The New York Times has launched the 1619 Project, an attempt, they say, to “reframe” American history. It is an effort to center slavery as the key element of the American story, in part by making 1619, the year the first African slaves arrived here, the starting point of the United States.
Its not entirely clear what the Times hopes to achieve with the project, or why they think it is their job to frame how Americans look at our history. But there is an even more elemental problem at work here. The reframing of American history already happened — quite a long time ago, in fact. The persistent myth that American students are being given some gilded version of American history that hides its faults is frankly baffling.
Throughout most of recorded time, history served a very different purpose than it does today. It was generally meant to celebrate its subjects, especially if it was a history of the author’s own nation or culture. That celebratory history helped to foster social cohesion and a positive outlook on the present.
There are some exceptions, such as Procopius’ precocious and hilarious “Secret History” in which, among other things, he claimed the Empress Theodora was a prostitute; and Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” But typically historians were cheerleaders for their own cultures.
By the 20th century in the West, this started to change. By the mid-20th century such celebratory takes on history went badly out of fashion. Winston Churchill’s “History of the English Speaking Peoples” was one of the last to be taken seriously. By the 1950s, historians viewed their role differently. They were to be objective investigators interrogating their subjects with limited moral judgment.
Some historians would go even further, as The New York times is doing, by casting America as the villain in her own history. Those efforts intensified in the post-Cold War period when postmodern relativism took over much of academia, and the victory of America (and the West) made it the undisputed superpower of the world. With nothing meaningful to compare Western systems to, they became the object of more intense and negative scrutiny.
By the 1990s, and in fact long before then, the fabled 1950s school history books that allegedly painted over slavery and the dispossession of Native Americans had become relics. Now and then we see an odd example of a badly phrased paragraph that belittles the importance of America’s worst historical moments or traits, but the infrequency with which we see that should be a clue that the vast majority of historical materials are no longer framed in a celebratory way.
There is no significant portion of the American citizenry younger than 50 years old who were ever taught, or who believe, that slavery wasn’t that bad, or that manifest destiny was perfectly fine. American schools and authors are highly critical of the nation’s past. If anything, the pendulum has swung the other way.
Take these examples cited in 2016 by the same New York Times about efforts to take politics out of the Advanced Placement U.S. history exam: “But even liberals scratched their heads over a few descriptions, like calling Ronald Reagan ‘bellicose” in his dealings with the Soviet Union or describing Manifest Destiny as a belief in ‘white racial superiority’ without also explaining its philosophical mission to spread liberty, democracy and technical innovations.”
This does not sound like an American educational system wanting for depictions of the country’s historical ills. Because of course it isn’t. At its best American history classes mostly now attempt to give students and readers the facts of what occurred as well as context through which they can arrive at their own judgments. This is the proper role for history to play.
The 1619 Project, on the other hand, is an attempt to go back to history as a political and cultural influencer, to once again use it to promote policies and values. That it does so by demonizing rather than praising America is irrelevant in this regard. But if the purpose of celebratory history was to achieve social cohesion, the purpose of derogatory history is to achieve social discord and upheaval. Those aren’t always bad things when societies are in need of it.
But this brings us back to the question of what the Times is trying to achieve. By far the most central and important issue regarding race and racism in the United States is how to change the fact that black and to a lesser degree Hispanic Americans have consistently worse outcomes in a whole host of areas than do other Americans. In regard to the former, 1619 makes a compelling case that slavery played a big role in this, because it did. This is something few serious people would argue with.
What is less clear is how reframing American history as a tale of evil is going to fix the problem. As if somehow non-black Americans will have their eyes opened to how important slavery was and suddenly have policy fixes to change outcomes. This seems extremely unlikely, especially given that such significant efforts have been made to reframe history over the past decades and these negative outcomes have not changed.
There is little evidence to support that these talking cures, meant to change the fundamental attitudes that Americans hold about their country and its past, significantly change the conditions of people’s lives. What’s worse, it is possible that in pretending a change in such attitudes toward history is the solution to the problem, we are avoiding finding actual solutions.
Was America founded on racism? That’s an important but subjective question, the answer to which should be informed by history, but the answer is not and cannot be a historical fact. The Times seems to want it to be one, but it demonstrably isn’t.
Wherever one stand on that question, the correct answer will not be a magic elixir that creates greater equality. American history is fine; the problems of 2019 won’t be solved by criticizing the morals of 1776. Let’s look for solutions today, and leave yesterday alone.