The New York Times’s “1619 Project” was launched with a 100-page spread in the Times’s Sunday magazine. It intended to “reframe the country’s history” by crossing out 1776 as America’s founding date and substituting 1619, the year 20 or so African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia. ‘So wrong in so many ways” is how Gordon Wood, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the American Revolution, characterized the “1619 Project.” James McPherson, dean of Civil War historians and another Pulitzer winner, said the Times presented an “unbalanced, one-sided account” that “left most of the history out.”
By Elliot Kaufman for The International Chronicles
‘So wrong in so many ways” is how Gordon Wood, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the American Revolution, characterized the New York Times’s “1619 Project.” James McPherson, dean of Civil War historians and another Pulitzer winner, said the Times presented an “unbalanced, one-sided account” that “left most of the history out.” Even more surprising than the criticism from these generally liberal historians was where the interviews appeared: on the World Socialist Web Site, run by the Trotskyist Socialist Equality Party.
The “1619 Project” was launched in August with a 100-page spread in the Times’s Sunday magazine. It intends to “reframe the country’s history” by crossing out 1776 as America’s founding date and substituting 1619, the year 20 or so African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Va. The project has been celebrated up and down the liberal establishment, praised by Sen. Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
A September essay for the World Socialist Web Site called the project a “racialist falsification” of history. That didn’t get much attention, but in November the interviews with the historians went viral. “I wish my books would have this kind of reaction,” Mr. Wood says in an email. “It still strikes me as amazing why the NY Times would put its authority behind a project that has such weak scholarly support.” He adds that fellow historians have privately expressed their agreement. Mr. McPherson coolly describes the project’s “implicit position that there have never been any good white people, thereby ignoring white radicals and even liberals who have supported racial equality.”
The project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, is proud that it “decenters whiteness” and disdains its critics as “old, white male historians.” She tweeted of Mr. McPherson: “Who considers him preeminent? I don’t.” Her own qualifications are an undergraduate degree in history and African-American studies and a master’s in journalism. She says the project goes beyond Mr. McPherson’s expertise, the Civil War. “For the most part,” she writes in its lead essay, “black Americans fought back alone” against racism. No wonder she’d rather not talk about the Civil War.
To the Trotskyists, Ms. Hannah-Jones writes: “You all have truly revealed yourselves for the anti-black folks you really are.” She calls them “white men claiming to be socialists.” Perhaps they’re guilty of being white men, but they’re definitely socialists. Their faction, called the Workers League until 1995, was “one of the most strident and rigid Marxist groups in America” during the Cold War, says Harvey Klehr, a leading historian of American communism.
“Ours is not a patriotic, flag-waving kind of perspective,” says Thomas Mackaman, the World Socialist Web Site’s interviewer and a history professor at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He simply recognizes that the arrival of 20 slaves in 1619 wasn’t a “world-altering event.” Slavery had existed across the world for millennia, and there were already slaves elsewhere in what would become the U.S. before 1619.
But “even if you want to make slavery the central story of American history,” he says, the Times gets it backward. The American Revolution didn’t found a “slavocracy,” as Ms. Hannah-Jones puts it. Instead, in Mr. Mackaman’s telling, it “brought slavery in for questioning in a way that had never been done before” by “raising universal human equality as a fundamental principle.” Nor was protecting slavery “one of the primary reasons” the colonists declared independence, as Ms. Hannah-Jones claims. It’s no coincidence the abolitionists rapidly won votes to end slavery in five of the original 13 states, along with Vermont and the new states of the Midwest.
Ms. Hannah-Jones insists “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” Mr. Mackaman calls that claim “anti-historical.” Proving it requires her to belittle the most progressive declaration of modern history: “that all men are created equal.” Ms. Hannah-Jones calls this a “lie” and claims its drafters didn’t even believe it. The abolitionists disagreed. So did Martin Luther King Jr: He saw it as a “promissory note.”
Mr. Mackaman also protests Ms. Hannah-Jones’s “cherry-picking” of quotes to present Lincoln as a “garden-variety racist.” He attributes the misleading picture to her “totally racialist interpretation.” If whites and blacks are supposed to be “diametrically opposed to each other,” he says, “then you have to disregard all the history that runs contrary to that—and there’s an awful lot.”
Other “1619 Project” essays are similarly tendentious. Sociologist Matthew Desmond marshals substantially discredited research to tar the whole of American capitalism as a legacy of slavery. Legal activist Bryan Stevenson presents the war on drugs and broken-windows policing as successors to lynching, the Black Codes and other white “strategies of racial control.” Times columnist Jamelle Bouie claims Republican opposition to raising the debt ceiling in 2011 was of a piece with Southern defenses of slavery and Jim Crow.
Joseph Kishore, the Socialist Equality Party’s national secretary, says the “1619 Project” is aimed at legitimizing the politics of the Democratic Party and at “dividing workers” by race. “The interests of a black worker on the line in an auto plant and a white worker,” he says, “are fundamentally the same, and a million miles from the interests of an Oprah Winfrey or a Hillary Clinton.” He rejects the “pseudo-left politics” of identity, which “fight out conflicts within the top 10% or so over access to positions of power and privilege” through diversity programs, then “denounce white workers for being supposedly privileged even as they suffer from a decline in life expectancy and horrific social conditions.” Nobody is better at deflating the pretensions of progressives than the Left Opposition.
To be sure, the Trotskyists have wild ideas of their own: The World Socialist Web Site’s September essay claims “the event that had the greatest impact on the social condition of African-Americans” was the Russian Revolution. But the Times’s equally extreme ideas are being feted by the intelligentsia and turned into lesson plans for schoolteachers. “A re-education is necessary,” the “1619 Project” webpage warns. Even communists now tell the Times to cool it.