The 1619 Project is an instrument of propaganda whose insidious subtexts aim to promulgate the narrative that not only is America uniquely racist, but the nation cannot evolve beyond its history of slavery. Therefore, if America is to truly ascend, then the fatalism of the 1619 Project must be rejected.

Criticisms of the 1619 Project are becoming quite frequent. Many critics detail its appalling assertions with great aplomb.[1] The historical inaccuracies revealed by assessments of the project are glaring.[2] Falsehoods such as the myth that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery or that slavery equally enriched white Americans have been rightly exposed as untruths. What has gone largely unnoticed is another issue: the spurious subtexts promoted by the project. The 1619 Project is a philosophical creed inasmuch as it claims to be a work of historical journalism. Quite clear in its messaging is the propagation of a pessimistic worldview depicting not only African Americans but black people generally as victims unable to overcome the history of subjugation. Entrapped by this ideology, adherents have no choice but to foist limitations on the autonomy of blacks. Surely, if blacks cannot be unchained from their past and progress is never enough to satiate the demands of radical leftists, then automatically they are locked in a cage of victimhood. But to militate the pernicious effects of this ideology, we must not hesitate to confront dangerous beliefs with probity. Let’s evaluate some of these contentious messages dominating mainstream discourse.

Claim 1: African Americans are permanently damaged as a result of slavery

Indescribable horrors have been inflicted upon black people in America. As such historical examples of racism are interminably invoked by the media to justify the argument that America is fundamentally racist. Missing from this script, however, are the tales of numerous African Americans who triumphed in the midst of adversity. Not even slavery could diminish the ambitions of these determined men and women. Due to the surging popularity of social history depicting the lives of ordinary people, we have been provided with many narratives explicating the achievements of African Americans in the Pre-Civil War era. One penetrating story is that of Milly Pierce, who was born a slave. Cece Bullard in her beguiling study of this fascinating character writes: “Milly was the first free black woman, and one of the first three blacks to purchase land in Goochland County. A landmark in the progress of free blacks in Goochland, her acquisition of real property had symbolic as well as economic significance.”[3] Traumatic slavery cannot obliterate the indefatigable spirit of its victims. Humans possess an inherent inclination to achieve; thus, they will avail themselves of the opportunity to succeed given the right circumstances. History definitely has implications for the future—to deny this would be intellectually dishonest. Researchers Nathan Nunn and Leonard Wantchekon have shown that Africans whose ancestors were heavily raided during the slave trade are less trusting today.[4] Yet to trace all pathologies in the African-American community to slavery is simply facile. Dr. Sabrina Strings in a recent piece intuits that that COVID-19 fatality rates are higher for blacks because of slavery: “The era of slavery was when white Americans determined that black Americans needed only the bare necessities, not enough to keep them optimally safe and healthy. It set in motion black people’s diminished access to healthy foods, safe working conditions, medical treatment, and a host of other social inequities that negatively impact health.”[5] Dr. Strings sounds confident, but her analysis is hollow. Disparities in infections and fatality rates among different racial groups are the norm and are often unascribable to racism. White Americans, for instance, show a greater propensity to develop atrial fibrillation than individuals from other races or ethnicities.[6]

Essentially the thesis of Dr. Strings is flawed in that she fails to account for historical realities. Based on contemporary standards inadequate nutrition in the past was not unique to slaves, but typical of poor people in general. So, there are obvious gaps in the assessment of Dr. Strings, because she does not tell us why the descendants of poor whites are not more likely to be dying from COVID-19, since their ancestors were also exposed to a substandard diet. Biology can properly explore these questions. However, the intention of Dr. String was never to present a scientific case; she was obviously making a dubious political point. Many often resort to explanations hinged on slavery; after all, they provide easy answers.

Also, the argument that the prevalence of low self-esteem in the black community stems from slavery is false. Stating this opinion is nonsensical, considering that research consistently shows that, in fact, African Americans are more confident than other racial groups.[7] Interestingly, scholars are confounded by the high self-esteem of African-American students, though their academic performance is low.[8] Apparently the theory of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome is too puerile, even for anti-racist activist Ibram Kendi whose critique is damning: “Like every other popular racist theory, post-traumatic slave syndrome seems logical… But the logic and progressive flair of PTSS does not make it true. PTSS theorists rely on anecdotal evidence. And in customary racist fashion, they generalize the anecdotal negativities of individual Blacks in order to establish the problem of negative Black behaviors. PTSS theorists have not proven these negative behaviors are a Black problem; that Black people behave more negatively than other groups, let alone that these negative Black behaviors largely stem from a heritage of trauma.”[9] Arguing that the fortunes of African Americans are inextricably linked to slavery is fatalistic, defeatist, and downright racist.

Claim 2: Struggle is the hallmark of the African American Story

Of course, African Americans have experienced deep tribulations. Yet their adversities are only a snapshot of a larger plot. Throughout history, they have played a pivotal role as innovators in American society. Several books explore the primacy of slavery and Jim Crow in shaping the black experience, yet few discuss the magnitude of African Americans as pioneers in commerce. In outlining the contribution of African-American entrepreneurs, Dr. Andrew Bernstein reminds us of the captivating story of Elijah Mckoy:

Elijah McCoy was a mechanical engineer who initially worked for the Michigan Central Railroad as a locomotive fireman. He invented a revolutionary device to lubricate a machine’s moving parts. His product, the lubricator cup, made it possible to oil machinery while in operation. To distinguish it from cheaper imitations, it became known as ‘the real McCoy,’ giving currency to that phrase. He obtained 51 additional patents, including an early version of the ironing board and a cup for imbibing medicine. McCoy patented 51 different automatic lubricators and at age 77, started the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in Detroit to make his various products.[10]

Benjamin Montgomery is also another appropriate example of an African American who proved his mettle as an entrepreneur during the nineteenth century.[11] After the civil war, this inventor and astute businessman became one of the richest planters in Mississippi, even though a racist legal system impeded him from obtaining patents. The profound progress of African Americans despite obstacles is America’s biggest secret. When examining discrimination encountered by African Americans from slavery to Jim Crow, one can only conclude that they have overperformed.

Consider the observation of economist Robert Margo in a popular essay: “Real income per person in America as a whole rose fivefold from 1870-1960, and the incomes of black people not only matched this dizzy growth—it surpassed it.” Further during 2002-2007, the number of firms owned by African Americans grew by 60.5 percent thereby creating 1.9 million African American–owned businesses, employment at these firms also accelerated more rapidly than that of non-minority owned establishments, as shown by research.[12] Chronicling the progress of African Americans does not suit the agenda of activists interested in maximizing racial tensions to advance a political agenda.

Claim 3: The Racial Wealth Gap is a residue of slavery

There is an assumption that white Americans benefited from intergenerational wealth created in slavery; so, they are in a better position to amass wealth than African Americans. On the surface, this explanation appears insightful, but it is not corroborated by evidence. Economic analysis indicates that affluent households invest aggressively in risky assets generating higher rates of return.[13] Compared to whites, black Americans display a lower appetite for risks; this aversion to risk, research finds, elucidates why African Americans possess less wealth.[14] Similarly, one study suggests that there is little evidence to indicate that black households yielded lower returns when they invest in the same assets as white households.[15] Nevertheless, the report imputes that investments held by blacks were more predominant in low-yielding assets.

Likewise, researchers also do not find “sizeable racial differences in the inheritances of business.”[16] Irrespective of race, few people receive sufficiently large inheritances to drive the racial wealth gap. Race is rarely a universal cause of income disparities. For example, more African Americans are acquiring degrees, but the income gap persists; many usually attribute this to racism. Deeper scrutiny, however, reveals this argument to be a fallacy. According to the Center on Education and Workforce at Georgetown University, African-American college students are more likely to target majors that lead to low-pay jobs, thus trapping them in a vicious cycle of indebtedness and underemployment.[17] Racism and slavery are merely easy answers to complicated questions.

In short, the 1619 Project is an instrument of propaganda whose insidious subtexts aim to promulgate the narrative that not only is America uniquely racist, but the nation cannot evolve beyond its history of slavery. Taking proponents of the 1619 Project seriously would force us to believe that America has made no strides pertaining to race. Even more abhorrent is the idea that the success of African Americans has been marginal. Therefore, if America is to truly ascend, then the fatalism of the 1619 Project must be rejected.

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Notes:

[1] See Lipton Matthews, “How To Disprove The 6 Most Outrageous Myths Of The 1619 Project,” The Federalist (July 2020).

[2] See Adam Serwer, “The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts,” The Atlantic (December 2019).

[3] CeCe Bullard, Milly Pierce: A Slave Turned Slave-Owner in Pre-Civil War Virginia (Miniver Press, 2016).

[4] Nathan Nunn and Leonard Wantchekon, “The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa,” American Economic Review 101 (7) (December 2011): 3221–3252.

[5] Sabrina Strings, “It’s Not Obesity. It’s Slavery,” The New York Times (May 2020).

[6] Leland Kim, “Whites More Prone to Certain Heart Condition than Other Ethnic Groups,” UCSF (October 2013).

[7] J.M. Twenge and J. Crocker, “Race and self-esteem: Meta-analyses comparing Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians and comment on Gray-Little and Hafdahl (2000),” Psychological Bulletin, 128 (3), 371–408.

[8] Colette van Laar, “The Paradox of Low Academic Achievement but High Self-Esteem in African American Students: An Attributional Account,” Educational Psychology Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2000.

[9] Ibram X. Kendi, “Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome is a Racist Idea,” AAIHS (June 2016).

[10] Andrew Bernstein, “Black Innovators and Entrepreneurs Under Capitalism,” FEE (October 2001).

[11] See Shontavia Johnson, “America’s always had black inventors—even when the patent system explicitly excluded them,” The Conversation (February 2017).

[12] See “African American-Owned Firms Drive Job Creation, Outpace Growth Of Non-Minority-Owned Firms,” Minority Business Development Agency.

[13] Christopher D. Carroll, “Portfolios of the Rich,” NBER Working Paper, No. 7826 (August 2000).

[14] Kai Yuan Kuan, Mark R. Cullen, and Sepideh Modrek, “Racial Disparities in Savings Behavior for a Continuously Employed Cohort,” NBER Working Paper, No. 20937 (February 2015).

[15] Maury Gittleman and Edward N. Wolff, “Racial Differences in Patterns of Wealth Accumulation,” The Journal of Human Resources, Vol. 39, No. 1 (2004): 193-227.

[16] Robert W. Fairlie and Alicia M. Robb, “Why Are Black-Owned Businesses Less Successful than White-Owned Businesses? The Role of Families, Inheritances, and Business Human Capital,” IZA DP, No. 1292 (September 2004).

[17] Kenya Downs, “African-Americans over-represented among low-paying college majors,” PBS (February 2016).

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been brightened for clarity.

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