Many more college students have read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ anti-white screed Between the World and Me (2015) than have read, say, works by the Nobel economist Robert Fogel, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Slavery (1974) or Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (1989). I can say that with some confidence. The Open Syllabus Project finds Coates’ book assigned in 783 courses. Fogel’s Time on the Cross is assigned in 22 courses and his Without Consent or Contract in 156 courses. Moreover, Coates’ book is now the second most-assigned book in the country in college summer reading programs.
Coates treats slavery as an institution that was never truly abolished. It continues as the pervasive racism of American society. This rhetorical flourish sells a lot of books today. Fogel, the economic historian, takes on slavery as an appallingly real institution and brings intellectual heft to the task of explaining it.
That contrast is all the more important in light of The New York Times’ plunge into re-educating all Americans about our history through the lens of African American slavery. The Times launched its 1619 Project on August 18 to a great deal of fanfare. 1619 is the year that the first black African slaves landed at Jamestown. It is a noteworthy date, but not quite what the beginning of slavery in the New World or in what would become the United States. The Spanish had brought African slaves long before. And we have at least one account by an early Spanish soldier, Cabeza de Vaca, who was captured and enslaved by Native Americans in the South in the 1520s. Slavery was an indigenous American institution long before Europeans got here.
Be that as it may, the Times wants to reimagine the European version of America as founded on slavery and stained in every possible way by the continuing effects of slavery. This is a political project more than a historical one. Its unacknowledged goal is to taint all opposition to progressive political goals as rooted in the perpetuation of oppression, and perhaps to delegitimize America itself.
The 1619 Project overstates things a bit. Slavery does have lingering consequences, and the economic, cultural, and political history of the country does reflect the awful institution. But the 1619 Project also reduces the lives of African Americans to perpetual victimhood, and it ignores the glorious ideal of freedom in American history. It reverses the traditional conception of America as an exceptional land of liberty to conceive of it as an exceptional land of slavery and oppression.
Four centuries ago, almost every Englishman believed a piece of anti-Spanish propaganda called the “Black Legend.” It presented all Spaniards and all Catholics as uniquely, demonically evil, whose cruelty was proved not least by their barbaric treatment of the Indians. The 1619 Project creates a new kind of Black Legend, which casts America as uniquely, demonically evil.
The Times is calculating that Americans are already primed to believe this new Black Legend. They have been softened up by the pseudo-history of Howard Zinn, whose elaborately distorted vision in A People’s History of the United States has been swallowed whole by millions. (A nod of appreciation is due to Mary Grabar whose new book Debunking Howard Zinn is a long-overdue corrective to the Marxist storyteller.) Others are hoping the 1619 Project will flatten what is left of resistance to anti-American mythmaking in K-12 and college history courses. The new Black Legend is already comfortably ensconced in many of our high schools and colleges. The first book college students read very likely treats it as fact.
One of the contributors to The 1619 Project, Bryan Stevenson, is the head of the Equal Justice Initiative, which is dedicated to releasing innocent people from jail. He’s also the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014), which has been the most popular single college reading for the last three years.
Stevenson wrote the same story for The New York Times and for Just Mercy: America’s justice system is racist to the core, and it aims at torturing blacks. Stevenson sees no distance between a racial lynching of an innocent man and the sober desire for justice by a judge and a jury following the law. He thinks “mass incarceration” is the result of racist animus—not a response to the unfortunate reality of too many millions of Americans choosing to commit crimes and even more unfortunate reality that a disproportionate number of those Americans who commit crimes are African American. He has no conception that it is a terrible injustice for the victims of criminals to see criminals fail to receive justice for their crimes. And he never even acknowledges that there might be an argument against him. He simply assumes that reading the book will get you ready to sign up for social justice activism, in service of the Equal Justice Initiative.
Stevenson’s Just Mercy has already been assigned to 94 colleges in the five years since it was published—it’s already the third-most frequently assigned book since 2007, and it’s on track to be the most widely assigned in a few years. In the very first year after it came out, it was the second-most popular assignment—assigned 16 times in 2015. It was the single most popular assignment in the last three years—assigned 31 times in 2016, 29 times in 2017, and 18 times in 2018. Every single one of those 94 colleges is already signed up for The 1619 Project.
So are the 54 colleges that have assigned as pre-freshman reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. So are the 13 colleges that assigned Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2009). So are the ten colleges that have already assigned Angie Thomas’ Black-Lives-Matter young adult novel The Hate U Give (2017).
The campaign to delegitimize America, to recast it as a uniquely evil force for slavery and oppression, has triumphed in a myriad of classrooms in American higher education. But it has triumphed even more with college administrators. The vast majority of the bureaucrats who choose common readings, plan events and invite speakers to campus are already true believers in The 1619 Project. The deans, provosts, and presidents acquiesce in their initiatives, where they do not support them. The institutional stamp of higher education tells incoming college students throughout the country: We believe in the Black Legend of American villainy. And you should too.
After all, the editors at The New York Times who commissioned The 1619 Project learned their defamatory history in college. The 1619 Project isn’t just a fire bell in the night that warns of distant dangers. The American Black Legend has already taken over much of our colleges, and The New York Times is just following their lead.
We must act now to reclaim our colleges and our history if we are not to lose our country.
Editor’s Note: The National Association of Scholars, through its 1620 Project, aims to recruit historians and scholars of all sorts to assemble a comprehensive riposte to the 1610 Project. Their goal is not to erase the history of slavery but to put it in an accurate historical context. They are releasing a new edition of the study “Neo-Segregation at Yale” in New Haven on September 23rd and launching their next edition of Beach Books, which tracks these college reading programs, at First Things on September 26. MTC readers are invited to join the conversation in person if you can.