It turns out that Nikole Hannah-Jones won more than the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary this year. The New York Times Magazine staff writer was the driving force behind the newspaper’s decision to publish “The 1619 Project,” an ambitious effort that sought nothing less than to redefine not merely the way that Americans think about their nation’s history, but also about its contemporary society.
The effort earned her journalism’s highest honor. But it’s also clear that in the wake of the widespread outrage about the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman last week, her revisionist version of history is helping shape the response to this crime by a broad cross section of the country. That’s something that should concern everyone who cares about the fight for equality and freedom.
The problem with this is not the anger that so many rightly feel about an example of police brutality, or the fact that this incident and others like it has reminded us of the role racism plays in society. Rather, it is that in providing a patina of scholarly authority and the imprimatur of the legitimacy of the country’s most important newspaper, Hannah-Jones is encouraging a way of thinking about America that is not only rooted in misleading history, but also seeks to persuade us to believe that the promise of American liberty is a lie.
In this fraught moment, it is especially difficult to push back against the Hannah-Jones narrative about America, which fits neatly into the vision of the country promoted by the Black Lives Matter movement. Black lives do matter, though for much of American history that has unfortunately not been true. But thanks to Derek Chauvin’s callous snuffing out of the life of Floyd, that radical group has suddenly achieved normalcy, and the ability to command the respect and deference of both the mainstream media and leading corporations. While opposition to crimes such as the killing of Floyd is universal, to even question whether that group’s approach is the only way to think about the problem of race in America is to invite opprobrium and being labeled a racist.
Yet while expressing solidarity with African-Americans is important, it is vital that those who represent other communities not fall into the trap of buying into a libelous rebranding of America as still a captive to its past sins. That is especially true for American Jews and the groups that speak for them. The Jewish experience in this country encapsulates the struggle for freedom—not only for themselves as a religious minority, but also to overcome the legacy of slavery. To accept the “1619” version of the past and the present as revealed truth and a source of inspiration for a woke revolution that will change everything about America is to betray basic truths about what this country is and can be.
In her introductory essay to the Times series, Hannah-Jones argued that 1619—the date that slavery was introduced into North America—rather than 1776 was the true beginning of the American republic. In her retelling the purpose of the American Revolution was about defending slavery, not freedom. Despite the enormous progress since the country has made since its flawed beginning, she claimed that the United States was still irredeemably racist and saw little reason for optimism about its improvement.
The curious aspect about what followed is that liberal historians who are deeply critical of much about the United States, as well as fierce opponents of President Donald Trump, adamantly refuted not only Hannah-Jones’s essay but also much of the premise of “The 1619 Project.” In a letter to the Times, a group of the country’s most distinguish scholars denounced the effort as not only filled with important errors, but also fundamentally misleading. That is especially true about its depiction of the Revolution and also the claim that throughout the last 244 years, African-Americans have been “alone” in their efforts to fight slavery and bigotry. “1619” attacked former President Abraham Lincoln and ignored the fact that hundreds of thousands of white Americans not only struggled against slavery, but also fought and died in a Civil War that ended that pernicious institution.
The Times series was, as Princeton University’s Allen Guelzo wrote in City Journal, filled with assertions that are based in ignorance of basic facts of history. As he rightly pointed out, it is a “conspiracy theory” that, like many such screeds, seeks to provide a single answer to all of the nation’s woes. More than that, its purpose was to “hollow out the meaning of American freedom” so as to make contemporary Americans too ashamed of their country as to defend it, therefore making it easier to foist other notions about society that are not rooted in traditional American liberal democracy on us.
Slavery is the great sin of the history of the United States, and the subsequent 100 years of Jim Crow laws after its abolition has haunted us as a nation. But with starts and stops—and immense struggles—what followed the American republic’s noble, though flawed beginning was an unprecedented march to freedom and equality, which would have been impossible had blacks truly been alone in that fight. The result was a transformed society that was not only capable of electing an African-American to the presidency twice, but also of reshaping its views about race in ways that would have been unimaginable not just to the founders, but to the Americans of the first half of the 20th century.
That progress would have been impossible without the ideal of American liberty born in the revolution and which sustained those who fought for a better society ever since then. Some of the founders may have been slave-owning hypocrites, and some of their descendants were equally flawed racists. But the ideas they promoted made it possible for the America of the 20th century to save civilization from the depravity of Nazism and fascism, and then communism.
To besmirch and deny that legacy is to essentially redefine America in such a way as to prevent if from continuing to play a positive force in human history. That might be no great loss for those who view the United States and its way of life as no better than other visions of governance, such as that of Socialist or Islamist tyrannies. But such thinking is not merely wrongheaded; it also undermines the very democratic structures that have provided the pathway to the progress we’ve already achieved.
It is telling that, armed with her Pulitzer and the adulation of the chattering classes, Hannah-Jones has been among those rationalizing the violence, riots and looting that, along with peaceful and necessary protest, followed Floyd’s murder as a legitimate response to what she sees as the bankruptcy of American law and history. Just as the facts of American history that refute the conceit of the “1619 Project” mean nothing to her, so, too, do the facts about police violence against blacks, which also contradict the myths about contemporary America she and others seek to promote.
The notion that the proper response to the Floyd murder is not more advocacy for freedom but ideas promoted by the BLM movement about abolishing police—a cause also promoted by the Times—is similarly rooted in a vision of America as a fundamentally evil society that must be demolished rather than improved. Given that among the greatest problems facing African-American communities is under-policing (more than 80 percent of blacks and other minorities favor increased or the same amount of police in their neighborhoods as opposed to less law enforcement), its proposals are a formula that will hurt efforts to improve the lives of African-American citizens.
Though anti-Semitism has always been present on these shores, Jews did not suffer as African-Americans did. But their progress from marginalized minority to the acceptance and success of the 21st century also testifies to the fact that the ideals that strengthened the “better angels” of American society has been a profoundly positive force in human history.
The problem with the “The 1619 Project” from a Jewish perspective is not that it denigrates the small but significant Jewish role in the civil-rights movement. Rather, it is that by trashing the whole ideal of American liberty, this dismantling of liberal democracy threatens the basis on which Jews have themselves overcome past disabilities.
While it is appropriate for Jews to condemn police brutality and the vestiges of racism wherever they are to be found, it is equally important that they not embrace the myths that radicals like Hannah-Jones are peddling. To do so puts them in the company of those selling the lies of the intersectional movement that seeks to demonize Israel and Zionism, as well as those who are trashing the ideals that while not yet fully realized provide the only path to freedom.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.