Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Arc of History ONLY Bends Toward Overcoming


theatlantic |  The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? These are not simple questions to answer, because the nation’s pro-slavery and anti-slavery tendencies are so closely intertwined.

The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for rights they may never fully realize. Inherent in that vision is a kind of pessimism, not about black struggle but about the sincerity and viability of white anti-racism. It is a harsh verdict, and one of the reasons the 1619 Project has provoked pointed criticism alongside praise.

Americans need to believe that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of history bends toward justice. And they are rarely kind to those who question whether it does.

 Published 400 years after the first Africans were brought to in Virginia, the project asked readers to consider “what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.” The special issue of the Times Magazine included essays from the Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, who argued that sprawl in Atlanta is a consequence of segregation and white flight; the Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, who posited that American countermajoritarianism was shaped by pro-slavery politicians seeking to preserve the peculiar institution; and the journalist Linda Villarosa, who traced racist stereotypes about higher pain tolerance in black people from the 18th century to the present day. The articles that drew the most attention and criticism, though, were Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay chronlicling black Americans’ struggle to “make democracy real” and the sociologist Matthew Desmond’s essay linking the crueler aspects of American capitalism to the labor practices that arose under slavery.

The letter’s signatories recognize the problem the Times aimed to remedy, Wilentz told me. “Each of us, all of us, think that the idea of the 1619 Project is fantastic. I mean, it's just urgently needed. The idea of bringing to light not only scholarship but all sorts of things that have to do with the centrality of slavery and of racism to American history is a wonderful idea,” he said. In a subsequent interview, he said, “Far from an attempt to discredit the 1619 Project, our letter is intended to help it.”

The letter disputes a passage in Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, which lauds the contributions of black people to making America a full democracy and says that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” as abolitionist sentiment began rising in Britain.

This argument is explosive. From abolition to the civil-rights movement, activists have reached back to the rhetoric and documents of the founding era to present their claims to equal citizenship as consonant with the American tradition. The Wilentz letter contends that the 1619 Project’s argument concedes too much to slavery’s defenders, likening it to South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun’s assertion that “there is not a word of truth” in the Declaration of Independence’s famous phrase that “all men are created equal.” Where Wilentz and his colleagues see the rising anti-slavery movement in the colonies and its influence on the Revolution as a radical break from millennia in which human slavery was accepted around the world, Hannah-Jones’ essay outlines how the ideology of white supremacy that sustained slavery still endures today.