Radically recasting America’s formative years would be damaging enough, but The New York Times’ “1619 Project” is applying that same radical intellectual perspective on American history to contemporary social issues and problems.
That intellectual perspective has its own history. It developed in earnest during the tumult and chaos of the Black Power radicalism of the late 1960s. That catastrophically wrong turn the civil rights movement took spawned the warped worldview that would eventually dominate the study of race in the contemporary world of higher education, before spreading out into American political culture.
Until the middle 1960s, a very different set of perspectives dominated the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, and James Farmer vigorously opposed the racial status quo of the times, but they analyzed its nature largely within the parameters of traditional American cultural frameworks. Constitutional Republicanism and Protestant Christianity were central cultural systems for these critics. In short, these civil rights activists believed American culture and formative principles were sound and simply needed to be fully implemented to correct existing problems regarding race relations.
By the late ’60s, newer, younger, extreme voices had arisen in the world of black civil rights. The now largely forgotten book Black Power (1967) distilled this new radical perspective. Cowritten by a young radical political scientist, Charles Hamilton, and one of the most controversial figures in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Stokely Carmichael, the book’s title quickly became the term representing the entirety of the radical racial identitarian movement that took off in the ’60s and ’70s.
Hamilton and Carmichael argued that the situation for blacks as a whole had markedly deteriorated, and that prospects going forward would be dismal unless blacks as a group took up a revolutionary perspective.
This was argued in 1967. That is to say, it is after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; after Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty initiated an unprecedented level of spending—much of it in the form of direct redistribution—on urban social problems; and after the first two thirds of the 20th century’s “Great Migration” of blacks from the poor rural South to the materially more prosperous and politically free North. The positive benefits of this population shift can scarcely be overemphasized. By 1970, four in ten blacks lived in the North, and in the two decades between 1940 and 1960, the black middle class had grown enormously.
In this context, Carmichael and Hamilton claimed—against the evidence—that black circumstances were more dire than they had been since the Emancipation Proclamation. They went so far as to compare the black situation in 1967 to the “postcolonial” struggles in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere in the world. Blacks in the U.S. faced, in their view, a “unique case of colonialism.”
The odds of a social movement radicalizing often increase in conjunction with a movement’s advance and success. An increase in material resources and freedom of expression, which become available precisely when a social movement makes notable gains, frequently translate into the rise of angrier, more insistent voices. As objective deprivation decreases, relative deprivation—the distance between the objectively improving situation of blacks and the ideal of equality to which they aspire—sparks the intense emotional forces that took shape in the many violent urban disturbances of the late ’60s sixties and early ’70s.
Once we understand how such perspectives could arise, and why radicals shouting emotionally charged but impractical, incoherent slogans might have gotten traction on the street, how could such a patently counterfactual case as that of Black Power be argued? Not very convincingly, it turns out. In order to make even the beginnings of a case, Carmichael and Hamilton needed fresh theoretical tools, devised not to more accurately and objectively understand social reality, but to mask obvious progress as oppressive stasis and decay.
By every measure, explicit, noticeable, and damaging episodes of racism and prejudice were shrinking in the country in the late 1960s. The clearest evidence of how much white opinion had shifted was the almost uniform disgust and dismay with which white-dominated media sources in the North presented images of Southern mobs chanting ugly slogans at black students integrating schools and colleges. All opinion data show a similar situation. At the end of WWII, fewer than half of whites in the U.S. believed in equal opportunity for jobs among the races. By 1972, just a few decades later, nearly all whites (97 percent) believed in it.
To counter these inconvenient facts, which could be multiplied here ad nauseam, Carmichael and Hamilton invented the notion—now nearly universally accepted in academia—of institutional racism. They defined this concept as “acts by the total white community against the black community…less overt, far more subtle, less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts…[yet] no less destructive of human life…[and] originat[ing] in the operation of established and respected forces in the society.” Thus began the seemingly limitless intellectual deception on this matter.
The examples Carmichael and Hamilton use to illustrate institutional racism are also contemporary favorites. The black unemployment rate is higher than the white rate, we are told, and blacks have a more difficult time securing a mortgage. These statements were true in 1967 and remain so today. But only people who do not understand the basic logic of social science could think that they are self-evidently “acts by the total white community against the black community” or that they unquestionably demonstrate the effects of unjust bias against blacks.
The hard questions of explaining social outcomes are not so nimbly leapt over. The reasons why people are employed or unemployed, offered mortgages or denied them, are numerous and complicated. Explicit prejudice might indeed play a role, but this has to be discovered empirically, not asserted as an a priori inevitability, especially when there is voluminous evidence, as there was in 1967, that American whites are rapidly becoming less prejudiced than they had been. What of the possible role of racial differences in educational training, testing performance, income, savings, wealth, and accumulated debt, or of anecdotal or perhaps more systematic employer knowledge of differential job performance between groups, to name just a few other potentially relevant variables?
It is indeed possible that “the operation of established and respected forces in society” may yield unequal outcomes for different groups, but that fact does not tell us anything about the moral nature of those “forces.” A 100-meter race track and a random group of runners sprinting its length are quite likely to produce something other than total equality of outcome. By the malformed logic of Black Power, we are justified, absent any other information, in asserting that the race track itself is evidence of institutional racism if members of one racial group perform systematically better than those of another. To ask what training regimens are adhered to by different groups of racers, or what evidence might exist of group differences in capability for running the kind of race defined by this track, is taboo in this framework. How can we hope to demonstrate the action of “the total white community against the black community” in any set of “forces” at work in a vast and complicated national society such as that of the United States? This extreme structuralist logic fails any conceivable empirical test. Indeed, was even Jim Crow an example of institutional racism by this definition? Jim Crow clearly affected the lives of Southern blacks in broad and negative ways, and ideas about the inferiority of blacks were the demonstrable belief driving it, but all of this can be recognized and effectively described without the illicit and brute causal leap to the universalist Manichaeism of the untenable concept of “institutional racism” that Black Power makes.
The only rationally supportable—and morally responsible—view is that Jim Crow was not “an act by the total white community.” It was a result of myriad specific acts by individuals from a subset of the larger group “American whites,” that is, white Southerners who voted or otherwise acted directly within Southern legal and political systems to establish racially exclusionary laws and policies. Some number, unknowable with any precision but certainly significant, of white Southerners either took no part in the political and legal decision-making that produced Jim Crow—because they failed to vote or otherwise directly participate in electoral politics or the shaping of law—or they opposed it.
The venerable axiom of the “Solid South,” united during the Jim Crow period under the pre-New Deal Democratic Party, is a useful shorthand for a rough description of Southern politics. As soon as one examines details in close relief, though, Carmichael and Hamilton’s simplifying course from imprecise generalization to claims about the action of all whites falls apart. An easy way to see the degree of complexity in white Southerners’ political views during the period is to examine presidential election results during the pre-Civil Rights era. Many Republican candidates for president in this period—McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover—carried or nearly carried some Southern states. In 1928, Hoover won six out of these 16 states. Even when the states of the former Confederacy voted for Democratic candidates, the state votes were in many cases far from landslides.
Millions of votes were cast by white Southerners for Republican candidates for president during this period. Some of the Republican presidential candidates for whom whites in the South voted had positions on Jim Crow and racial politics that were decidedly more pro-black than the positions of their electoral opponents. Harding straightforwardly argued, in a 1921 speech before a multiracial Birmingham, Alabama, audience, for equal educational opportunity and equal rights of citizenship for blacks. In his 1923 State of the Union speech, Coolidge declared the rights of blacks were “just as sacred as those of any other citizen.”
Yet in the stunted analysis of Carmichael and Hamilton, the many white Southerners who voted for these men to serve as the nation’s president are functionally indistinguishable on the race question from the most extreme elements of the Ku Klux Klan.
Jim Crow can be discussed in properly social scientific terms, of course, but those terms must be far stricter and more careful than the absurdly loose language of Hamilton and Carmichael’s institutional racism. The Jim Crow system consisted of legal codes and rules written by legislators who had ideas that define members of different racial groups differently as a matter of law. These codes were generally—though not invariably—enforced by others, sometimes because they shared the ideas behind the codes, sometimes because of the obligation of their structural position in an occupational hierarchy, and sometimes because of both.
Of crucial importance to this more careful definition of Jim Crow—and any other social situation of more or less systematic discrimination and differential treatment based on race—is that it makes clear individuals are the only possible actors in human societies. “Forces,” the term Hamilton and Carmichael give as the agents of institutional racism, cannot act or hold racist ideas, or indeed any ideas. The theoretical move away from individuals as the agents in society to vague structures and “forces” is entirely unmerited, deeply anti-scientific, and motivated entirely by political ideology.
Institutional racism is an entirely fictional entity invented to “explain” any negative outcomes that accrue to blacks by indiscriminately blaming “the total white community,” without the need to inquire carefully into particulars or to examine comparatively the contribution made by other potential causes of such outcomes. It is to be accepted on faith, whatever the state of the evidence.
Black Power sweepingly rejects the policy goals and the vision of race relations of the King/Wilkins/Farmer civil rights movement. It instructs us that American society must be fundamentally “revamp[ed],” and this must include the destruction of what the authors label “Anglo-conformity.” By this, they mean nothing less than the entire Anglo-Protestant institutional basis of American society and culture. The English language and all other “English-oriented cultural patterns” are to be removed from their position as “dominant and standard in American life.” We are not told what will replace these deeply moored social institutions.
An entire chapter details the impossibility (a mere “myth,” in the authors’ terms) of black-white coalitions working toward peaceable relations between the races. The reason is simple: “[N]o matter how ‘liberal’ a white person might be, he cannot ultimately escape the overpowering influence—on himself and on black people—of his whiteness in a racist society.”
The totality of the shift in Black Power from the early (and successful) civil rights movement is perhaps at its clearest in the authors’ account of their differences with “one Negro woman, prominent in civic affairs,” who criticized black rioters in one of the myriad urban disturbances of the period and declared:
We want a type of relationship [between whites and blacks], built on solid ground, which will endure through the years—a relationship depending upon mutual trust and respect. This does not derive from rowdyism and lawlessness… We insist on equality of opportunity—under law and under God—but we are not radical street demonstrators, losing control of our good instincts. Nor will we endorse or support those who work without purpose or concern for law and order. Let all of us—white and colored—join hands in securing justice, obedience to law and good will which will bring progress in every area of our common life.
Carmichael and Hamilton’s response to this heartwarmingly magnanimous and unifying message demonstrates a total estrangement from the deepest meanings of American civic republicanism and Anglo-Protestant spiritual values. Blacks like this woman, they sneer, are “clinging to a set of values and a rhetoric which never applied in…this country.” Non-radical blacks foolishly subscribe to “Christian love, charity, good will…[and] the American dream,” but wiser heads know these principles were “not originally intended to include them and [they do] not include the black masses today.”
The creators of the “1619 Project” have clearly fed intellectually from the fruit that fell from this tree of extremist black thought. Black Power is in fact something of a theoretical template for the “1619 Project,” 50 years in advance. In the Project’s lead essay, Nikole Hannah-Jones views American history from just this blinkered, Manichaean set of lenses. Whites are everywhere in it, at every moment of American history, as the very image and emblem of visceral hatred and cruelty—and nothing more. It is not just the American Founding that is racist to its core; every facet of white identity, from the beginning to the present moment, is directed in a laser focus toward the oppression of blacks. This perverse framework is precisely the inverse of the view of the brutal white racist Hannah-Jones wants to see in every American white. In this radical prism, all whites become inhuman monsters monomaniacally obsessed with crushing the souls of black folk, who are depicted universally as stunning moral superheroes. Indeed, it is blacks who made everything valuable and worthwhile in this country. They are the brilliant and creative collective authors who produced “the one truly American culture,” under the burden of the unrelenting white effort to betray every virtuous principle they had mendaciously planted in the founding documents.
What is the truth of America in the vision of the “1619 Project? It is “that as much democracy as this nation has today, it has been borne on the backs of black resistance.” Only blacks believed in the ideals of the founding; the whites who produced its documents were the basest liars and hypocrites. Every bit of the labor to achieve American principles of equality, from slavery to emancipation to the civil rights movement, was performed, in Hannah-Jones’ narrative, by blacks alone and unaided, with whites everywhere resisting and undermining black liberation.
Anyone who has consulted real history or sociology on this understands we are entirely in the realm of fantasy here. The true story of race relations in this country includes plenty of racist whites and heroic blacks, to be sure, but it also includes innumerable whites who actively opposed slavery and black subordination, and it shows us also countless blacks who contributed little or nothing to their own liberation, or who even undermined that project. This is the reality of history and social life; it’s messy, complex, contradictory, and difficult. But Hannah-Jones’ aspiration is clearly not so limited as to speak as a mere historian or social scientist. She wants to be an author of myths.
The tortured reasoning and logic of Black Power is the blueprint of Hannah-Jones’ essay. In both, anecdote constantly serves as evidence of the broadest claims about whole swaths of history and the beliefs and behaviors of large social groups. In place of any real examination of the complicated reasons for racial disparities, these disparities are simply listed in a condemnatory litany—blacks do less well in educational outcomes, employment, income, involvement in crime and the criminal justice system, etc.
Then she asserts the list itself constitutes evidence of American racism and the impossibility of absolution short of a complete demolition of traditional American economic, political, social, and cultural systems. No other factors can conceivably be involved in the explanation, and no evidence is needed to illustrate racism beyond hand-waving at “institutional,” or “structural,” or “systemic” (the three are essentially interchangeable in this literature) factors that need never be delineated or explained in any serious way.
In this way, the hard questions are (not so nimbly) leapt over. Why do black students drop out of school more frequently? Why are their test scores lower? Why do they have less success securing good jobs? Why are they so overrepresented in the criminal justice system as defendants? The business of truly scientific social analysis, of an exacting and difficult examination of social problems with objective methods and theoretical equanimity, is rejected. A suggestion is even made in Black Power that social science itself, in its 1967 incarnation, is insufficient for adequately studying this topic precisely because there are not enough black social scientists. The black understanding of American culture and the psychology of American whites, it is asserted, is superior by virtue of their “alienation and detachment.” Who you are determines the quality of the race relations social science you are capable of producing.
In 2019, we see the fruits of this identity-epistemology project begun in the late 1960s. Nearly all the figures associated with the “1619 Project” are nonwhites, and one can safely assume these are people who more or less universally accept the basic premise set out by Carmichael and Hamilton that only blacks can adequately study and understand the situation of blacks. The radically subjectivist approach of Carmichael and Hamilton is today taught as a respectable methodological take on the social sciences in universities across the country, thanks to the growing numbers of social science faculty influenced by this worldview.
Few today read Black Power outside the ranks of academic historians of extremist political thought in the 1960s. But Nikole Hannah-Jones and the other writers behind the “1619 Project” have drunk deeply of the drafts distilled over the decades from the original cask of Carmichael and Hamilton. Understanding the deeply flawed nature of the “1619 Project” requires tracing it back to the equally anti-intellectual and ideological efforts in sociological reasoning that grew out of extremist black political thought in the turbulent 1960s.