John Connolly: The ‘1619 Project’ and race

Published: 2/18/2022 6:15:00 PM
Modified: 2/18/2022 6:14:50 PM

A recent letter writer on these pages claims that the “1619 Project,” which recasts American history by placing the institution of slavery and its aftermath at the center, is “hardly ... scholarly.” He goes on to cite a number of prominent historians who criticized aspects of the project.

But the writer thereby conveys a misleading impression of the conflict. The critics, particularly Sean Wilentz, were for the most part complaining not about the facts described, but rather about their interpretation. In particular they take issue with the pessimism of the 1619 Project, the view some of its contributors convey that our country has not rid itself of the racism that oppresses Black people and may never succeed in doing so.

But did we not elect Barack Obama president, indeed twice? Yes, but we also elected Donald Trump, the Original Birther. In recent months a Republican who had never run for office before was elected governor of Virginia with a campaign that vowed to protect white children from learning painful truths about slavery, Jim Crow and the like. And just this month our Supreme Court refused to uphold a lower court ruling that Alabama had blatantly redrawn congressional districts to dilute the influence of Black voters.

Are we making progress on race? I would be inclined to say, yes, but painfully slowly. And the pain is of course worst for our African American fellow citizens. As for the 1619 Project, in a review of the dispute with Sean Wilentz and others, the writer Adam Serwer wrote in the The Atlantic, the critics’ claims “are objections not to misstatements of historical fact, but to the argument that anti-black racism is a more intractable problem than most Americans are willing to admit.”

Can anyone in good conscience dispute that?

John Connolly



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