The race-washing of American history

The idea that all of our ills stem from slavery is revisionist history that helps no one.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Politics USA

With much fanfare, the New York Times has launched ‘The 1619 Project’ to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of slaves in Virginia. An entire magazine and special supplement were devoted to it. More articles will appear over the course of the year. And the project entails a major public-outreach programme, including producing a schools curriculum.

What is most striking about The 1619 Project is the sweep of its objective. The New York Times is not simply using the anniversary to remind readers of the horrors of slavery, or to explore other historical aspects. With this project, the newspaper seeks nothing less than ‘to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year’. The vast majority of Americans believe that the nation was formed by the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the American Revolution that followed. But marking 1776, a date ‘which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July’, is ‘wrong’, says the NYT.

For the NYT, understanding 1619 as the country’s ‘true founding’ means that virtually everything in US history since that time is explained by slavery. Magazine essayists who cover the alleged evils of today – Wall Street, lack of universal healthcare, Republicans in Congress, sugar consumption, income inequality – claim you can draw a straight line from slavery to our modern condition. Nothing, especially not the abolition of slavery more than 150 years ago, has stopped slavery from having a malign dominance over American life, they say.

To make such arguments, however, requires drawing the most superficial of associations between then and now. In the New York Times Magazine edition kicking off the 1619 Project, Matthew Desmond argues that the ‘brutality’ of American capitalism today is simply a continuation of the harsh conditions on plantations. The most ridiculous entry, from Kevin Kruse, contends that traffic jams in Atlanta are caused by slavery. Kruse happened to select a city that has witnessed the growth of a black upper-middle class. Rather than being evidence (somehow) of enduring slave-like conditions, the congestion in Atlanta is a by-product of something that has been very good for black (and other) people – economic growth.

In declaring 1619 as the nation’s founding, that slavery ‘is the country’s very origin’, the NYT is arguing that the US, at its foundation, is inherently and irredeemably racist. The Original Sin of slavery marks everything about the nation; slavery is the source of ‘nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional’. Slavery should be ‘at the very centre of the story we tell ourselves about who we are’ – in other words, we should tell ourselves that we are wicked, racist people.

Note that the NYT is not simply saying slavery existed from the beginning of the US, that it shaped the country’s development, and that it violated its stated principles of equality. No reasonable person would deny those facts. No, it is arguing for a far-reaching reinterpretation of US history: that white supremacy has been the purpose of the US from the start, its reason for existence.

In order to elevate 1619 to utmost importance, you have to trash 1776 and diminish its significance. In the introduction to the series, Nikole Hannah-Jones argues that the colonists declared independence from Britain to protect the institution of slavery — a distortion of history that ignores the wider social and political forces for independence. She calls the Declaration of Independence, and its famous proclamation that ‘all men are created equal’, a ‘lie’. The founders consciously knew it to be a sham. ‘The white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst’, she writes.

This is revisionist history. Founding Fathers such as George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson said at the time that slavery was incompatible with their conception of equality. The drafters of the Constitution deliberately kept any reference to slavery out of the founding document. As the historian Sean Wilentz highlights in his recent book No Property in Man, the framers’ rejection of southerners’ demand for property right in slaves was critical in undermining the legitimacy of slavery, even if the Constititution did not outright prohibit slavery at that time.

More to the point, by founding a country on the principle of equality, the founders laid the seeds for the ultimate destruction of slavery, even if that took some 80 years and a Civil War to achieve it. As Gordon Wood, the foremost authority on the history of the American Revolution, writes: ‘The Revolution suddenly and effectively ended the cultural climate that had allowed black slavery, as well as other forms of bondage and unfreedom, to exist throughout the colonial period without serious challenge.’

What’s more, the NYT’s perspective on the founding differs from that of America’s greatest anti-slavery and anti-racist heroes. The abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass, would use both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as weapons in his fight to bring down slavery. In his famous 1852 address, now known as ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’, he argued that to charge the ‘Fathers of the Republic’ with supporting slavery was ‘a slander upon their memory’. In response to those who said the Constitution was a slave-owning charter, he retorted that it was a ‘glorious liberty document’. If the Constitution was intended to be a slave-holding instrument, asked Douglass, ‘why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it’?

Martin Luther King certainly did not view America to be founded on racist principles. Like Douglass, King found inspiration in the founders’ universalism. ‘When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir’, he said in his 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. ‘This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’

In making the argument that the US is defined by slavery and has never overcome it, the NYT is effectively saying there has been no real progress. But what defines the best of Americans has been our willingness to struggle for freedom and realise the ideals of the founding. Thousands of people were willing to give their lives and fight in a Civil War to ensure an end to slavery. Millions opposed Jim Crow and supported the civil-rights movement. All of these struggles fade into insignificance in the NYT’s telling of US history, as it all failed to stop the effects of slavery. US history has just been one long violation of black people, according to this perspective.

There are certainly those who view US history through rose-tinted glasses, treating the founders like saints and downplaying slavery. That approach treats history as myth, and it is wrong. But what the NYT is doing is equally simplistic and wrong. Whereas the super-patriotic have claimed that the US is exceptionally good, the NYT now contends that the US is uniquely evil.

The 1619 Project is projecting 2019 concerns and ideological agendas on to the past. By arguing that various US institutions, parties and policies are tainted with slavery, these writers aim to present them as not just misguided, but as morally evil. From this perspective, the only restitution is to tear down these institutions, and put the racially woke in charge.

And consistent with the today’s fad for calling on whites to renounce their ‘white privilege’, The 1619 Project is intended to make Americans feel guilty about who they are. Americans are uneducated about the ‘true’ history, goes the thinking – they are trapped by their legacy and therefore doomed to be racist forever. Only the woke can transcend the past.

The New York Times’s rewriting of history will make its writers and readers feel virtuous and superior. But it does nothing to advance the lives of Americans, black or white. It only serves to inject race into all of our discussions, including those that should have nothing to do with race, and divide us further.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

Picture by: Getty Images.

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Jack Enright

30th August 2019 at 8:56 pm

A top notch analysis – most especially the way you brought out the points made by Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King.
Those who decry the Declaration of independence because it didn’t make America perfect, overnight, are blind to the obvious; that the Founding Fathers are called that because they didn’t create a ‘finished’ America – they laid the foundation on which future generations could build, and on which they HAVE built.
I’ve often heard people criticise the Magna Carta along the same lines – “It didn’t make England a democracy, did it?”
Of course it didn’t – but it DID force the King to admit that even he, powerful as he was, was NOT above the law. Up till that point, the King considered that he WAS the law, and answerable to no man, but only to God. Even if the Magna Carta had only forced him to concede to a single restraint on his power, that changed him, in one moment, from a superman to a man.
And STILL the fight goes on! Charles I saw himself as ‘above the law’ – and found out the hard way that he was not. King James II made the same mistake, only to be driven out of England, and replaced by King William III, who signed the Bill of Rights, in 1689, which (in my opinion) strongly influenced the drafters of the Declaration of Independence. (try comparing the texts of the two). At the end of her reign, Queen Victoria tried to impose her will on Parliament – only to lose out to the power of the House of Commons.
Even, to my utter amazement, Tricky Dickie Nixon fell into the same ‘I AM the law!’ trap. After being forced to resign due to the Watergate scandal, in a live TV interview with David Frost, when Frost asked him directly about his attitude to the law, Nixon said:
“If the President does something, it IS legal!”
And here we are again, with the scum who think they are ‘the Ruling Elite’, telling us that THEY can do whatever they like, bend and break every rule in the book, deny democracy, and deny our Constitutional laws, because “WE know BEST!”
But, just like King John, Charles I, James II, Queen Victoria and Nixon, they’re going to learn. The hard way. As the late (and wise) Will Rogers pointed out, “Some people just HAVE to pee on the electric fence for themselves!”

Michael Brandow

27th August 2019 at 4:38 pm

Hard to imagine anything more retrograde and counterproductive, to black people and to the nation. Roots Redux. Why don’t they just wheel out Kunta Kinte?

Mark Houghton

27th August 2019 at 1:07 pm

I think the US government should offer all African Americans say $500,000 if they want to go back to Africa. How many would take up such a generous offer I wonder?

gershwin gentile

27th August 2019 at 12:28 pm

Did you know that the Nigerian government have said that they should pay reparations… Funny how this is very rarely mentioned in the media.

I wonder if that is because the historically illiterate are not so keen on demanding money from the likes of Boko Haram.

I think they might find that the ol’ Boko Haram might not like SJW Ident’ers. Might have to confront the fact that Boko Haram aren’t the poor little noble savages the left makes out.

Then what would they do?

Amelia Cantor

27th August 2019 at 11:24 am

When a cisgender white male is whining and whitesplaining, you know his white male fragility has been triggered by that most horrendous of things: the truth.

Truth hurts. Love wins.

Hana Jinks

28th August 2019 at 5:57 am

You’ve said two normal things in one day.

Mike Stallard

27th August 2019 at 10:20 am

I cannot place the soldier in the picture. What exactly is he wearing on his head? The number of buttons on his uniform is four which suggests British Empire. The US ones seem to have had lots of smaller buttons. Brazilian and German East African ones were completely different. The Gold Coast Riot Police I remember from Ghana were the smartest of all the soldiers i have ever seen. This man looks dirty and unkempt. Are you sure you have got the right picture? Also what are the Africans wearing on their heads exactly? Is it the rings they use even today to carry things?
Long live Thomas Clarkson – the Wisbech man who did more than anyone in the whole world to abolish the evil of slavery.

Jerry Owen

27th August 2019 at 9:00 am

According to Mark Steyn there is in fact a ‘racist golf course’. The Democrats want it closed down. It is racist because it has a row of trees that were planted to screen of a black neighborhood. The blacks have since moved out but the stench of racist trees is too much for some Democrats.

Hana Jinks

28th August 2019 at 6:01 am

Why are you here?

Hugh Gibney

27th August 2019 at 4:13 am

Whatever it may have been in the past, the ‘New York Times’ seems to have lost any legitimate claim to be considered a worthwhile quality newspaper, serving a worthwhile purpose.

Of course, the NYT isn’t the only once-great newspaper of which the above can be said.

Michael Lynch

26th August 2019 at 10:23 pm

All this is nought but the Democrats and liberal do gooders preparing the way for the Presidential race. The trouble is they think it’s a good strategy. This PC nonsense ain’t gonna wash with most of the electorate. This a country that was not only founded on slavery but one that was established on stolen land. In fact, the indigenous population (The Indian Tribes) have been almost wiped out over the centuries. I’m afraid that The Democrats will find trying to wrestle ‘manifest destiny’ out of the American psyche will be as hard a task as prizing the gun from their hands.

Winston Stanley

26th August 2019 at 9:52 pm

“American capitalism today is simply a continuation of the harsh conditions on plantations”

I suspect that they have got it the wrong way round. Rather the harsh plantation conditions and slavery were a stage in the early transition and development of American capitalism away from feudalism. Slavery was a “moment” of capitalism rather than vice versa.

A huge workforce was needed. In England we had the land enclosures, the vagrancy laws and the forced migration of the old peasantry into the cities and the factories. Conditions were pretty harsh there too, long hard working days with little reward. Wage labour suited employers in Britain, they did not have to look after slaves when the long hard working day was over, to house, clothe and feed them, it is a lot easier to just give them some pittance and let them fend for themselves in the expanding cities as best as they could, likely some rented room with other families. They had been cleared out of their old cottages in the countryside.

Those who moral posture about the past miss the point that early stages of capitalism were always going to be harsh. And it was an incredibly progressive period. We transitioned from feudalism, which had been going on for 1000 years with close to zero productivity growth decade to decade, to the most economically progressive economic system by far in all of human history. Sad to say but those harsh conditions allowed for the accumulation of capital and for the development of international trade that has made modern capitalism possible. There would have been no later stage of development if there had not been the earlier. That is just how history works, and it is a sad reflection if we have forgotten basic stuff like that.

One day we may transition to another epoch of material development, with different productive property relations, and the people of the future may look back and claim, “oh, I could never morally justify anything like wage labour, how awful!” The attitudes of people about productive relations reflect the development of the material base. Slavery in early American capitalism was a transitional period and so people largely accepted it for a time and then they gradually moved against it as it had served its purpose, to allow capital to accumulate and international trade to develop, and it became materially outdated.

Indeed we can go as far as to say that it is the early American capitalist slavery that made the abolition of the early American capitalist slavery materially possible, not the moral sentiments of people back then, let alone posers today who wish to flatter themselves and to assert their moral superiority. It is the harsh conditions of early capitalism that made the abolition of those harsh conditions materially possible, in England as in America. Thus slavery in early American capitalism itself was historically liberating. Just as feudalism made the abolition of feudalism materially possible. And just as capitalism and wage labour may eventually make wage labour materially redundant. Only time will tell on that one. History progresses in a gradual and orderly material fashion, not by the posturing of the fashion “moralistas”.

The NYT is frankly being silly. Slavery is an economic category not a moral category. History progresses through material development, and morality reflects that economic base in its material development. History is not driven by moral ideas but vice versa. USA is massively more developed materially and “morally” than it was back then, and it is due to back then that this so. That is likely antithetical and hard for the moralistas to grasp. It is not all about them and their moral feelyism. It is much easier to condemn the past, to pose in opposition to it, and to try to claim a moral authority for some silly ID politics in the present, than it is to understand it. Or to understand the present and to come out with some sensible materially progressive policies that will benefit all. It is productivity growth, material development, that makes social mobility and social development possible – not silly posturing and an attempt to rewrite history. “It is the economy, st upid!”

> Nor will we explain to them that it is only possible to achieve real liberation in the real world and by employing real means, that slavery cannot be abolished without the steam-engine and the mule and spinning-jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture, and that, in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. “Liberation” is an historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions, the development of industry, commerce, agriculture, the conditions of intercourse. (Marx, The German Ideology)

> Slavery is an economic category like any other. Thus it also has its two sides. Let us leave alone the bad side and talk about the good side of slavery. Needless to say, we are dealing only with direct slavery, with Negro slavery in Surinam, in Brazil, in the Southern States of North America.
Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that gave the colonies their value; it is the colonies that created world trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.
Without slavery North America, the most progressive of countries, would be transformed into a patriarchal country. Wipe North America off the map of the world, and you will have anarchy – the complete decay of modern commerce and civilization. Cause slavery to disappear and you will have wiped America off the map of nations.[*1]

*1. This was perfectly correct for the year 1847. At that time the world trade of the United States was limited mainly to import of immigrants and industrial products, and export of cotton and tobacco, i.e., of the products of southern slave labour. The Northern States produced mainly corn and meat for the slave states. It was only when the North produced corn and meat for export and also became an industrial country, and when the American cotton monopoly had to face powerful competition, in India, Egypt, Brazil, etc., that the abolition of slavery became possible. And even then this led to the ruin of the South, which did not succeed in replacing the open Negro slavery by the disguised slavery of Indian and Chinese coolies, F.E. (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy)


27th August 2019 at 2:22 pm

Excellent stuff. Thank you for that

Tony Murphy

26th August 2019 at 8:52 pm

I think this would be a wonderful opportunity to pause for a moment and give thanks for the great contributions that the black community has made to American society. Their peaceful and generous nature make them ideal neighbours, lending testimony to their exceptional family values and parenting skills unrivaled by any other culture.

Their quiet and calm behaviour in restaurants as to not disturb other diners and the generous gratuity they leave after dining is an example that all diners should strive to achieve. Their commitment to academic excellence enriches our schools and serves as an example to all who hope to achieve prominence as a people.

Real estate values are fueled by the influx of African Americans into a neighbourhood due to their caring and respectful nature for their own property as well as their community,an example of all that they have achieved through their enthusiasm for self improvement by their unmatched work ethic.

Their hands on, hard work and a self-reliant can-do attitude nurtures a culture of integrity and honour. Without their industrious and creative drive, we truly would be lesser of a nation.

James Knight

26th August 2019 at 5:54 pm

Slavery is alive and well in the US. It is amongst the woke critics who see Americans as slaves to their history. This woke ideology is a prison without bars.

Maybe they never escaped the Democratic Plantation.

Neil McCaughan

26th August 2019 at 1:12 pm

If those slaves had been white (as hundreds of thousands kidnapped by Barbary pirates were) sanctimonious liberals wouldn’t have given a stuff about them.

How can we be sure of that? Because we haven’t heard a murmur about the abominable working conditions the labouring classes (men, women and small children) endured for centuries both in Britain and in the USA. Their condition was barely different from that of slaves. But our modern low-information prating classes seem completely ignorant that capitalism was raised on their backs.

Bloody humbugs.

Jim Lawrie

26th August 2019 at 12:43 pm

Refugee and reparation scholarships are the latest exclusionary measures against the white working class in Scotland.

Gerard Barry

26th August 2019 at 12:21 pm

Interesting aside regarding the New York Times. It used to be the case (and maybe it still is, I don’t know) that the vast majority of their blue-collar staff where the papers were printed were white. One union in particular (the paper handlers) was dominated by the Irish. It was the unions rather than the employer who decided who to hire and the Irish tended to favour the Irish. These were well-paid jobs with decent benefits that required little education or skills, yet black men in New York were for the most part excluded from them. What a bunch of hypocrites the people at that newspaper are!

S Rome

26th August 2019 at 12:04 pm

Having browsed that magazine, I am aware that a ship arrived at a harbour in Virginia with a cargo of slaves, which were then sold. I am left little the wiser.

Was the shipment speculative? What made the voyage seem worthwhile at the outset? How was the sale conducted? How were the contracts seen as valid – how could the buyers property in the slave be enforced, or be transferred? What was the nature of the servitude to which those slaves were subjected? What rights did the owners presume to exercise over the slaves? How did this first sale of slaves develop into a practice? How did this all fit into the society at that time?

It does seem to have been a significant moment in the development of the colony of Virginia, and by extension the USA, so it would be useful to know a lot more about the moment itself.

Tony Murphy

26th August 2019 at 8:56 pm

Another thing you’ll never be told is that most of the slave boats were owned by the Special People, those-who-cannot-be-named.

S Rome

26th August 2019 at 11:39 am

Mind you, at the time of the American Revolution it was Dr. Johnson who asked (albeit in terms we would not now choose) “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” That conflict at the heart of American independence was always there.

Drew Peacock

26th August 2019 at 11:02 am

As the white man cannot be redeemed, it would seem therefore that the best or only way forward is segregation of the races, only then will we see true progression.

H McLean

26th August 2019 at 8:06 am

Social justice activists have repeatedly shown a willingness to distort the truth and outright lie in pursuit of their goals. It can not reiterated enough – their goal is not truth; they do not seek to promote understanding, unity or the common good; what they desire over all else is power – power to control everyone and everything, and they’re willing to do anything to get it.

brent mckeon

26th August 2019 at 7:55 am

it is a simple easy move to turn the NYT article/direction from America to the Democratic Party. It was/is the party of slavery, killed thousands in its defense of slavery in the American civil war, Jim Crow laws, its Southern wing fought vigorously to stop the mid 60s social reform laws (without being kicked out of the party) and right up to today the most violent cities are mostly run by the Democratic party. It has used the social reform laws it opposed to corral the poor (mostly Black) into Uncle Sam’s Plantation ghettos with servitude forever to the Democratic party masters who dole out the goodies in payment for votes. Why not put the slavery issue to bed once and for all, the members of the Democratic party pay for their past sins and the present misery they cause in the nations big cities. It cannot be a govt hand out as there are millions (White, Black, Asian etc etc) who have come to America since slavery was ended so why should they contribute to what the Democratic party has caused and still benefits from?

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