There's no denying that the much-lauded "1619 Project" at The New York Times is a remarkable achievement. Whether it's an achievement that the paper and its staff should be proud of is another matter.
For those who haven't been following along, this past weekend the paper devoted the entirety (just under 100 pages) of The New York Times Magazine, along with a separate stand-alone section of the Sunday paper, to a breathtakingly ambitious and ideologically radical undertaking — nothing less than the telling of the story of American history, perhaps for the very first time, "truthfully."
Inside, a note from NYTM editor Jake Silverstein informs his readers that it is wrong to trace the true origin of the United States to the founding of the English settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, or to the landing of the Puritans at Plymouth Rock in 1620, or to the publication of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Instead, the Times proposes to overturn such mythmaking in favor of an effort to "reframe American history," treating 1619 as "our nation's birth year."
Why 1619? Because that's when the first ship carrying African slaves arrived on American shores, and the Times intends to place "the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country." This reframing is necessary because out of slavery "grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional."
Now, there is a lot to admire in the paper's presentation of the 1619 Project — searing photographs, illuminating quotations from archival material, samples of poetry and fiction giving powerful voice to the black experience, and gripping journalistic summaries of scholarly histories. Much of it is wrenching, moving, and infuriating. The country's treatment of the slaves and their descendants through the century following emancipation and, in some respects, on down to the present was and is appalling — and the story of how it happened, and keeps happening, is extremely important for understanding the United States. Bringing this story to a wide audience is a worthwhile public service.
Yet that isn't the point of the 1619 project. The point, once again, is to "reframe American history" so that this appalling history stands at the very center of who we are as a country. Achieving that goal has required the Times to treat history in a highly sensationalistic, reductionistic, and tendentious way, with the cumulative result resembling agitprop more than responsible journalism or scholarship. Putting aside any pretense toward nuance or complexity, the paper has surrendered to the sensibility of left-wing political activists. The result is unpersuasive — and a sad comment on the state of our country's public life.
Throughout the issue of the NYTM, headlines make, with just slight variations, the same rhetorical move over and over again: "Here is something unpleasant, unjust, or even downright evil about life in the present-day United States. Bet you didn't realize that slavery is ultimately to blame." Lack of universal access to health care? High rates of sugar consumption? Callous treatment of incarcerated prisoners? White recording artists "stealing" black music? Harsh labor practices? That's right — all of it, and far more, follows from slavery.
The most impressive authors, like Times op-ed columnist Jamelle Bouie, are honest enough to admit that their chosen subject (Bouie writes about the hardball tactics of congressional Republicans since 2011) may have "nothing to do with race at all." Yet in the end even Bouie comes back around to asserting that Republican "methods of action … are clearly downstream of a style of extreme political combat that came to fruition in the defense of human bondage."
The least persuasive, and unintentionally comical, contribution to the issue is a relatively brief essay by Princeton University's Kevin Kruse, a historian who's justly gained a large online following for his deft skewering on Twitter of Dinesh D'Souza and other know-nothing pundits of the far right who like to publicly display their ignorance of the American past. For the 1619 Project, Kruse writes about how notoriously bad traffic jams on Atlanta highways are — you guessed it — the legacy of "a century-long effort to segregate the races."
How so? At first Kruse seems to imply that it's the placement of the expressways that has caused the congestion, with the path of roadways used to separate black and white neighborhoods. But why would the path of a highway produce "three-mile traffic jams that last four hours or more," especially when the city's Downtown Connector is, Kruse notes, "a 12-to-14-lane megahighway"? Isn't it more likely that the problem is an excess of people trying to commute by car, regardless of the neighborhoods bisected by the road?
In the essay's final paragraphs, we learn that this is indeed the case — that the problem of traffic congestion is less about placement of the highways than about a lack of options for mass transit, and especially regional rail, that suburban Atlantans continually reject at the ballot box. This, Kruse argues, is blatant racism motived by white suburbanites seeking to prevent easy access for urban blacks to their exclusive neighborhoods.
There's just one problem: Atlanta is frequently recognized as a success story for expanding African-American prosperity, with middle- and upper-middle-class majority-black suburbs flourishing throughout the Atlanta metropolitan area. In a concession that undermines the whole point of his piece, Kruse admits that one such racially mixed suburban county recently voted down an expansion of regional rail "for the third time." Yet rather than treating this outcome as an opportunity to rethink or at least complicate his race-based thesis, Kruse rather anti-climactically attributes it to "some nonwhite suburbanites" sharing "the isolationist instincts of earlier white suburbanites." Kruse would appear to believe that Atlanta's black suburbanites are guilty of racial false consciousness, not realizing that their resistance to mass transit contributes to the region remaining "stalled in the past."
A far more complicated problem mars a longer and more accomplished essay by author Matthew Desmond, who seeks to trace the distinctive "brutality of American capitalism" to life on the antebellum plantation. Desmond's essay is heavily indebted to the work of several pathbreaking young historians, among them Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist, Seth Rockman, and Walter Johnson. Their scholarship has sparked worthwhile debate among historians and marks an important advance beyond the work of an earlier generation of scholars, for whom slavery was often portrayed as a pre-capitalist institution in which aristocratic and paternalistic masters watched over and cared for their slaves, who were sometimes said to thrive in their bondage.
In sharp contrast to this fairytale version of slavery, today's scholars are inclined to claim that American slavery was thoroughly capitalist, that violence was essential to its functioning, and that this physical and emotional cruelty remains a defining feature of American capitalism today. As Beckert and Rockman have written, in a passage that Desmond quotes and elaborates throughout his essay, "American slavery is necessarily imprinted on the DNA of American capitalism."
The problem with Desmond's essay isn't that he reports these views. It's that he treats such assertions, not as necessary corrections (and perhaps over-corrections) of past scholarship, but as simple truths. Desmond tells readers, for example, that the fraud, greed, and even deployment of dubious financial products that we associate with the economic meltdown of 2008 originated with and carry with them the stain of slavery. What Desmond doesn't say is that it's possible the books on which he relies, all of them written since 2008, anachronistically project these characteristics of early 21st-century capitalism onto the past. (Even if interesting parallels can be drawn between, say, the Panic of 1837 and the 2008 financial crisis, that's very different from implying that the former somehow caused or anticipated the latter, or that the involvement of slavery in the first event implies that the institution is somehow implicated in somewhat similar events that unfolded 171 years later.)
Desmond likewise treats the core claim of this recent scholarship — that capitalism, especially in its supposedly uniquely harsh American form, originated with slavery — as a given rather than as a controversial claim that has been contested, sometimes powerfully, by other scholars. He treats the assertion as fact, in other words, rooted in definitive archival evidence most readers of the 1619 Project will never examine for themselves. These readers are expected to defer to Desmond's authority, and even more so to the authority of the scholars on which he relies. These sources have supposedly revealed the truth about the American past, showing us that defenders of capitalism in the present are, by implication, defending a set of norms and institutions that were born of and remain tainted by their association with slavery.
This turns historical scholarship into propaganda for a left-wing political movement.
Saying so doesn't at all imply that journalists should refrain from drawing on the work of historians. But it does mean that when they do draw on that work, they should do so with caution and a fair amount of historiographical sophistication, realizing that no single narrative of the past is the indisputably right one, and that new interpretations that break sharply from a past consensus often go too far. That's especially true when the new claims advance a radical political agenda.
And the 1619 Project is all about advancing a radical political agenda. The message it aims to convey is clear: The United States is and always has been, from its very origin, a racist country infected by a white supremacist ideology that has birthed and nurtured institutions and systems — from Congress to capitalism — that systematically disadvantage black Americans. Political actors of the present have a simple choice: They can either embrace (invariably left-liberal or socialist) policies that will begin the process of dismantling these pervasive forms of structural injustice — or they can oppose doing so and ensure that the injustices continue, with toxic racism remaining where it has been for the past four centuries, at the very center of American life. Those are the choices.
You're either part of the solution or part of the problem.
That line is a paraphrase of Eldridge Cleaver, an early leader of the Black Panthers, the revolutionary black nationalist organization founded in 1966, and it's fitting to refer to him here, since the publication of the 1619 Project represents the definitive triumph of left-wing activism over journalistic skepticism, circumspection, and restraint at The New York Times — and not just at the NYTM, since the newspaper has promised to publish more contributions to the 1619 Project in the coming days and weeks. As if the content of last Sunday's paper wasn't evidence enough of this development, the leaked transcript of a recent town-hall meeting at the Times gives us an added glimpse of how reporters and editors now think and talk about race. Here is a representative comment addressed to executive editor Dean Baquet:
Staffer: I just feel like racism is in everything. It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting. And so, to me, it's less about the individual instances of racism, and sort of how we're thinking about racism and white supremacy as the foundation of all of the systems in the country. And I think particularly as we are launching a 1619 Project, I feel like that's going to open us up to even more criticism from people who are like, "OK, well you're saying this, and you're producing this big project about this. But are you guys actually considering this in your daily reporting?" [Slate]
Racism is in everything. White supremacy is the foundation of all of the systems in the country. Those are fairly extreme, unmodulated statements. Did Baquet respond by pointing out that, while racism exists and needs to receive coverage in the paper, there are many other ways to talk about America and its history — by placing it in international context, by highlighting aspects of the American past that go beyond race, by raising issues of class and ethnicity and gender, by engaging with contrary intellectual, cultural, and economic currents, social trends, and ways of understanding?
Baquet said none of these things. Just as the staffer seemed motivated in part by a fear of having to stand up to left-wing critics of the paper on social media, so the man who leads the greatest newsgathering organization in the most powerful country on the planet responded to a wildly overstated assertion by one of his employees by capitulating, going out of his way to assure him or her that "race in the next year … is going to be a huge part of the American story."
At least we know it will be a huge part of how that story is told in the pages of The New York Times.