In her foundational essay of The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones did not lie when she said that “Anti-Black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” The delegitimization of Black humanity, personhood, thought and work runs deep in the nation’s structures and our schools are not exempt. If schools are to be the great equalizers and foster authentic environments that will prepare all students to live fully liberated lives, then there has to be intentional efforts to not repeat the exclusionary mistakes of the past. Herein lies the power of resources like The 1619 Project: It elevates and centers voices and perspectives that are necessary to dismantle beliefs that fuel division and marginalization.
Fortunately, hundreds of schools and classrooms across the country have adopted The 1619 Project as part of their history curriculum. As the project provides an analysis of historical injustices, this is definitely to be celebrated. Yet, there are still areas of resistance. Almost seven months after the publication of the project, counternarratives to the counternarrative are being developed. Why? And what is the reason for the hesitation on the part of schools and classrooms that have not put the project in front of students? If one were to read the volumes of critiques against The 1619 Project it may be easy to see why it should not be used as a curriculum resource. What is more difficult to see is how whiteness and anti-Blackness are rooted in those bad-faith reviews.
As the nation and our schools grow more diverse, resources like The 1619 Project provide a necessary narrative for abolishing attitudes of racial superiority and inferiority. Limiting access to this resource, and others like it, increases the likelihood that we will perpetuate traumatic power imbalances on students and other Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). Whiteness is not simply a difference in opinion, it is the coordinated campaign to maintain systems of dominance and oppression. Understanding this, the critiques against The 1619 Project are not critiques but attacks that illustrate how whiteness works to obfuscate and deflect from the greatest danger of our time: the seemingly intractable reach of oppressive anti-Black whiteness.
What is whiteness?
Whiteness is a social construct that considers the ways in which values, norms and cultural capital defines normal versus deviants from the norm (Garner, 2007). It takes on many forms like the “ethnic” hair care products segregated at the bottom of the aisle. Or it could be carrying “ethnic” food at only one grocery store in the city. Perhaps, it is simply the differentiation implied by the use of the word “ethnic.” In each of these examples the products and foods most commonly used and favored by white cultures are deemed as normal, as not having an ethnicity, and deserving of space and regular accommodations. As people of all races see and experience these racial positionings, they internalize them and become accustomed to a hierarchy ordering what is superior and inferior. People then act on these macro-messages which could look like mandates that BIPOC change or alter their hair or the acceptance of a certain ethnic cuisine (i.e. Italian) and the dismissal of others (i.e. African American soul food). Whiteness runs hand-in-hand with anti-blackness which perpetuates ideas and attitudes that facilitate and legitimize Black suffering (Tulino, Krishnamurthy, Fall et. al, 2019).
Whiteness includes scripts and learned behaviors that perpetuate the marginalization of cultures that present differing norms or values. It can be articulated with racially-coded, sometimes ambiguous, language that reference losses of identity, jobs, resources, power and the need for safety. In his struggle to unite steel and mill factory workers, Noel Ignatiev identified whiteness as a relentless barrier. According to Ignatiev, whiteness was sometimes exercised out of habit, fear of being ostracized, or the illusion that the oppressive behaviors of whiteness would someday earn members of the working-class the privileges and comforts of the ownership-class (Kang, 2019). In this case, the ownership-class had values that were desirable: financial means and property. Members of the working-class would strive to emulate their behaviors and practices even if that meant harming or disenfranchising fellow workers, notably Black workers. In 2020, whiteness remains an organized attempt to otherize the efforts, actions and lives of historically marginalized folks. This in turn centers and reinforces, white values, white culture and white power. Whiteness as an instrument of socialization has detrimental effects on all areas of society, but its effects may be most pervasive in our classrooms and for students whose history and realities are rarely mirrored.
Whiteness, Access & Gatekeeping in Education
Education, and more specifically, learning is about access. (Dewey, 1917). Access can be understood on many different levels. Regardless of the environment or the scale, whiteness is a barrier to access. Legally, do students and their families have access to schools that will best prepare them for life in an ever-changing society? Up until 1954, access to choose a school, even the one that may have been closest to your home, was denied due to de jure segregation. As a result, many schools, with an exorbitantly high concentration in New York State, remain segregated as a result of de facto segregation caused by historical legacies such as redlining and housing development patterns created during the 50s and 60s (Epperly, 2014). Financially, are students provided with the resources necessary for a free and adequate public education? Or, are they denied necessary funding because of a limited tax-base and/or inequitable and underfunded state-aid packages? Finances also affect those who choose to go into the profession of teaching and that subsequently dictates who schools hire. Am I more likely to go into the profession if I have less generational wealth, may be saddled with student loan-debt, and may have to take on additional jobs or responsibilities to make ends meet? For many BIPOC that may not be an option even if they do have the desire to teach. In turn, this affects policies that are enacted in a school or district. Do the policies of a school or district provide barriers to student growth and development or do they grant access to higher levels of critical thinking, agency and understanding? Are our Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and other accelerated programs exclusionary? Do our discipline, referral, and suspension data show disproportionate effects resulting from policies enforced more heavily on one group of students thereby repeating and reinforcing cycles of stigma and shame? And what happens when students return to class from a violation of a disciplinary infraction? Are they allowed to enter class as their whole authentic self? Or, are they denied the presumption of innocence and monitored and regulated more closely? Systems are made-up of people, and the people responsible for making all of those decisions are known as gatekeepers. A gatekeeper is a person or thing that controls access to something. A gatekeeper in theory is fine, but when the gatekeeper limits and excludes people who have a history of being marginalized, gatekeeping reinforces whiteness and promotes a historical legacy of white supremacy.
In education, gatekeepers decide what is taught and whose voices are heard, prioritized and centered. Gatekeepers who wish to return to times when marginalized people did not have the access to influence or inform decisions may be known as members of the “old guard”. For them the past symbolizes a time that was free from the incursions of those demanding diversity, equality, inclusion, equity, racial-justice, social-justice, educational-justice, healing-justice, agency and power.
Policymakers serve as gatekeepers as they determine state learning standards that dictate what will be tested. An extensive report of all states and the District of Columbia's social studies standards found the following: 7 states do not directly mention slavery; 8 states do not directly mention the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and only 2 states mention white supremacy (https://twitter.com/CBSThisMorning/status/1230121291887382529?s=20 ). Policymakers also influence what courses are taught and what information is presented in textbooks. The New York Times article, Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories. explains how policymakers in Texas require that courses provide an “emphasis on the free enterprise system and its benefits.” In contrast, California’s history textbooks are more likely to emphasize the concentration of wealth, unionism and environmental concerns. A textbook in one state may praise the effects of the Harlem Renaissance, while in another state students will read that some critics “dismissed the quality of the literature produced” (Goldstein, 2020). When I taught high school social studies and introduced the standards to my students I would often say, “These are New York State standards and this is what our state policymakers want us to know.” As a class we spent time thinking deeply about what that meant. Why was certain knowledge or knowing privileged over others? Were there areas where we agreed? Were there areas where we disagreed, and why? Even when updates to textbooks are made policymakers still have to approve the changes. Fortunately, when there is access to technology, textbooks do not have to serve as the sole source of knowledge. Schools and classroom teachers could mitigate the effects of limited one-sided narratives with the plethora of resources afforded by online databases and the digital sharing of information.
Members of academia also serve as gatekeepers in a couple of ways. Firstly, they have influence over the textbook industry. Most textbooks and curriculum resources are written by academic scholars before they are reviewed and adopted by state policymakers (Goldstein, 2020). What is written in curriculum and educational resources that support curriculum transmit not only explicit messages, but these resources also communicate hidden messages. This curriculum, known as the hidden curriculum, reinforces attitudes of dominance in some while reinforcing feelings of oppression in others. The 2016 edition of American Pageant used the word “mulattoes” a racial slur towards bi-racial people. The book also referred to enslaved Africans as immigrants, erroneously insinuating that Africans had a choice in their enslavement (https://twitter.com/CBSThisMorning/status/1230121291887382529?s=20 ). Deani Thomas and Jeanne Dyches (2019) examined the Level U materials in the Fountas and Pinnell Teal system. Their findings included limited representation of POC with no consideration of Asian or Indigenous peoples. For Black and Latinx characters featured there were consistent themes of poverty, criminal behavior, and dysfunctionality. Whites were more often portrayed as saviors and people who were determined and successful. These messages are harmful because they; 1) are biased and stereo-typical views that perpetuate attitudes of dominance and inferiority and; 2) shape inform how students see themselves, their peers and the world.
Members of academia also shape and mold the educators who will then help to shape the minds of our students. If educators-in-training are presented with deficit-based, white supremist hetero-patriarchial, and meritocratic philosophies, they will create classrooms, schools and districts which mirror, and sometimes demand, those exclusionary orientations. This manifests in “curriculum violence” a phrase coined by Erhabor Ighodaro and Greg Wiggan which is defined as a “deliberate manipulation of academic programming” which “compromises the intellectual or psychological well-being of learners.” Finally, academia floods schools and districts with research and studies which is considered the “golden standard” of knowing and knowledge. This determines what is considered legitimate knowledge and simultaneously marginalizes other voices and sources of information.
Gatekeeping & The 1619 Project
The attempt to limit the reach and influence of The 1619 Project through disparaging and condescending reviews is an attempt at gatekeeping. While access is not directly denied, most reviewers are academics who have a strong influence on K-12 education programs. Wilfred M. McClay, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma made the claim that the New York Times was “distorting American History;” Allen C. Guelzo from Princeton University called the project a “conspiracy theory;” And Lucas Morel from Washington and Lee University warned that the project was “Black supremacist history” that “couldn’t can’t grasp our shared equality.” This last position is problematic in that it insinuates 1) that Black supremacy is a thing--it is not; 2) Black supremacy was a goal or aim of The 1619 Project and 3) equality has been reached. Reading these reviews, without a context of how they are mired in whiteness and anti-Black sentiments could lead an educator to question and/or dismiss their appropriateness in a curricular program.
Members of the academic “old guard” also make sweeping generalizations about what is and what is not legitimate knowledge. One of the most forceful critiques of the project came from five historians, Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, Sean Wilentz, and Gordon Wood from various universities. The critique was particularly audacious in that they demanded corrections from the New York Times. Additional claims made by the five historians were then parroted by others in subsequent reviews. Nathan Stone lifted a McPherson quote which described the project as “very unbalanced, one sided,” and “lacking context and complexity of slavery.” In his review he goes on to dismiss the project saying that it was “not based on historical facts.” Continuing to snowball and compound the argument that the project is illegitimate, Conor Friedersdorf from the Atlantic compiles months’ worth of critiques claiming the project contains “significant factual errors.” The five historians, and those who propagate their claims, say the reason for the strong rebuke is concern over its use in schools. Jake Silverstein, editor of the Times, told Adam Serwer, staff writer at the Atlantic that the production of educational materials was a great concern (Serwer, 2019; Mackaman, 2020). This runs akin to censorship. Had the New York Times conceded, it would have limited the power and agency of educators to critically decide the merits of the project for themselves--this is the essence of academic gatekeeping.
With its expansive reach, the New York Times made a consequential decision: to expose its readership and provide access to thousands of schools and students with a foundational understanding based in critical race theory. In this way the New York Times, under the leadership of Nikole Hannah-Jones, provided access to a counternarative to the conventional anti-Black narrative and a more inclusive understanding of United States history.
As educators we all stand at gates. With the policies that we put into place, the curriculum materials that we choose, the decisions we make--we influence the young minds that will be liberated, and the ones will continue to perpetuate oppressive anti-Black single-story narratives.
The Danger of Majoritarian Narratives and The 1619 Project
What is a single-story narrative? It is one in which there are many characters, but only one character's story is heard. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her famous TED Talk “The Danger of A Single Story” says, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person (Adichie, 2009).” In order to have a complete view of past events, we cannot hear from only one viewpoint. The examination of history requires that we consider the perspectives of everyone who contributed to a moment or event. Failure to do so limits our ability to see and recognize the totality of any story. In addition, it erases the presence and contributions of those not included in the majoritarian narrative.
Attempts to limit the influence of The 1619 Project reflect the concept of gatekeeping in many ways. In order to preserve whiteness as a defensible “truth” it requires a majoritarian narrative that ignores and delegitimizes race or differences which do not reflect white cultural values and norms (Ender, 2019). As The 1619 Project reframes the history of the United States from a Black perspective rooted in the experience of enslaved Africans and their descendants, it contradicts historical understandings steeped in whiteness and anti-Blackness. To re-center whiteness, that is to omit the perspectives and experiences of BIPOC, the following 10 rhetorical devices and forms of aggression are levied against The 1619 Project.
Paternalism is when those in positions of authority attempt to restrict the freedom of those who may have less agency or influence by claiming that they are acting in the best interests of those who were not provided a voice or choice in the matter. Paternalism can take on different forms in different contexts. Traditional paternalistic dynamics may be expressed between a man to a woman; a parent to a child; a teacher to a student; an administrator to a teacher; etc. One of the most dehumanizing forms of paternalism is when a person with privilege declares that they know, understand and are more expert in the struggle and suffering of the person for whom they are the cause of the struggling & suffering. Niles Niemuth, Tom Mackaman, and David North who published “The New York Time’s 1619 Project: A Racist Falsification of American and World History” make the claim that: “The 1619 Project ignores the actual social development of the African American population over the last 150 years.” This not only invalidates and dismisses the work of Nikole Hannah-Jones and the other contributors, but this claim aims to center the authority of three white men and marginalize the people who actually live the experience as Black people in America. This is also seen with Sean Wilentz, one of the five historians who demanded corrections to the project. He said that he thought the project was “fantastic” he just wanted to “help it.” Unsolicited help is not help--it is patriarchal in that it acts on the person, denying them of their own agency and decision making processes. Wilentz argued against Hannah-Jones’s claim that Black Americans have generally fought for their freedom “largely alone” by stating that it is a “fight for everyone.” This claim disingenuously centers white characters in a battle that is not only historical but also deeply personal. Finally, paternalism often demands “accountability.” In the closing line of Rich Lowry’s review in which the project is “eviscerated” he consoles readers, “At least the Times’ assault on the nation’s historical memory is not going unanswered.” Niemuth, Mackaman and North promise their readers that the project will be “exposed.” It comes as no surprise that of the 23 more highly critical attacks against The 1619 Project, 21 of them were written by men.
The title of the critique from Christine Rosen (2020) was particularly interesting in that it attempted to do one of two things: 1) Use the name and likeness of Beyonce to attract an audience. Now, Nikole Hannah-Jones does call herself the Beyonce of journalism but it is more likely that Rosen was attempting to 2) delegitimize (normally the passive aggressive intent of words in air quotes) the work and influence of two Black women Hannah-Jones and Beyonce, arguably the world’s highest selling artist. And that is how misogynoir works. Misogynoir treats Black women and girls with an especially high level of disrespect, disdain and scorn. Throughout several critiques, mostly written by white men, the scholarship, perspective and personhood of Nikole Hannah-Jones is read as needing counsel and correction in order to make the project more “accurate.” “Accuracy” seems to always curiously align with white majoritarian narratives (See Section 7 for Hyperbolic & Coded Language).
When this form of patriarchy is used against Black women is known as misogynoir. Misogynoir, a term coined by Moya Bailey (2018) explores how Black women and girls are dealt with in “uniquely terrible” ways “because of how societal ideas about race and gender intersect (Bailey & Bailey, 2018).” Joseph Kishore in an attempt to show where The 1619 Project went wrong on the analysis of race, class and socialism disparages the work of Barbara Smith, Demita Frazier, Beverly Smith and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor who have created scholarship on the topics of race, identity and intersectionality. In attempting to discredit their work, he also discredits the Afro-centric, collectivist framework which grounds The 1619 Project. In trying to prove an erroneous claim that racial divisions are a result of “biological processes” Kishore, Niemuth, Mackaman, and North inject Stacey Abrams, another Black woman who is a Democratic politician into the argument. This positioning could cause readers to make sweeping statements about the beliefs of Black woman--however neither Hannah-Jones nor Abrams have ever made the claim that they are accused of making. In this way white patriarchy tries to frame a narrative which mischaracterizes and discredits the intent, work and scholarship of Black women.
3. The Demand for Perfection.
The demand for perfectionism falls under the umbrella of paternalism because it sets up exacting measures that the BIPOC never cared to meet. When the BIPOC does not meet these standards they and their work are deemed as flawed. Throughout at least 16 reviews, the New York Times and Nikole Hannah-Jones were faulted for not including: William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Elijah Lovejoy, John Brown, Thaddeus Stevens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Great Migration, class-struggle following the Civil War, World War I, the Russian Revolution of 1917, Malcom X, the Black Panthers (Niemuth, Mackaman, and North); Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass (Sandefur, 2019; Mackaman, 2020); Black Power, A. Philip Randolph, the Harlem Renaissance (Mackaman, 2020) the people who kidnapped the enslaved Africans and the process of gradual abolition (Lowry, 2019). The limited mention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was repeated in many reviews (Niemuth, Mackaman, North, 2019; Kshore, 2019, Mackaman, 2020; Barrone 2020). Nikole Hannah-Jones never declared that the project was an exhaustive account of history, yet in effort to undermine it, critics hold it to this absurd standard.
4. Dismissive Color/Identity-Blindness.
Demanding perfection from a BIPOC may not cause a noticeably immediate effect. It will undoubtedly raise questions about the validity of their work, perspective and presence. In order to counter this, many Black families used to admonish their children to be twice as good to get half of much, or not to get caught slippin’ (Cooper, 2018). These were important reminders to survive in a world where just being yourself or just being good could mean that you still sat on the sideline. Some Black Americans wore this as a badge of honor and in a sense declared, “Well you can demand perfection of me because I am going to beat perfection.” And that is great, but it is no match for dismissive color/identity-blindness. So what if you are twice as good? Dismissive color/identity-blindness dismisses the person and their experiences outright. To dismiss someone is to ignore them or their influence and communicate a lack of worth or importance. This can happen without a discussion of race, but it is more likely to happen when race is injected in the conversation (DiAngelo, 2017). Sometimes the argument of a BIPOC will be dismissed under the pretense that race was not a factor in the argument, or that the other party never said anything about it. It may be articulated as, “This has nothing to do with race.” Or blaming the person for playing the non-existent “race card.” Tim Sandefur described the effort to centralize slavery as “off-key.” Conversations about race may be labeled as taboo or dismissed as weird as Andrew Sullivan did in describing the opening sentence of the Nikole Hannah-Jones’ essay. In an early critique of the project, Ilya Shapiro dismissed the project in a sarcastic passive aggressive tweet saying that “nobody, is aware of slavery and we need the NYT to write it up for us in 2019.” Claims such as these are insincere attempts to deflect attention from the central issue. In this case, nobody was questioning Americans’ awareness of slavery--the question presented by the project was: Is there a collective awareness of the enduring legacy of slavery, and its effects on society, especially as it pertains to Black Americans? Niemuth, Mackaman, and North (2019) claim that that “invocation of white racism” reduces the ability for “concrete examination of the economics, political, and social history.” This statement claims that a discussion of race cancels the ability to have a critical analysis of history. Or, Damon Linker praises Jamelle Bouie for being “honest” in his essay in which he says race may have nothing to do with politics at all. Whiteness characterizes discussions about race as deceitful or as having an ulterior motive, while not mentioning it is honorable and commendable. Dismissive color-blindness is the unwillingness to see and legitimize racialized issues and attitudes of racial superiority as a root cause of the disparate outcomes that characterize and color our society.
Dismissing and invalidating persons are two separate actions, but the former leads to the latter if the campaign is strong enough. If the act of being dismissive and the act of invalidating were on a spectrum, then being invalidated ups the ante, resulting not simply in a loss of influence, but in having no influence at all. Attempts to invalidate the project are made by Wilfred McClay when he says that the project lacks a “scholarly basis.” Timothy Sandefur warns readers that it offers a “rationalization for hatred.” Allen C. Guelzo calls the project “ignorance.” Other canceling descriptions of the project include it being splashy, inaccurate, distorted, misguided, preposterous, irrationalist, absurd, anti-historical, a conspiracy, a falsification of history, cynical, untrue, shamefully dishonest, hostile, a lie. (Lowry, 2019; McClay, 2019; Niemuth, Mackaman, & North, 2019; Serwer, 2019;) Invalidations can also take the form of excluding or erasing BIPOC from the conversation completely. When Nathan Stone says that the project harms “our identity as Americans” or that reliance on a conservative historical analysis is necessary because “it creates and preserves a national identity, and it imparts moral knowledge,” it does two things; 1) It excludes people who do not share his identity or experiences; and 2) It is reinforces white moral patriarchy where the values of one group are seen as the standard and the others are inferior or sub-standard.
According to Oxford, condescensions are statements or actions made with an “an attitude of patronizing superiority or disdain.” Condescensions can be the last effort to discredit, dismiss and/or invalidate a statement, action, position or person. They do not have to be logical or true to achieve its desired effect. For example, Damon Linker in a scathing review said that the project lacked variety and made the same rhetorical moves over and over again. Rich Lowry, after questioning Hannah-Jones’s premise for slavery being a reason for fighting the Revolutionary War concludes, “if you think this is a crucial story of the Revolution and American slavery, you clearly aren’t suited to write or edit for the New York Times 1619 Project.” Trevon Austin and Bill Van Auken said that “Her...personal moral compass does not seem to be in working order.” They go on to say that her position is “ultra-egotistical, self-absorbed” and reflective of the “affluent petty-bourgeois...determined to make as much money as possible.” Click here for a FREE copy of The 1619 Project. Remember, condescensions do not have to be logical or true. In one of the more explicitly racialized statements, Niemuth, Makaman and North say: “What is left out of the Times’ racialist morality tale is breathtaking, even from the vantage point of African-American scholarship.” No further emphasis needed. Condescensions, like dismissals and invalidations make attempts to reduce, marginalize and otherize, by conferring a sort of positionality or ranking. Who is in and who is out? Who is legitimate and who is not? Who is more or less scholarly? Condescensions reinforce the conceptions of superiority versus inferiority; normal versus abnormal; moral versus deviant by creating hierarchies placing differing ideas, orientations, perspectives, and people in an out of influence and power.
7. Hyperbolic & Coded-Language.
Hyperbolic language is language that is often exaggerated or overstated for effect. Coded-language, also known as using dog whistles, appeal to people’s beliefs about stereotypes without being explicit about race or a person’s identity (Haney-Lopez, 2015). For example, the word “thug,” while making no mention of a person’s race or identity is often attributed to Black and Latinx people. Bossy is code for a woman who is assertive and confident. While hyperbolic and coded-language have two different purposes, they serve the same outcome: they distort facts. Allen Guelzo (2019) claims that the contributors have explained everything through slavery. That was not the intended purpose of the project. Niemuth, Mackaman and North (2019) say that the essays are rooted in “race hatred” and the “uncontrollable hatred of ‘black people.” Again, not true. They attribute a claim to Hannah-Jones that “the permanent condition of racism is the inescapable fate of being a ‘white American’”. Again, not true. Throughout several reviews the word “reframes” is a significant topic of discussion (Silverstein, 2019; Stone 2020). The five historians open their letter saying that the project is offering a new “version” of American history. This is significant because a version is a particular form of something differing in certain respects from an earlier form, but historical facts do not change. While the words have similar meanings, we read into them differently. A new version indicates a new picture, event, or set of facts altogether. A new frame suggests the picture, events and facts stay the same, however, we may switch from a white frame to a Black frame and evaluate how that changes our perception of the narrative. All of this is intentional. The word version is couched in congratulatory praise, while framing is in quotations as to question its legitimacy. It is also situated next to errors and critiques. Again, language and its placement are intentional.
8. Panic & Scapegoating.
The most dangerous forms of hyperbole share a border with panic. Erick Erickson in an early tweet said:
If the nation is founded on slavery and slavery is woven into the very fabric of our society, then our society is illegitimate. The only way to overcome it is to overturn it. That would take revolution. This is the path the New York Times goes down. Once it lights this fire, it will not be able to control it. But it wants to strike the match anyway (Beauchamp, 2019).
Kishore compares the work of Nikole Hannah-Jones to Nazi ideologues and ends his review with “the working class must respond with the methods of class war and socialist revolution.” Niemuth, Mackaman and North insinuate that the essays will cause a “race war.” Panic then gives way to scapegoating. If there is going to be a catastrophe, someone must be at fault. Nikole Hannah-Jones is blamed for creating a “conscious effort to divide and disorient.” If Hannah-Jones is not directly blamed for causing or amplifying racial divisions, then she is scapegoated for creating the conditions for conflict.
9. Intellectual Dishonesty or Laziness.
Jeet Heer from the Nation says that some of the early critiques of the 1619 project were “willfully obtuse.” I prefer to say that the critics were being intellectually dishonest or too lazy to research or understand the implications of the project. However, this is a feature of whiteness; you don’t have to be intellectually honest or robust to be afforded the presumption of rightness. Many reviewers would not entertain the idea that if the ideals espoused by the early leaders were not enjoyed by all, they then cannot reflect the collective exceptionalism of all American identities. (Sandefur, 2019; Lowry, 2019). In response to Hannah-Jones’ essay Sandefur said: “The idea that, in Hannah-Jones’ words, the ‘white men’ who wrote the Declaration of Independence ‘did not believe’ its words applied to black people is simply false.” He then goes on to list John Adams, James Madison, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Here is the dishonesty, or inability to entertain the implications of the premise of the essay: With the exception of Adams, all those men owned slaves. You cannot say that you believe that “all men are created equal” and have “unalienable rights” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and then deny those rights to hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. Perhaps intellectual dishonesty or laziness is best captured by men like Newt Gingrich who can just tweet “It’s a LIE” or James McPherson, one of the esteemed historians, who admitted that he critiqued the project without having read all of it. How Sway?
10. Comparative Analysis of Trauma.
This is essentially asking, “Who had it worse?” Was it the Jews during the Holocaust or the enslaved Africans during the 300 years of chattel slavery? Perhaps the immigrants at the border today face harsher treatment than the Irish immigrants arriving during the 1820s? Don’t do it. It is disingenuous and creates hierarchies where people can infer that one group is more or less deserving of sympathy and accommodations. What should be compared are the restorative policies that have been systematically created to make people whole. Has there been an official government-sanctioned denouncement of harm? Has legislation been passed to ensure that it never happens again? Has legislation been passed to protect the victims and their progeny? Are these policies being enforced? Do the people who qualify have easy access? Have there been reparations to make up for the harm? We should compare the outcomes and if we find that one group has been afforded this recognition then we should advocate for all groups to receive equal treatment. This line of argumentation was only found in one response, The Flagrant Distortions and Subtle Lies of the 1619 Project, where Rich Lowry discussed how slavery in other parts of the world were more inhumane than in the United States. While this was one of the least common arguments against The 1619 Project its effects can be devastating. It reinforces that idea that some people are more worthy of humanity and it is a dangerous tool of whiteness.
Why aren’t we using the 1619 Project as a Classroom Resource?
If we were to use the 1619 Project as a resource, we would have to acknowledge that the United States has never fully reconciled or been held accountable for the brutal and devastating effects of slavery upon its descendants. Save the twelve years of Reconstruction, which were essentially rolled back by years of Redemption, 77 years of Jim Crow and a continuing legacy of structural and institutional racism, the de jure and de facto policies of the United States have never fully recognized their role in the disparate outcomes of the descendants of enslaved Africans. It is easy to blame the single mother on welfare, the incarcerated young adult for selling drugs, and the student who engaged in a physical altercation with another student because the blame is shifted to their individual short-comings, not to the collective shortcomings of a nation. If we acknowledge The 1619 Project as a valid source for understanding our collective history, then we also have to acknowledge how white supremacy, settler-colonialism, and unpaid Black labor laid the foundation for the capitalist structure that continues to fuel the upper and middle classes while oppressing the working-classes, the rise of the prison industrial-complex, and the generational trauma that youth of color often rehearse on each other. We also must acknowledge that we have been individually socialized to perpetuate anti-Black, prejudiced, inequitable and oppressive conditions in our sphere of society, even if that sphere of society is in our classrooms.
Two things can be true at the same time. This country can be founded on hypocrisy and racism and we can still strive to make it a “more perfect union.” Not acknowledging the former is disingenuous to all of those people who have been, and continue to be denied full access to participation in the American dream.
As educators the power to center historically marginalized people is in every decision we make. Our job is to allow as many voices and frames as possible, so that we can all see the bigger picture. When the New York Times releases additional classroom resources and a book later this year will we give our students the lens to see history from a liberatory perspective or will we close the gates and dismiss the “literature produced” based on claims of historical veracity and legitimacy? Don’t let our national DNA prohibit us from evolving into a more critical, enlightened and unified nation.
(2020, February 19). What's your child learning about some of the most important events in US history, like slavery & the Civil Rights movement? A @CBSNews investigation looked at popular school textbooks that uncovered some problematic lessons taught about America's past. @DrIbram @JerickaDuncan pic.twitter.com/y7vRkcvE74. Retrieved February 20, 2020, from https://twitter.com/CBSThisMorning/status/1230121291887382529?s=20
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Alicia Holt is the Research and Design Coordinator for Common Thread Consultants which aims to improve organizational dynamics by offering training and professional development in the areas of equity, mediation, group dynamics and other areas of cross-cultural intelligence. She also serves as the Equity and Culturally Responsive Supervisor for the Schenectady City School District.