COMMENTARY: 'The 1619 Project' shines a light on a topic critics are unwilling to truly see


By Samuel C. Damren

This is the third commentary in a series focused on 2021 laws enacted in five states prohibiting the teaching of discriminatory concepts related to “race or sex.”

The first commentary closely analyzed the wording of five of eight concepts that were banned by Teaching Prohibition Laws, or TPLs in each state. The commentary also questioned the need for enacting the TPLs when there was no indication that any of the prohibited concepts (for example, that “one race is inherently superior to another”) were actually being taught.

The second commentary turned focus to the long list of discriminatory concepts that were not banned by the TPLs. The commentary suggested that these omissions were “dog whistles” that enabled lawmakers in the five states to signal to like-minded individuals which groups it was permissible to persecute in Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas and which groups it was not.

This commentary and the next will discuss The New York Times “The 1619 Project” through the lens of the three remaining prohibited concepts that the TPLs share.

Governors and legislators acknowledge that alleged negative views of American ideals and history in “The 1619 Project” were part of the inspiration for the TPLs. Texas went so far as to ban educators from requiring students to “have an understanding of the 1619 Project.”

“The 1619 Project” was recently expanded and published in book form. Among other African American perspectives given voice, the book takes the position that America was not founded with the Declaration of Independence, but in 1619 when the first Africans were brought in captivity to the Colonies and enslaved.

This is an African American perspective on the origins of America as being inextricably intertwined with slavery, its “de jure” practice for 250 years, Jim Crow, racist segregation and the continuing consequences of deep-seated prejudice.

To those who are not acquainted with this perspective and the facts supporting it, “The 1619 Project” will be eye opening. What makes it the center of controversy is that it challenges the long standing political gospel of our founding story and asserts that without this African American perspective, the history of American’s origin is incomplete and more nostalgia than truth.

The book includes 18 essays by different highly credentialed authors arranged as chapters with one-word titles: Democracy, Race, Sugar, Fear, Dispossession, Capitalism, Politics, Citizenship, Self-defense, Punishment, Inheritance, Medicine, Church, Music, Healthcare, Traffic, Progress, and Justice.

The first of two concepts in the TPLs under consideration here is the prohibition on teaching “that meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.”
Notably the TPLs do not assert that America is a meritocracy. Good thing, because it’s not.

In America, due to circumstance, some Americans start on the 50-yard line for a sprint to the goal line.

Other Americans are positioned on the 40-, 30-, 20-, or 10-yard lines when the starting pistol fires. We all know that. “The 1619 Project” notes that race is a factor, not for all, but for many of the starting line designations.

Whether you believe American ideals support this starting line designation is another question.

The authors of the essays in “The 1619 Project” do not. But one of the most interesting observations in the essays is that even though leaders in the African American community long knew their starting line was rigged, they repeatedly leaned into, and embraced, ideals expressed by the founders to combat the betrayal of those ideals in practice.

 Nikole Hannah-Jones, who organized “The 1619 Project,” goes so far as to assert in her essay, “Democracy,” that given all the obstacles placed in the path of African Americans dating from their arrival in chains to today, their devotion to these founding ideals makes them the “most American.”

Not surprisingly, her comment provoked umbrage in certain quarters, including supporters of the TPLs.

The second concept prohibited by the TPLs for consideration in this commentary is teaching “that an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”

Who would think such a thing?

Well, as applies to “race,” that prohibited concept was a bedrock to American slavery. Beginning with the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1662, the elected legislators of the English colony decided that the race of a person, and accordingly whether they were “slave or free,” was determined by the race of the mother. Thus, the issue of enslaved “negro” women were born enslaved, even if the father was a white Englishman. Accordingly, the children were forever condemned – by their blood, not deeds – to status as members of a slave race.

Enslavers were permitted under these laws to rape enslaved women and if a child was born, to add new “property” to the enslaver’s wealth. The practice increased after 1808 when the United States barred the importation of slaves from other countries as did the break-up of slave families when members were sold by an enslaver in one state to enslavers in another.

Prohibitions on interracial marriage, which were central to slave laws, continued in many states until 1967 when so-called “Racial Integrity” acts in Virginia and elsewhere were declared unconstitutional.

For further details, read Dorothy Roberts’ essay “Race.”

Trymaine Lee’s essay “Inheritance,” points out that while Americans are not responsible for the acts of their ancestors, white Americans did benefit from slavery and that those benefits place them, and their descendants, closer to the finish line of the 50-yard sprint than descendants of slaves.

Matthew Desmond’s essay “Capitalism,” explains how the economic model of the slave economy found new forms of expression in other sectors of the economy long after the abolition of slavery. In many of those sectors, American capitalism was influenced by that economic model to make competition between business owners as much about who could more efficiently exploit their workers as it was about other factors.

A study by the Oxfam America released on March 21, 2022 found that one-third of all American workers are paid less than $15 an hour in wages.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s essay “Sugar” is particularly insightful and a difficult read. It describes horrific living and working conditions for slaves on sugar plantations in Louisiana in the lead up to the Civil War. However painful, it is a must read to understand how such a place could come into existence in a country established on the enshrined ideals of the founders.

This leads to the topic of the final commentary in this series: Discomfort.
Samuel Damren is a retired Detroit lawyer and author of “What Justice Looks Like.”