“I think the important point to make about slavery is that it had existed for thousands of years without substantial criticism,” said the historian Gordon Wood in an interview last year. “But it’s the American Revolution that makes it a problem for the world. And the first real anti-slave movement takes place in North America. So this is what’s missed by these essays in the 1619 Project.”
Mr. Wood is one of the country’s leading experts on the colonial era, and he was referring to a collection of New York Times articles published last summer that examine the role of slavery in American history. The project posits that the country’s real founding occurred not in 1776 but in 1619, when the first African slaves arrived in Virginia. The claim is that the Revolutionary War was fought primarily to preserve America’s “slavocracy,” and that the country has risen politically, economically and culturally only through the subjugation of blacks.
Since publication, both the Times and its staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project’s creator, have come under sharp criticism from prominent academics. Now entering the fray is Robert Woodson, a black conservative and longtime community activist in Washington. Last week Mr. Woodson held a press conference to announce his own “1776 Project,” which is intended to counter what he called the “anti-America propaganda” of the Times’s endeavor. What’s troubling about “1619” is that “it defines America as being incurably racist,” he said. It insists that “all white people are beneficiaries of privilege and . . . victimizers. And all blacks are victims.”
Ms. Hannah-Jones has dismissed her detractors as “old white male historians,” but Mr. Woodson doesn’t fit that bill. Nor do a good number of the scholars he recruited—Glenn Loury, Carol Swain, John McWhorter, Jason Hill and Wilfred Reilly —to write essays that provide an “aspirational and inspirational” counternarrative to the Times’s. The pieces will appear on the Washington Examiner’s website and at 1776unites.com.
Mr. Loury described the absurdity of demonizing Western civilization for an institution that predates it. “Slavery was a fact of human civilization since antiquity,” he said at the press conference. “Abolition is the new idea. And that is a Western idea not possible without the democratic institutions that were built in 1776.” And in her essay, Ms. Swain reminds us that no single group is blameless, a fact the “1619 Project” all but ignores. “Those who push white guilt and black victimhood ignore critical facts,” she writes. “One is that today’s white Americans are not responsible for the sins of generations ago. Second, slavery was an institution that blacks, Native Americans, and whites participated in as slaveholders. There’s plenty of guilt to go around there.”
Mr. Woodson believes his project will correct a false and fatalistic narrative and provide an optimistic path forward for the black underclass. The Times’s “negative message is dangerous to the future because it discourages blacks” from trying, and “nothing is more lethal than a good excuse for failing.”
None of this is to play down numerous errors and omissions of the “1619 Project.” The essays contend, for example, that slavery produced “dizzying profits” and “helped turn a poor, fledgling nation into a financial colossus.” But as the historian Wilfred McClay explained in Commentary magazine in October, scholars have blasted such claims are “demonstrably wrong” and based on “elementary accounting errors, incorrectly double- and triple-counting intermediate transaction costs in a way that greatly inflates the final figure.”
And to Ms. Hannah-Jones’s assertion that “for the most part, black Americans fought back alone,” the historian James McPherson offered this: “From the Quakers in the 18th century, on through the abolitionists in the antebellum, to the radical Republicans in the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the NAACP which was an interracial organization founded in 1909, down through the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, there have been a lot of whites who have fought against slavery and racial discrimination, and against racism. Almost from the beginning of American history that’s been true. And that’s what’s missing from this perspective.”
The “1619 Project” is being adopted as part of the curriculum in thousands of classrooms across the country. The political left is already in the process of turning our K-12 schools into social-justice boot camps, and this will expedite that effort. Properly understood, the “1619 Project” isn’t about black history. It’s about today’s racial disparities. It’s about applying current ideologies to past events, in the continuing attempt to blame the past actions of whites for the current problems of blacks. Mr. Woodson understands that this is not only dishonest but damaging. Why doesn’t the New York Times?
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