Nikole Hannah-Jones

Nikole Hannah-Jones

In August 2019, the New York Times published The 1619 Project, a significant work of journalism that highlights the long-term consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans in shaping American democracy.

Led by New York Times investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project examined slavery, its consequences and its central role in U.S. history. The project was published to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of African slaves in the English colonies in what would become the United States.

The project has had an extraordinary impact.

The 1619 Project was turned into a popular podcast and materials were developed for schools to use. Hannah-Jones, who covers civil rights and racial justice for The New York Times Magazine, won the 2020 Pulitzer for commentary for an essay she wrote as part of the project.

Two books based on the project will be released this fall, with contributions from dozens of authors and journalists.

The project has also been one of the most smeared works of journalism in recent years.

Some on the right and the left rejected the project entirely and personally attacked Hannah- Jones.

Former President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders have been some of its harshest critics.

Before leaving office, then-President Trump established a “1776 Commission” that issued a report meant to counter The 1619 Project and support what Trump called “patriotic education.”

The American Historical Association denounced the 1776 report as hasty, simplistic and reliant at times on “falsehoods, inaccuracies, omissions, and misleading statements.”

To his credit, President Joe Biden revoked the 1776 report on his first day in office.

Although the 1776 commission has disbanded, the cause hasn’t died.

Republican lawmakers’ states are now pressing proposals in Arkansas, Iowa and Mississippi that would prohibit schools from using the 1619 Project.

And last week, McConnell and almost 40 of his fellow Senate Republicans sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona criticizing a proposed plan to prioritize educational efforts that focus on systemic racism in U.S. history.

“Families did not ask for this divisive nonsense,” McConnell wrote. “Voters did not vote for it. Americans never decided our children should be taught that our country is inherently evil. If your administration had proposed actual legislation instead of trying to do this quietly through the Federal Register, that legislation would not pass Congress.”

More reasonable scholars have opposed the unduly harsh criticism of the 1619 Project.

“The idea of simply saying you’re not going to use certain materials because you don’t like what they’re going to say without input from professionals makes no sense,” said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association.

Why has the 1619 Project received such a hysterical overreaction?

The project examines some hard truths about American history and present systemic racism that both some conservatives and leftists choose to ignore. They downplay racism and its central role in America’s past and present because it is inconvenient to their core beliefs.

Conservatives blame racial inequality mainly as the fault of defective individuals and socialists blame the problem on class. Both minimize the impact of structural racism in the U.S.

They point to the election and reelection of former President Barack Obama and the rise of the African-American middle class as proof that race no longer play a significant role in the U.S.

But Black Americans achieved in business, politics and in other areas even during legal segregation. There has been progress, but injustice and inequality remain.

For example, an ACLU study in 2020 reported that “marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.”

And Black farmers have faced systemic discrimination in loans and subsidies over the years, resulting in heavy debts and land loss, members of Congress were told at a recent House Agriculture hearing.

Studies show that Black landowners in the South lost 12 million acres of farmland over the past century. The Atlantic reports that a million Black families have been ripped from their farms in a “war waged by deed of title” and propelled by racism on the local and federal level.

The 1619 Project is dangerous because it challenges the whitewashed narrative of U.S. history.

An understanding of U.S. history shows that the nation’s lawmakers have repeatedly created laws and policies — from redlining to the so-called war on drugs — that have had a devastating effect on Black Americans. These policies have played a substantial part in the racial wealth gap and the mass incarceration of Black Americans.

The 1619 Project documents a long history of systemic racism that many chose not to acknowledge.

The 1619 Project is not above criticism, but it should be widely read in American homes and classrooms because it is one of the best works of journalism in recent years. It is an urgently needed reassessment of American history.

We must truly know our nation’s history and understand the root causes of current conditions before we can move forward together.

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