Social Justice Usage
Source: “1619 Project.” New York Times Magazine.
The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.
Source: “1619 Project.” New York Times Magazine.
In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.
New Discourses Commentary
The 1619 Project is an effort produced by the New York Times Magazine, specifically by Nikole Hannah-Jones among several other contributors. It was published therein in August of 2019, allegedly on the 400th anniversary of the “true” founding of the United States, when the first African slaves (or laborers) were brought to American soil. It was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
The 1619 Project therefore posits that the true founding date of the American republic is not 1776, with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but rather 1619, allegedly when the first African slaves were brought to American soil at the Jamestown Colony. It goes further to posit that, because of this historical incident (supposing it is true and articulated accurately), the United States has always been a nation founded economically (see also, capitalism), thus politically (see also, liberalism), upon the institution of slavery, which was therefore encoded into the societal DNA of the American republic. That is, the 1619 Project exists to go beyond the claim that racism is America’s “Original Sin” to make the far more extraordinary claim (on very shaky evidence and weak argumentation) that it is, in fact, its genuine foundational principle.
Not content merely to make this claim, the 1619 Project insists that the American Revolution was fought primarily in the attempt to preserve American slavery against the will of the British, which it claims intended to end slavery sooner than the colonists would have it. These features, the project claims, have left indelible marks of systemic racism and white supremacy in the American nation at the level of law, institutions, economics, culture, and society that it has not and cannot get over without a fundamental remaking of the entire system itself (see also, revolution). That is, it is an attempt to cast the entire American Experiment as one built upon and for the purposes of the oppression and domination of blacks by whites through slavery and its systemic legacies (see also, liberalism, meritocracy, and post-traumatic slave syndrome). Helping to facilitate this aim, the 1619 Project is not merely limited to a series of articles in the New York Times Magazine but also includes a thoroughly designed K–12 educational curriculum being supported by the Pulitzer Center and rolled out in primary and secondary schools throughout the United States (see also, critical pedagogy).
Of some note, understanding the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project more or less necessarily begins by observing that it is not history, but the kind of pessimistic and hyperbolic historiography that is typical of critical race Theory. This makes it necessary to observe that a fundamental pillar of critical race Theory is historical revisionism—the rewriting of history in a way that tells it from the preferred and cynical narratives of critical race Theory. This renders the 1619 Project firmly within the realm of seeking to rewrite history (especially American history) to promote its cynical, anti-liberal agenda. Indeed, the project posits the history of the United States as little more than a long series of strategic moves by which white racism—especially anti-black racism—was established and has been and remains maintained as an ordinary and permanent feature of (American) society (see also, interest convergence). Indeed, critical race Theory sees racism and white supremacy as integral components of the very fabric of society (particularly American society) that is therefore urgently in need of deconstructing, disrupting, and dismantling (see also, liberationism and neo-Marxism).
The importance of the point about the 1619 Project not being a serious attempt at historical understanding but a project within critical race Theory is beyond calculability. This is because the standard approach to challenging the 1619 Project’s bogus claims and attempts to roll itself out into our society and educational system is to challenge its historical legitimacy, and this is unfortunately a necessary part of engaging with it. The trouble is, because the 1619 Project neither is history nor claims to be history, this necessary activity is ultimately severely limited in its purposed utility.
The 1619 Project’s deeper goal is not so much to rewrite history as it is to introduce an alternative narrative about history, one that offers a different—and critical—reading of history. It is therefore a project aiming not to inform or educate but to induce a critical consciousness about race and racism (see also, Critical Theory). That is, the goal of the project is to make it impossible to think of the founding of the United States without including ideas of both slavery and institutional, cultural, and structural racism. In some sense, then, showing up with historical facts to the battleground of the 1619 Project is a bit like showing up to a gun fight with a knife.
Critical analyses often have this purpose at their core. Their objective is, more than anything, to generate polarizing debate around themselves, which increases their potency. The strategy is simple. A critical counterstory such as we have in the 1619 Project is forwarded with the express purpose of generating debate around its validity and the critiques it raises. The next step is to characterize that debate in terms of the relevant power dynamics addressed by the discrepancies between the narratives of the counterstory and the story it seeks to replace. This process unfolds along the underlying Critical Theory ethos of identifying, then disrupting and dismantling, anything it can cast into a dichotomy of oppressor versus oppressed. In the case of a critical historiography, the authoritative history is cast as an oppressive narrative that upholds systemic power and oppression, and the critical revisionist counterstory is cast as a self-defensive alternative that can liberate the relevant victims from those systems of power and the injustices they create. People are therefore forced to pick a side not between truth and falsity—which are irrelevant to the politics of the critical agenda (see also, reality)—but between siding with oppression or liberation from oppression.
The reason for this unfortunate state of affairs is that within Theory (see also, postmodernism, Foucauldian, and Social Justice), the very concept of truth is rejected, and everything is made out to be a matter of warring narratives (see also, racial knowledge). From the perspective of critical race Theory, not only is there is no objective telling of history; no such thing can exist, in principle, even in reasonable approximation. There is merely your history and my history, white history and black history, and so on, and our own cultural biases inform all such narratives and are embedded in all methodologies that create those “narratives” (see also, episteme, truth regime, knowledge(s), and ways of knowing).
Under critical race approaches, established historical methods, having largely been devised by white people working in a “white” cultural context are understood as merely “white history.” This will be understood to be imbued with all of the biases of whiteness, including failing to understand its own bias (see also, white ignorance and willful ignorance) and thus unconsciously working to maintain itself and its dominance (see also, internalized dominance and privilege). Thus, according to the worldview that informs the 1619 Project, there is no way to adjudicate between one historical narrative and another except by referencing the identity politics of systemic power and determining how one’s positionality has led to the creation or adoption of any particular narrative (see also, Foucauldian).
Under the critical approach characterizing the 1619 Project, there is also no need to hold oneself to rigorous academic methods or procedures, including peer review, for these would be assumed to be corrupted by “white” biases as well. Therefore, it is not only consistent with the critical ethos of the 1619 Project to exist outside of academia, it is strongly advantageous to it because it calls into question the entire process by which it can be authoritatively criticized. One may notice, then, that most of this debate, though involving professional historians and even some economists, is not taking place within the usual confines of academia and academic publishing but in the popular press, this being yet another feature of the critical deconstruction of authoritative history (thus, in the 1619 Project’s interests—see also, research justice).
Nevertheless, it bears pointing out that on many of the claims of historical “fact” that it makes, the 1619 Project has been challenged directly by reputable historians who have diligently chronicled that no honest reading of American history would support most of the incendiary claims it makes, particularly about the American founding. Though this entry does not intend to engage with the historical and other rebuttals to the 1619 Project, many such criticisms and refutations have been written, for just a few examples, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Under the critical race line of thought, the “white” (or standard, established, correct, rigorous, authoritative, or what-have-you) history is merely pitted as the “dominant” narrative that seeks to marginalize and exclude the alternative (or black, revisionist, liberationist, or whatever) narrative. It does this in order to maintain its own power and dominance and avoid confronting its own complicity in racism (see also, internalized dominance, white complicity, white fragility, white ignorance, white innocence, white solidarity, privilege, privilege-preserving epistemic pushback, willful ignorance, and shadow text). In this sense, to attempt to use genuine history (which is “alternative” or “white” history from the perspective of critical race Theory) to challenge the 1619 Project is to provide further grounds for the essential claim by which the 1619 Project insists its own necessity. That is, to attempt to refute the 1619 Project through genuine and established historical methods is, from the perspective of critical race Theory and its devotees, to reassert the need for the 1619 Project and its approach in the first place.
Regarding the historical revisionism (see, revisionism) that is exemplified in the 1619 Project, critical race Theory regards such efforts as necessary and absolutely central to its project. Revisionism of this kind is, in fact, deemed a pillar of critical race Theory by most of its advocates. The belief within critical race Theory is not simply that American society is made out of, thus infused with, thus corrupted by, whiteness but also that knowledge production within the systems of research and teaching throughout the American system are and always have been similarly corrupted. Thus, the view from within critical race Theory is that (American) history has been told incorrectly and solely from the position of the winners (putatively, white people—see also, interest convergence), thus has been told in a way that supports white narratives, power, privilege, and supremacy while excluding the views and counterstories of black people and those of other races (see also, people of color, epistemic injustice, hermeneutical injustice, testimonial injustice, epistemic oppression, and epistemic violence). A key goal of critical race Theory is to change this system by whatever means necessary, whether it is true or not.
If the intention of the 1619 Project was merely to use rigorous historical methods to expand the purview of the historical record in accordance with the useful-sounding aspects of the above description, as some insist, it would be a valuable, if not necessary, contribution. In fact, much of the work within the 1619 Project does carry genuine validity and can be understood historically (which lends legitimacy to the project overall). To be sure, a number of other essays contained within the original 1619 Project release are recognized as documenting aspects of black and institutionally racist history faithfully, so the most scathing criticism that they would deserve is that their inclusion in the project positions them as a means to a revisionist end.
It is imperative to reassert, however, that the goal of the 1619 Project is not, and never was, to improve our historical understanding. Rather, its goal was always to perpetrate a critical historiography that muddles and besmirches it (see also, problematize). This it seeks to achieve by calling into doubt the American metanarrative and establishing alongside it, if not in place of it, the critical race Theoretical metanarrative instead: that the United States is indelibly racist and has been since its origins. This includes undermining trust in the liberal ideas of individualism and human universality, wherein people are judged by the contents of their character and recognized for their common humanity, and forwarding identity-group thinking that is more useful for (radical) identity politics.
Practically speaking, the idea behind the project is to make it impossible to think of the American Revolution or Founding without also thinking of slavery and a tendentiously, unnecessarily exaggerated notion of its significance both then and ever since, up to the present moment (where critical race Theorists say it, in effect, is still going on in many respects—see also, post-traumatic slave syndrome). This is achieved by forcing everyone who encounters the 1619 Project into a polarizing debate that isn’t interested in truth or falsity but instead which side of the politics of “oppression” and “liberation from oppression” one is willing to take (see also, right side of history, and also the differences between reality and realities).
As critical theories are self-critical only in accepting critiques from critical theories (all other criticism is deemed an application of hegemonic power), it is not possible to defeat a critical theory with matters of facts. They can only be problematized more severely, which, while it defeats the specific critical theory, ultimately replaces it with a stronger critical theory. The most obvious way to undermine the 1619 Project in specific, then, is not to argue about matters of historical fact around the events of 1619, 1776, 1863, or any such period; it’s to point out that it erases the earlier and more severe suffering of American (see also, USian) indigenous people who were genuinely enslaved and subjected to genocide by the Spanish starting almost a century earlier (see also, settler of color). Again, it is not the matter of fact here that will overturn the 1619 Project (as being, itself, problematic). It is specifically that the 1619 Project did harm to indigenous peoples by erasing their allegedly earlier and more consequential suffering. (Again, because it’s so difficult to remember about critical theories, truth and falsity do not matter in these analyses; it just has to be forwarded enough forcefully enough while appealing to the lived experience of suffering of subjugated indigenous people.)
So long as the critical method carries significant academic and cultural weight, it will be very difficult to uproot the 1619 Project and its intended influence on our society and educational system, despite its lack of rigor and easily demonstrable incorrect reading of history. The methodological processes of genuine historical investigation are sufficient to suss out what is and is not historically valid within the set of claims made by and around the 1619 Project when they are allowed to do so. So long as critical race Theory maintains sway, however, they cannot do this without being accused of acting as a conspiracy theory on behalf of whiteness or, say, wanting to maintain white supremacy (or, at least, white equilibrium).
As noted, however, so long as critical methods hold so much institutional and cultural power (see also, hegemony), those scholarly processes are merely props in a narrative war that critical theories genuinely want to maintain (because it is wholly to their advantage). This cannot change until two things happen. One is that the genuine historical record is asserted clearly. The other is that the critical methods—not just the specific claims—at the 1619 Project’s heart must be addressed. In this way, the majority of the 1619 Project itself can be not so much refuted as dismissed (and perhaps started over more rigorously, which is to say not critically) on the grounds of its being an ideologically driven, distracting, and fundamentally unserious revisionist historiography of almost no scholarly worth.
Anti-blackness; Bias; Complicity; Counterstory; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical pedagogy; Critical race Theory; Critical Theory; Cultural racism; Deconstruction; Dismantle; Disrupt; Dominance; Engagement; Episteme; Epistemic injustice; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; Exclusion; Foucauldian; Genocide; Harm; Hegemony; Hermeneutical injustice; Identity; Identity politics; Ideology; Indigeneity; Individualism; Injustice; Institutional racism; Interest convergence; Internalized dominance; Knowledge(s); Liberalism; Liberationism; Lived experience; Marginalization; Meritocracy; Metanarrative; Narrative; Neo-Marxism; Objectivity; Oppression; People of color; Position; Postmodern; Post-traumatic slave syndrome; Power (systemic); Privilege; Privilege-preserving epistemic pushback; Problematic; Problematize; Race; Racial knowledge; Racism (systemic); Radical; Realities; Reality; Research justice; Revisionism; Revolution; Right side of history; Settler of color; Shadow text; Social Justice; Structural; Subjugation; System, the; Testimonial injustice; Theory; Truth; Truth regime; Universalism; USian; Victimhood; Ways of knowing; White; White complicity; White fragility; White ignorance; White innocence; White solidarity; White supremacy; Whiteness; Willful ignorance
Revision date: 8/4/20