The 1619 Project was an ambitious effort to rewrite the history of the American Revolution. America’s birth, we’ve been taught, was from a revolution against the tyranny of King George III. It was a battle against oppression of the colonies, and a fight for which we could be proud. Granted, it’s a bit rosy and whitewashed, but we won the war and get to write its history.
But the 1619 Project told a different story, that our revolution’s primary purpose was to perpetuate slavery and we are a nation born of racism. We should be guilty. We should feel disgust toward our nation and recognize that its existence is a disgrace. The purpose of the 1619 Project is to rewrite the history taught to our children so that they believe America to stand not as a shining beacon of democracy, but as a disgrace, an affront to equality.
Except historians took issue, not with the concerns of racism and slavery, but with the facts.
We applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history. Some of us have devoted our entire professional lives to those efforts, and all of us have worked hard to advance them. Raising profound, unsettling questions about slavery and the nation’s past and present, as The 1619 Project does, is a praiseworthy and urgent public service. Nevertheless, we are dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it.
For challenging the facts, determined by the Project’s handlers without the benefit of open historical discussion, these historians were dismissed with expected retort.
These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or “framing.” They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology. Dismissal of objections on racial grounds — that they are the objections of only “white historians” — has affirmed that displacement.
And what problems did these “white historians” have with the Project’s ideological version of history?
On the American Revolution, pivotal to any account of our history, the project asserts that the founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain “in order to ensure slavery would continue.” This is not true. If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.
Mind you, this project was intended, and likely will, influence what your children are taught about the American Revolution. Sure, the facts may be false, but the ideology is pure. And so the editor of the NYT magazine replied.
The project was intended to address the marginalization of African-American history in the telling of our national story and examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life.
Surely, no one doubts that this perspective is valuable and has been marginalized in our recounting of our history. And the inadequate recognition of the slavery in American history doesn’t mean we get to compensate now by making it up.
We are not ourselves historians, it is true. We are journalists, trained to look at current events and situations and ask the question: Why is this the way it is? In the case of the persistent racism and inequality that plague this country, the answer to that question led us inexorably into the past — and not just for this project.
Journalists are, or at least were, trained to ask these valuable questions. They were also trained to turn to those who possessed knowledge for answers to their questions. They were trained to report the facts. They were trained to seek the facts from those trained to know them. But what journalists were not trained to do is begin with their conclusion and then cobble together whatever story they could to prove it.
Though we may not be historians, we take seriously the responsibility of accurately presenting history to readers of The New York Times. The letter writers express concern about a “closed process” and an opaque “panel of historians,” so I’d like to make clear the steps we took. We did not assemble a formal panel for this project. Instead, during the early stages of development, we consulted with numerous scholars of African-American history and related fields, in a group meeting at The Times as well as in a series of individual conversations.
There is no shortage of academics dedicated to espousing ideologically correct, identity-based views these days, as post-graduate degrees are handed out to scholars specializing in seeing grievances whether real or imagined. This doesn’t mean they have to be disingenuous about it, but they frequently are. There’s no glory in having nothing new to write about, having no shocking and outrageous epiphany that changes everything.
The editor goes on at rather great length to detail the history of racism and slavery in America, reaching a chaos theory conclusion.
The very premise of The 1619 Project, in fact, is that many of the inequalities that continue to afflict the nation are a direct result of the unhealed wound created by 250 years of slavery and an additional century of second-class citizenship and white-supremacist terrorism inflicted on black people (together, those two periods account for 88 percent of our history since 1619). These inequalities were the starting point of our project — the facts that, to take just a few examples, black men are nearly six times as likely to wind up in prison as white men, or that black women are three times as likely to die in childbirth as white women, or that the median family wealth for white people is $171,000, compared with just $17,600 for black people. The rampant discrimination that black people continue to face across nearly every aspect of American life suggests that neither the framework of the Constitution nor the strenuous efforts of political leaders in the past and the present, both white and black, has yet been able to able to achieve the democratic ideals of the founding for all Americans.
How certain facts about the world today, lacking context, show slavery was the primary purpose of the American Revolution is a logical mystery, but an ideological truism. It’s fair to complain that American Revolutionary history has been over-simplified, over-glorified and whitewashed by the erasure of less than noble motives and their related acts.
But that does not mean you get to make up ahistorical “truth” to replace actual “facts” to rewrite history. Yet, that’s what is likely to be taught to our children and, once accomplished, will become their factual reality. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “every man is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” That appears to no longer be the case if the facts don’t prove what ideology demands of them.