-year prep school in Massachusetts was forced out of his job after he withdrew an invitation to Hannah-Jones to speak on campus. Hannah-Jones posted a screenshot of the disinvitation email, which cited the school’s desire to avoid “noise,” on Twitter, with a long thread alleging a “propaganda campaign” against her. When the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offered her a five-year chair at its journalism school but did not offer her tenure, the public outrage was instantaneous. Hannah-Jones accused UNC of acting “because of discriminatory views against my viewpoint and, I believe, my race and my gender.” Lawyers talked to lawyers; UNC added tenure to its offer; Hannah-Jones turned them down to go to Howard University instead.
As for the 1619 Project, its fundamental assertion—that white racism is the biggest threat facing the country—is accepted by every power center from Silicon Valley to the Pentagon. The social media app Nextdoor now prompts users with an “anti-racism notification” if they attempt to post messages containing certain trigger words “that many find hurtful,” such as “Blue Lives Matter.” Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion advisers earn six-figure salaries working not just for UC-Berkeley ($325,000) but for the U.S. Marine Corps ($144,128). The most important phenomenon of the last decade, the opioid epidemic, was almost missed because Angus Deaton and Anne Case were discouraged from researching rising mortality among white Americans by “really senior people,” who, according to Deaton, said, “in no uncertain terms, how dare you work on whites.”
Sociologist Zach Goldberg, in his unpublished PhD dissertation “Explaining Shifts in White Racial Liberalism: The Role of Collective Moral Emotions and Media Effects,” includes a qualitative section featuring quotes from survey respondents, from which he posted a sample on Twitter:
“As a white person seeing the racism in America today and trying to understand the history of it, it makes me angry and ashamed of existing and being white. Just the fact that one group can hurt so many other people is disgusting to me.” –18 years old, Female, Weak Democrat, Very Liberal
“White people have been liars since the beginning. It’s awful. I feel awful. Why is this race like this?” –21 years old, Female, Weak Democrat, Moderate
“Honestly, as white Americans, I feel like generally we have walked over, sabotaged, and generally f**ked over any and every other group of people that has come before and alongside us. Native Americans, Africans, Asians; we’ve always made sure that we come out on top no matter who we have to beat down to get to the top. It is very sad.” –28 years old, Male, Weak Democrat, Slightly Liberal
“The thought of whites not being the majority one day is promising as I hope racism will decrease.” –26 years old, Female, Strong Democrat, Liberal
These statements evoke in me the same feeling many Americans felt when they heard about Kenneth Clark’s “doll tests,” made famous by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. How can anything be right, the public wondered, that makes innocent young people hate themselves?
Goldberg’s respondents talk this way because the 1619 Project is not an insurgent faction but the reigning orthodoxy, which they hear from their teachers, their employers, their politicians, and their celebrities. 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.
Helen Andrews is a senior editor at the American Conservative.
Image by Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo via Creative Commons. Image cropped.