The Problematic Inaccuracies of the ‘1619 Project’

by Christopher Paslay

The New York Times’ ‘1619 Project’ is a problematic work of historical revisionism, and has been criticized by historians and scholars on all sides of the political spectrum for its fundamental inaccuracies and biased narrative.

John McWhorter, an African American professor of linguistics at Columbia University, takes issue with the historical facts at the center of the “1619 “Project.” As McWhorter writes in Reason Magazine

The verdict is in: The idea that America’s real founding was in 1619 does not wash. And yet, it will be considered a mark of sophistication to pretend otherwise.

Since last August, The New York Times has asked us to consider that America’s real founding was not in 1776 but in 1619, when the first Africans were brought to these shores. Nikole Hannah-Jones teaches that the Revolutionary War was fought mainly not to escape British tyranny, but out of fear that British tyranny was about to threaten the institution of slavery.

In a Wall Street Journal article titled “The ‘1619 Project’ Gets Schooled,” Elliot Kaufman further elaborates on the criticisms of well-respected scholars and historians:

“So wrong in so many ways” is how Gordon Wood, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the American Revolution, characterized the New York Times’s “1619 Project.” James McPherson, dean of Civil War historians and another Pulitzer winner, said the Times presented an “unbalanced, one-sided account” that “left most of the history out.” Even more surprising than the criticism from these generally liberal historians was where the interviews appeared: on the World Socialist Web Site, run by the Trotskyist Socialist Equality Party.

In an Atlantic article titled “A Matter of Facts,” Sean Wilentz, Professor of history at Princeton University, detailed the letter he wrote to the New York Times, requesting the publication correct its basic mistakes: 

On December 20, the Times Magazine published a letter that I signed with four other historians—Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood. Our letter applauded the project’s stated aim to raise public awareness and understanding of slavery’s central importance in our history. Although the project is not a conventional work of history and cannot be judged as such, the letter intended to help ensure that its efforts did not come at the expense of basic accuracy. Offering practical support to that end, it pointed out specific statements that, if allowed to stand, would misinform the public and give ammunition to those who might be opposed to the mission of grappling with the legacy of slavery. The letter requested that the Times print corrections of the errors that had already appeared, and that it keep those errors from appearing in any future materials published with the Times’ imprimatur, including the school curricula the newspaper announced it was developing in conjunction with the project.

Curiously, the New York Times chose to let the flawed revisionist history stand in an effort at bringing awareness to past racial injustice. But as America’s leading historians have pointed out, altering facts to forward so-called social justice causes is in fact doing a disservice to the cause itself.  How is teaching America’s youth inaccurate depictions of America’s past going to help educate them as knowledgeable and informed citizens?  Accuracy of information is necessary to allow students to think critically about the world around them, and altering such information — in the name of social justice — is not providing our children the resources they need to become proactive, self-empowered learners. 

Reframing America as country based on slavery and victimization — rather than on freedom, liberty, and democracy — works well if the aim is to indoctrinate our children into the polarizing and divisive world of identity politics.

“We are now to instruct black kids just a few years past diapers in this way of thinking — in studied despair over events far in the past, and a sense that it is more enlightened to think of yourself as a victim than as an actor,” McWhorter writes in his Reason article.  “At no other point in human history have any people, under any degree of oppression, conceived of this kind of self-image as healthy . . .”

Yet American schools are doing just that.

Which is why Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., recently introduced a bill that proposes denying federal funds to schools that incorporate the New York Times’ controversial “1619 Project” into its teaching curriculum, and why President Trump said Sunday that the Department of Education is examining the use of the New York Times Magazine‘s 1619 Project in schools, and warned that institutions that teach this alternative narrative of American history could lose federal funding.

As McWhorter so aptly writes in his Reason article

The insistence on maintaining the 1619 idea is rooted in a pervasive modern notion that when evaluating race issues, it is a form of intelligence and morality to duck truth when it is inconvenient to a victimhood-focused construct. W.E.B. Du Bois tackled the Dunning School with facts; today people sensing themselves as his heirs insist we accept alternative facts. Yet, to point out that neither Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, nor Martin Luther King Jr. would see this as progress renders one a heretic. This is one more thing we must overcome.

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