The 1619 Project — a review
Institutional racism in U.S. history and the U.S. today
The 1619 Project — A New Origin Story, Nikole Hannah Jones, The New York Times Company, 2021
U.S. society was founded on racism and is still deeply disfigured by it. Current institutions and social practices have been shaped by America’s original sin. As James Baldwin said “ Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” The purpose of the 1619 Project is to make the U.S. face the reality of historical and current institutional racism. Its focus is on the institution of slavery and how it created U.S. institutions.
Many critics have blown up what are relatively minor criticisms of this project into wholesale rejection. This is a real shame because the overriding themes of this book bear continuous repeating and reinforcement.
Ironically, the book’s thesis of the continuing influence of racism in U.S. society was shown by the author’s refusal of tenure at the University of North Carolina in spite of her impressive credentials
1619 makes a persuasive case for the continuing influence of slavery in the fundamental structures of American society today by posing the following questions; How did slavery impact society at the time? How did it shape American institutions and society? What influences does slavery and resulting racism have on current society? While the 1619 Project is most famously associated with Jones, the book actually consists of chapters by different authors covering themes such as Democracy, Race, Sugar, Fear, Dispossession, Capitalism, Politics, Citizenship, Self-Defense , Punishment, Inheritance, Medicine, Church, Music, Healthcare, Traffic, Progress and Justice.
This book is extremely well written and involves the reader from start to finish through the use of poetry, first-hand accounts and pictures. It deftly traces the impact of slavery on the creation of the constitution and other basic structures of the U.S. Some of these structural influences, such as the three-fifths compromise of 1787, are fairly well known. Others are not: fugitive slave enforcement, maintenance of the slave trade beyond independence, the second amendment(257), eminent domain, and the creation of the U.S. Senate, for example. Nikole Hannah Jones, summarizes this as the creation of a slaveocracy, not a democracy. Southern domination of the newly formed U.S. was shown by the fact that Southerners controlled the presidency for decades. This anti-democratic attitude still heavily influences U.S. politics:
“Ever since our founding, an exclusive, hierarchical, and racist view of political legitimacy has been a persistent strain in U.S. politics. Adherents of this view — who seek to narrow the scope of participation and wield power through minority rule — are the direct heirs to a tradition of American reactionary belief with its own peculiar history…in the institution that shaped and defined the early republic..” ( 198)
This analysis of the origins of the Republic has led to one of the sharpest controversies that the book provoked. How progressive was the American Revolution and the resulting constitution? This question has been debated by historians for centuries . Critics of the constitution such as Howard Zinn cite the Federalist Papers for confirmation that the founders were anti-democratic. The founders set up separation of powers and checks and balances, property qualifications for voting, indirect election of the Senate, the veto power of the President and Judiciary as foundations of an anti-democratic project.(169) Of course , at the time women, Natives, and Black people could not vote.
The particular wrinkle that the 1619 Project emphasizes is the role of slavery in the American War of Independence. Defenders of the revolution stress that its aftermath was the abolition of slavery in the North. Critics of 1619 such as James Oakes in Catalyst Vol 5 , no. 3 also claim that general abolitionism increased as a result of the fight for independence. Oakes backs this up by statements critical of slavery even from slaveowners in that period. On the other hand 1619 asserts that the revolution actually reinforced slavery.
In spite of the patriotic protestations of the critics, the 1619 Project is correct on this. The leadership of the revolution at the national level was made up of slave owners as well as merchants, many of whom were involved in the slave trade. The Triangular Slave Trade enriched northern merchants as well. 1619 following historian Gerald Horne says that slave owners rebelled against Britain in order to reinforce slavery. “ If we never had slavery, that takes away many of the things that push the South to independence “ Holton told me. “ I think they would have done what other colonists did, which was stay in the Empire” ( pg 15–16) . This conclusion is reinforced by the history of Canada , which had no institutional slavery and stayed in the Empire. 1619’s conclusion is also backed up by the subsequent domination of U.S. politics by the South for decades after the War of Independence. In spite of what the critics of 1619 say, abolitionism didn’t attain major strength until just before the Civil War.
1619 explains the development of race in the U.S. It was a way to ideologically justify unfree labor. 1619 points out that as a result of racism used to justify slavery, even free Black people did not have secure citizenship until after the Civil War. The 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision codified the non-citizenship of Black people. In order to solidify slavery , early colonists reversed English law. Instead of children inheriting the status of their father, they now inherited that of their mother. This meant that white slave owners could create new slaves by raping Black women, which was a common practice under slavery.
The early process of race creation continued through the Civil War and after. The book goes into the reimposition of Black Codes as an extension of the Slave Codes after the demise of Reconstruction and the legal enrollment of all whites in upholding white supremacy. The oppression of Black people of course resulted in resistance, from slave revolts to the participation of Black troops in the Civil War and the slave “ general strike” ( W.E.B. Dubois) to organizing under Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement, to the rebellions in the cities from the 1960s onward as well as the more recent Black Lives Matter movement.
In spite of leaving slavery with virtually no property, Black people over time developed businesses and furthered the occupational skills they had developed under slavery.. Their success angered the white establishment and even poor whites who saw Black people as economic rivals. This led to violent dispossession of the wealth Blacks created. This is a big part of the reason for the lower economic position of Black people in the U.S. Recently, the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa Oklahoma has come to light, but this was only one of countless examples that led to the dispossession and further impoverishment of Black people. The process has continued recently with the collapse of Black wealth during the Great Recession. This is one reason that leads the authors to call for reparations for the descendants of slaves . The last chapter of the book develops the argument for reparations.
One of the factors that compounded this, was the legal racism which penalized Black self-defense while allowing white self-defense and even offense. An example of this was in California in the late 60s. The Black Panther Party used the state’s laws allowing open carry of guns to protect Black people from police violence . The legislature quickly changed the law to prevent the party from patrolling the police with guns.
Even before this dispossession, work by enslaved people was a major source of wealth for developing American capitalism. Even after the Civil War , racism divided the labor movement. Often Black people were not allowed in unions. This division encouraged business owners to use Black people as strike breakers and lower the wages of workers as a whole.
The chapter on punishment notes that “Recognizing the unbroken link between slavery, Black Codes, lynching and our current era of mass incarceration is essential” (282) 1619 goes into many more aspects of U.S. life today, shaped by slavery and racism, from health and medicine to housing and even traffic gridlock , also touching on the church and music. All aspects of U.S. life have been impacted by slavery and the continuation of racism. This book is an important reminder of this fact.
This is why 1619 is such an important book. It explains the deep roots of racism in the U.S. and the current consequences. This understanding is a necessary basis for action in getting rid of institutional racism. The important role of 1619 has made it a lightning rod for conservative and liberal critics — -and even some who consider themselves socialists.
Some of the criticism is part of a backlash against the mass movement of 2020. Racism and hard core right wing politics got a push from Trump. However, Trump won support from the failure of corporate liberalism as exemplified by the Democratic Party. White middle class and working class people saw their living standards decline and social programs deteriorate from the 1970s on. Many looked for scapegoats. Trump gave them distorted answers to their declining position, especially racism.
The right wing racist movement responded to the Black Lives Matter movement by attacking anything that questioned white supremacy. Progressive teachers pushed back with a “Teach the Truth” movement.
The attacks on 1619 by conservative critics are usually quite crude, amounting to a call for American patriotism rather than a recognition of reality.
More sophisticated and perhaps more troubling were the supposed anti-racist critics.
Instead of first of all acknowledging the importance of exposing historical and current racism, they started by picking apart supposed factual errors in the account presented by 1619. One example of this was the article, “What 1619 Got Wrong” in Catalyst Vol 5 no. 3. Catalyst is published by the Jacobin Foundation and shares its reformist and class reductionist politics.
The first complaint is actually quite silly : “ …the most startling thing about the project was the utter unoriginality of its claim to have discovered the historical significance of the year 1619. To anyone who earned a PhD in US history after 1965, this claim was almost risible.” (pg. 10)
The implication is that 1619 is aimed at history PhDs. Yet it is clear that 1619 is a project of popular education. The Catalyst author, James Oakes, also argues that the significance of 1619 is well known to most high school students. This is certainly a debatable claim. Many high school history books brush over or downplay the role of slavery and racism. 1619 is an important corrective.
Besides this, the Project is a journalistic effort which relies on and quotes many historians. Its purpose is to put a re-emphasis on the effects of slavery rather than claiming it is discovering something completely new. Oakes’ attack here is nothing but a straw man.
Oakes goes on to question the contribution of slavery to American capitalism. The exact degree of this contribution can be debated, but most historians admit its importance. This is shown in the history of various U.S. corporations and universities. In supporting his claim Oakes resorts to slight of hand. He says that “Slavery consigned generations of Southerners , black and white, to poverty and economic backwardness. Its legacy is hardship and misery not widespread wealth” ( pg. 28)
Yet , the point that 1619 is making is that the slave owners accumulated massive amounts of wealth, not that poor whites benefited. Oakes also forgets that much of that wealth went to the North and Britain to bolster capitalism . He goes on to try to refute the contribution of slavery to American capitalism by saying that the relative importance of the Southern economy declined compared to the North. This is certainly true. However, this does not refute the massive absolute accumulation of wealth created by slavery.
A key point that Oakes shares with conservative critics is the view that slavery was hurt by the American Revolution. Overall , liberal and social-democratic criticism throws out the very important contributions of 1619 , while reinforcing the criticisms of conservatives.
In spite of its tremendous contribution to the historical understanding of the role of slavery and racism, there are some points of emphasis in 1619 that are a bit off. There is no extended discussion of Northern abolitionism, the Civil War, Reconstruction or the Civil Rights movement. All of these were examples of white people joining in the fight against racism. Though it is obviously true that Black people have led the movement for their own liberation, at various times, white people have joined the fight. This is not just important for accuracy. It points the way toward a solution. In spite of the racist attitudes of poor and working class whites, their actual class interest is in the abolition of racism. As long as people of different races are divided against each other, they will never be able to challenge the ruling class which exploits both. As Frederick Douglass said of ruling class whites , “They divided both to conquer each” It is important to stress the role of Black people in their own liberation, but it is wrong to downplay examples of the possibility of Black-white unity against racism, since this points the way forward.
More important is the neglect of the genocide of native people. The U.S. was founded on not one but two processes of colossal racism — -African slavery and the dispossession and genocide of Native people. Without that dispossession, there would have been no land for Africans to be enslaved on. This is a major omission. The main discussion of the indigenous in 1619 is how some tribes enslaved Africans. This is true, but out of context of the whole history.
The stress on the perpetuation of racism is important. People need to understand the continuing fundamental nature of institutional racism in the U.S. However, in stressing this continuity, it sometimes seems to downplay the changes that have come about through struggle.
At the end Ibram X. Kendi summarizes the ebbs and flows of the struggle against racism in the U.S.:
“The long sweep of America has been defined by two forward motions : one force widening the embrace of Black Americans and another force maintaining or widening their exclusion. The duel between these two forces represents the duel at the heart of American racial history. The myth of singular racial progress veils this conflict.”(440)
This certainly captures the fight around racism better than the utopian view that “the arc of history bends toward justice.” However, it doesn’t emphasize enough that the dominant force depends on the level of struggle. This is also true of ideas held by masses of people. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, a majority of whites came to see the fundamental nature of police racism. In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement a majority came to support interracial marriage and open housing. Absent struggle, racist institutions can reassert dominance of the racial discourse.
Struggles have, and will continue to change the functioning of institutions. Ultimately, capitalism relies on institutional racism and the racist ideas that flow from those institutions in one form or another. To eliminate racism, we’ll need to eliminate capitalism. This will require a multi-racial struggle . It is in the class interests of workers of all races to fight racism. To be effective , the struggle against racism needs to be explicit. Since people cannot be involved in mass movements perpetually, unless their struggles overthrow the system, they will inevitably see the gains of their struggles reversed. The voting rights act is a good example of that.
1619 does not accept this perspective. Instead, the final chapter just makes the case for reparations under capitalism. Equalizing the wealth between Black people and white people would go a ways toward overcoming racial divisions that inhibit joint struggle. However ,1619 does not present a strategy for winning this demand. In U.S. society, this demand cannot be won by Black people alone.
Overall , 1619 is an important book which presents a wide range of material on the impact of slavery and racism on U.S. society. It is well worth reading. It can provide important ammunition in the fight against racism and capitalism. It needs to be defended against its patriotic critics. This defense is part of the fight against racism and reaction today!