The New York Times wants to teach your kids and grandkids to be woke. Don’t let them.
Like most professional academics, I watched the launch of the New York Times’ “1619 Project” with a mix of genuine scholarly interest, an occasional desire to critique, and mild amusement at some of the authors’ wilder claims — such as Nikole Hannah-Jones arguing that the desire to preserve slavery was a “primary” reason for the American Revolutionary War or Kevin Kruse claiming that historical oppression “caused your traffic jam.” But, that said, I frankly expected to quickly forget the whole thing. It is an open secret in the creative community that most “hot new scholarly topics” or “special issues of the magazine” influence the national conversation for a week or two and then fade into justified obscurity.
But, then, the 1619 Project refused to go away, muscling in on my turf of youth education and higher education. 1619 recently began working with the Pulitzer Center to market an educational curriculum — billed as suitable for “all grades” — to as many schools as possible. The curriculum includes a U.S. historical timeline that begins with the year 1619, when the first enslaved Africans arrived in the British colonies, and focuses primarily on “facts and dates related to slavery.” It also features a list of classroom engagement activities such as “mapping your community’s connections to slavery” and an index of important American terms that opens with “affirmative action.” Hannah-Jones’ essay, which led off the original 1619 magazine in August, dominates a whole section of the curriculum called Exploring the Idea of America. This sub-unit includes such questions as, “What is national memory? How can we change it?”
Given the 1619 Project’s staying power and the extraordinary potential impact of an alliance between the New York Times, the Pulitzer Center, and leading leftist academics, it becomes essential to undertake a critical academic review of what 1619 actually says. Quite a few of the project’s claims flatly fail the truth test. Perhaps most notably, Hannah-Jones’ argument that preserving slavery was a primary reason for the Revolutionary War has been debunked by multiple top historians. Gordon Wood, one of the best-known American scholars of the Revolution, called this claim literally unbelievable (“I just couldn’t believe this!”) and went on to note that Hannah-Jones’ argument inaccurately “makes the Revolution out to be like the Civil War.”
My own understanding, as a Ph.D.-holding social scientist in a field closely allied to History, has always been that the Intolerable Acts and other examples of taxation without representation, disputes over the colonies’ responsibility for British war debt, and actual armed conflicts like the Boston Massacre were the primary triggers for the American Revolution. This, in fact, appears to be the consensus view in the field. Regarding the facial plausibility of Hannah-Jones’ alternative argument, it is probably worth noting that slavery was legal in Britain in 1776, and it remained so in all overseas British colonies until 1833.
Another 1619 claim worth parsing is the assertion that “12.5 million Africans” were “kidnapped from their homes” during the Atlantic slave trade, which brought slavery to the United States. While not a direct lie, this figure appears to represent the total number of Black African slaves ever sold to anyone, anywhere, across the totality of time. As the essay containing this figure itself notes, a paragraph or so farther down the page, the total number of enslaved Africans sold into the future U.S. was perhaps 400,000. For all her flaws during this bloody era, our nation bears no blame for slaves sold to Spanish, Portuguese, Iroquois, or Arabic masters — a great many of whom would be considered “people of color” by the racial standards of today. And, while we are speaking frankly, it must further be said that virtually no African slaves were “kidnapped” in the traditional sense of that word made famous by Roots: trapped by whites who walked inland and threw nets over them, say. The vast majority of slaves sold were African battle captives and their families, brought to market by Black or Muslim masters such as Tippu Tipp and the Ashanti chiefs.
Nikole Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project, as many leftists do, also claim that America’s remarkable wealth is largely a product of slavery. To quote directly: “[slavery] built vast fortunes for white people North and South” and “made New York City the financial capital of the world.” Much of this is again, politely put, debatable. While it is surely true that the slave trade enriched more than a few flint-hearted bankers and ship-owners, reliance on feudal peon agriculture also impoverished an entire region of the country. Social scientists such as Mark Schulman and Thomas Sowell have pointed out that, in 1860, the North had five to six times as many factories as the South and 10 to 12 times as many factory workers. In a conservative estimate from Schulman, 90 percent of the nation’s skilled workers were based in the North. In his magisterial Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Sowell goes so far as to argue that the Southern culture of unpaid slaves, “white trash” sharecroppers, and whip-wielding overseers resulted in a negative attitude toward the concept of hard work, the residue of which still plagues Black inner cities and poor white communities today.
Even such economic analyses as Sowell’s rarely factor in the cost of freeing the slaves. As I have noted elsewhere, the U.S. Civil War — the first truly modern war, in which brother fought brother — was an astonishingly costly and brutal undertaking. Analyzed simply in dollar terms, the conflict boosted the national debt of the young United States from $65 million to almost $3 billion (in 1865 dollars!) and cost far more money than that when state and private contributions are factored in. Far more important, the war claimed roughly 620,000 citizen lives, 360,000 from the Union Army, and 260,000 or more from the Confederate side. In the South, one of every four able-bodied men in their 20s was killed. Roughly one Union soldier died for every nine slaves freed. It is hard to stack this butcher’s bill up against virtually any measure of antebellum gains and conclude that the U.S. made a profit from her original sin.
Many more challenges to the scholarship of 1619 could be launched. The essays often lack any sense of internal domestic context, with Hannah-Jones arguing at one point that Blacks “made America a democracy,” while largely ignoring the contributions of the millions of whites and others who led the early anti-slavery movement and marched with Dr. King. The essays almost totally ignore international context, focusing intently on white English slave-masters 157 years before our country began, but never discussing the massive and globally influential Arab slave trade or the contemporary Barbary trade of mostly white Christian captives. By this point, however, and even without expanding upon those criticisms, it should be obvious that 1619 is not what advocates often claim it is: unbiased scholarship seeking an honest discussion of hard facts. The question now becomes: Why would the nation’s newspaper of record support a partisan, if skillfully written, project of racial advocacy?
To me, the answer is simple. Many Times journalists, and perhaps the majority of the paper’s readers, would like to fundamentally change America. To any ethical person, the implicit message of 1619 is fairly obvious: if our society is undeniably, perhaps inextricably, rooted in evil, it must change — or Blacks and others would be fully justified in hating our country. If the U.S. lacks a single-payer system of socialized health care not because only 31 percent of Americans favor “a single national government program” (Pew 2018) but rather because of the whip-marked legacy of slavery, establishing single-payer arguably becomes a moral imperative. Similarly, if our aggressive capitalism is due to slavery — although this claim is absurd; the most hyper-competitive economy in the world is Singapore’s — the country has no choice but to pursue racial justice by moving toward social democracy. Without engaging in conspiracy theories, I strongly suspect that the great majority of the staffers of the New York Times support these policy objectives and just might see the claim of historical original sin as a useful lever for achieving them.
In light of the methodological problems with the 1619 Project that have been discussed above, I propose an alternative vision of our country. I am proud to be a founding member, along with project leader Bob Woodson, Glenn Loury, Carol Swain, John Sibley Butler, Clarence Page, Coleman Hughes, Taleeb Starkes, LaTasha Fields, and more than two dozen others, of “1776.” 1776 is a pro-American, Black-led initiative intended partly as a response to 1619 (www.1776unites.com). From my perspective, our movement has three core theses. First, intelligent citizens need to recognize that many of the core claims of 1619, and more broadly of negative and revisionist social science of the “Howard Zinn” variety, are empirically untrue. Second, historical slavery, while a great and unforgettable evil, is simply not the main thing that defines America today. Virtually every human society included slaves and slaveholders until the modern West ended the practice of chattel slavery in the mid-19th century, and only one of them became the United States of America. A quick and practical way to compare the impact of slavery on America’s fortunes with that of immigration and technology is to note that the GDP of the U.S. has increased 11,796 percent since the last slave was freed.
Finally, and most importantly, 1776 offers an alternative, inspirational view of the United States: the U.S. is a flawed but very good society, where it is frankly not very hard to succeed, given hard work and personal responsibility. Life in America is not perfect, because human beings are not gods and are incapable of perfection. But the plain fact is that people regularly emigrate to the U.S. from developing countries such as Ethiopia and Vietnam and outperform many or most of our native-born white and Black citizens. In 2015, according to the Census Bureau, three of the five wealthiest income groups in the U.S. were Americans of Indian, Taiwanese, and Filipino heritage. While we Yanks quarrel about the ugly racial fights of a century ago, these sojourners to our shores are much more likely to be inspired by the country’s historic ideals, which still serve today as a light to the world. Teaching those same ideals anew to our own citizens seems to be the best way to illuminate a path forward together, for all of us.
Instead of taking the Times’ poison-pill offer to make your kids “woke,” I suggest instead working to make them bright.
Wilfred Reilly is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Kentucky State University and the author of the books Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About, Hate Crime Hoax, and The $50,000,000 Question. His research interests include international relations and the prevention of war, contemporary American race relations, and the use of modern quantitative methods to test “sacred cow” theories such as the existence of widespread white privilege. He can be reached on Twitter at @wil_da_beast630.