Teaching That America Is Hopelessly Racist

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.

[Nike, Kaepernick, and Looming Tribal Warfare]

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.

[How Oberlin Played the Race Card and Lost]

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.

[Word by Word, SJWs Are Changing America]

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.  


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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22 thoughts on “Teaching That America Is Hopelessly Racist

  1. I understand the thrust here but then I read “ignores the glorious ideal of freedom in American history.” And “reverses the traditional conception of America as an exceptional land of liberty to conceive of it as an exceptional land of slavery and oppression”.
    Let’s be frank Denis, the post American Rev’n history is an absolute shocker.
    Thus the enthusiastic embrace of slavery into the 19th C (not the 17th or 18th), AFTER independence and in stark contradiction with the Decl’n of Independence and Enlightenment values, was appalling.
    And then the calamitous Civil War still didn’t get the message across. The racist South simply rebounded and another century of oppression beckoned.
    As happens I have just been reading stuff on W. Wilson and Coolidge and the 1924 Immigration Act etc, well into the 20th C, when blacks were still being lynched.
    Dear me.
    And all that’s before the treatment of the native Americans.
    I completely agree that people making careers as victims [from whatever perceived sleight] is poisonous but talk of “glorious ideal of freedom” and “America as an exceptional land of liberty” is just dreaming, not facing reality.

  2. While the ostensible purpose of this article is to increase the precision with which we understand and record our practices of slavery, Woods is noticeably less concerned with precision when it comes to recording the insidious compounding of slavery’s impact through to the present. And whining (it seems that), “they did it too” neither vitiates nor deflects moral analysis. It doesn’t add much to historical precision either. Is the agenda broader than as stated?

  3. A modest proposal to raise revenue: Tax the endowments of all tax exempt educational institutions, but do so on a sliding scale that corresponds to the percentage of the institutional payroll that is not engaged in actual teaching, so that the larger the administrative bureaucracy, the higher the tax. (This would do much more than raise revenue, of course, but most tax policies are bases on social objectives.)

  4. Today’s mainstream American campuses traffic in the three “D’s”: distortion, division and distress. Most students enter from a secondary public education where they received only the most superficial information about the history of America – it’s formation, civics, and cultural evolution. Attention to the nation’s founding is a fly-by. Most learn little, or nothing, about the Civil War, let alone the War of Independence. Forget the 20th Century.

    In college, they’re lectured by tenured professors who recycle their lesson plans while writing books on obscure topics – the publish or perish principle – for other professors to read. And often students are required to purchase their works in order to enter their class.

    Consequently, today’s the young college scholars collectively know less of the nation than that un-degreed earlier generation their age who waded ashore at Normandy.

    Meanwhile, the cost of a college education increases as the value of it declines.

    The reckoning born of unenlightened, fraudulent college instruction over decades looms in the not-so-distant future as the dumbing down of America continues.
    Dr. LDC

  5. The question about slavery is: Why has it gone into a decline? Why now?

    And I say morality, schmorality. The problem with slavery is that, in the market economy, It Does Not Pay.

    Humans are much more profitable as wage slaves than as chattel slaves.

  6. In the wake of “Roots” and the growth of the black middle class, West Africa became a popular tourist destination for blacks seeking to explore their heritage and origins in the 1980s.

    I recall the travel section of a Detroit newspaper running a two-page spread about what places to visit to get first-hand information about history of the slave trade. The article, however, warned tourists to be cautious about vigorously attacking the practice because it would upset many of the inhabitants, who were proud of their ancestors prowess as slavers.

  7. When Whites own slaves it’s a reflection on their entire race.
    When Blacks own slaves, it’s not.
    Wake-up to the SWINDLE called “racism”.

  8. the biggest racists in the country are blacks. all the evidence, rapes murders, assaults, are overwhelming committed by blacks against other races. yet that does not bother one of these college administrators or faculty members that are supposedly concerned about racism.

  9. The only reason that this is happening is the fact that so many students and colleges receive federal funding. If students had to pay cash for their education, most of these leftist campuses would close. Imagine a world with no student loans, no grants, no scholarships; and a university system with 80% fewer administrators.

  10. The tribe approves of 1619. Even though its members were the owners of the ships that bought and brought the slaves west.

  11. It’s interesting that the progressive intellectuals pushing this retelling of American history seem to think that the endpoint of re-educating the youth on the taintedness of American history is going to be an active and thorough aggitation for social reform. Might not a more natural endpoint be an active indifference for the civic and communal aspects of American life? After all, if America is corrupted from top to bottom and from beginning to end then why wouldn’t we wish to just be done with the whole thing once and for all? My bet is that the progressive project is going to collapse under its own weight.

  12. 1619 was NOT the date of the first African slaves in the English colonies — those Africans were brought in under indenturement contracts, not bought as slaves. The were contracted to a fixed period of labor (typically five years) to pay for the cost charged by the Dutch slavers, at which point they were freed with a payment of a start-up endowment. This was not unusual or limited to Africans – approximately half of the 500,000 European immigrants to the thirteen colonies prior to 1775 paid for their passage with indenturement contracts. Anthony Johnson, an black Angolan, was typical – he entered Virginia as an indentured servant in 1621, became a free man after the term of his contract, acquired land, and became among the first actual slaveholders in the colonies. The first actual African slave in the colonies was John Punch, an indentured servant sentenced to slavery in 1640 in Virginia by the General Court of the Governor’s Council for having violated his indenturement contract by fleeing to Maryland. In 1641, the Massachusetts Assembly passed a law “which prohibited slavery in many instances but allowed slaves to be held if they were captives of war, if they sold themselves into slavery or were purchased elsewhere, or if they were sentenced to slavery as punishment by the governing authority.) (quoting Wikipedia).

    The aforementioned Angolan immigrant Anthony Johnson was the plaintiff is a key civil case, where the Northampton Court in 1654 declared after the expiration of the indenturement contract of his African servant John Casor that Johnson owned Casor “for life,” nullifying the protections of the contract for the servant and essentially establishing the civil precedent for the enslavement of all African indentured servants by declaring that a contract for such servants extended for life, rather than the fixed term in the contract. It was not until 1662 that the children of such slaves became legally slaves rather than free men, in a law passed in Virginia. The African slave trade itself was very minor until King Charles II established the Royal African Company with a monopoly on the slave trade to the colonies. The boom in the import of slaves actually began around 1725, with half of all imported slaves arriving between then and 1775.

    Slavery was also not exclusively race-based when established. The 1705 Virginia Slave Codes, for example, declared as slaves those purchased from abroad who were not Christian. A Christian African entering the colony, for example, would not be a slave — but a captured American Indian who was not a Christian would be. This is similar to the structure of the 1641 Massachusetts law.

    Relatively speaking, the United States was a very minor player in the African Slave Trade — only about 5% of the Africans imported to the New World came to the Colonies of the United States. The largest recipients were Brazil, Cuba. Jamaica, and the other Caribbean colonies. The lifespan of those brought into what is now the United States vastly exceeded those of the other 95%, and the United States was the only purchaser of African slaves where population grew naturally in slavery – the death rate among the rest was higher than the birth rate.

    The Trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean African slave trade, began by Arabs as early as the 8th Century AD, dwarfed the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and continued up to the 20th Century. Between the start of the Atlantic Slave Trade and 1900, it is estimated that the eastern-bound Arab slave traders sold over 17 million Africans into slavery in the Middle East and India, compared to about 12 million to the new world – and the Eastern-bound slave trade had been ongoing for at least 600 years at the START of that period.

    The Western-bound Atlantic slave trade, contrary to the misrepresentation in “Roots,” did not involve the capture of free Africans by Europeans or Arabs, but by the trading of slaves (already a basis for the economy of the local animist or moslem kingdoms) captured in local wars to Western merchants in exchange for Western goods. The first such slaves brought to the Western Hemisphere were brought by the Spanish to their colonies in Cuba and Hispaniola in 1501, almost a century and a half before the first slave in the English colonies that became the United States. The last African state to outlaw slavery, Mauritania, did not do so until 2007, and if the institution is illegal on the continent de jure, it still is widespread de facto in Mauritania, Chad, Mali, Niger, and the Sudan, as well as parts of Ghana, Benin, Togo Gabon, Angola, South Africa, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Libya, and Nigeria.

    The first law in the European world to outlaw the slave trade was, in fact, the US Constitution, which in 1787 banned the slave trade as of 1808. In Massachusetts, a 1783 court decision ended slavery, and all of the Northern States had passed emancipations laws by 1803. The Northwest Ordnance of 1787 outlawed slaveryin territories north of the Ohio River. Denmark-Norway banned the slave trade in 1803, but not slavery until 1848. Britain passed a law abolishing the slave trade in 1807, and enforced it with the Royal Navy, and abolished slavery itself in 1833. In 1807, Congress passed legislation making the import of slaves to the United States a federal crime, and in 1820, Congress passed the Law on Slave Trade, which went beyond the British law in declaring slavers as pirates, punishable by death instead of mere fines – and the US Navy joined the Royal Navy in active interdiction of slave ships.

    In 1735, the Colony of Georgia passed a law outlawing slavery, which was repealed due to a labor shortage in 1750.

    1. An exceptional comment! The sad part of today’s education is that most people believe the US was the exclusive practicioner of slavery. If they knew that in the 1600s and thousands of years prior more than half the world was enslaved, that 95% of the slaves from Africa went outside of the new world, that the word slave was derived from Slavs, who (with millions of other Europeans were enslaved by Muslims from North Africa), that slavery was an economic dud for the south–the innovation of the north put the nails in the coffin of slavery as a worth while economic model…but kids are taught none of this.

      And most importantly…it was small groups of men in Northeastern states/colonies that decided “No more. This has to stop” Those men were the first in the world to decide this. It took many many decades to take root and take hold. But they were the first.

      Rich Lowry recently asked: “How could Christians or any civilized people have lived with themselves as slaveholders? But the historically appropriate question is: What, after millennia of general acceptance, made Christians — and, subsequently, those of other faiths — judge slavery an enormity not to be ­endured?”

      Think about this: Christianity and the west reversed something horrid that had been happening for thousands of years! Just out of the blue! They went against what the entire world considered the norm forever.

      Instead of condemning the new world for slavery, why not teach everyone that yes, it was practiced here as it was all over the world at the time, but incredibly, it was also ended here. A practice that had been in existence for thousands of years gasped its last breath in the US and was replaced by a much more potent economic model: Innovation that allowed inventors to keep the fruits of the labor.

      But today’s students really believe this was all exclusive to the US and that our position today is not due to innovation, but instead due to “free” labor. To those, you need only ask “But many places took double and triple the number of slaves that the US had, and they developed zero economic might. How is that possible?” and watch their faces contort. They have never contemplated these things.

    2. You should also note that the Muslim regions in North Africa and the Middle East had as many slaves as did the countries in the Western Hemisphere. The difference is that the Muslim regions practiced castration whereas Western Christian nations did not. This is why today there are millions of people who descended from the African slaves in the West while the number of people of descended from African slaves in Muslim countries is only a fraction of those who were enslaved.

  13. The Civil Rights movement was about freedom and not really about race. It’s connection to race was that blacks had not enjoyed the freedom of other Americans and this was a failure of American society to live up to the creed of its founding documents. Without the underlying belief in the principles of American democracy there might not have ever been a civil rights movement.

    Slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation and the fifteenth amendment. But it is important to remember that the tenth amendment which gave the southern states the right to retain slavery also allowed the rest of the country to abolish slavery.

    Slavery was an institution that benefited the small number of plantation owners while impoverishing millions of poor whites who were unable to compete with slave labor. The term white privilege was an ironic one, used by such writers as Dubois to describe a system that used race as a psychological compensation for poor whites who were otherwise impoverished by the system.

    Eric Hoffer said that “all great causes begin as movements, become businesses and end up as rackets”. Any honest observer of the growth of the diversity bureaucracy in American universities and colleges can plainly see the truth of Hoffer’s words.

    1. The Emancipation Proclamation actually freed no one because it only applied to the states actually in rebellion, and not to Maryland which was a slave state, but which remained in the union. Lincoln’s actions in Maryland were really “interesting” as it was never in rebellion, as much as some people wanted it to be.

      The 13th Amendment abolished slavery.
      The 14th Amendment made them citizens.
      The 15th Amendment gave them the right to vote.

      These three amendments are called the “Reconstruction Amendments” and often co-mingled as they were directed toward similar ends.

      1. False–grotesquely false, in fact. The Emancipation Proclamation freed all former slaves who had escaped to Northern army lines on the day it went into effect, about 20,000 of them, and all slaves in the areas occupied after that date by Union armies–3.5 million of them total. Lincoln did not have the authority to end slavery in areas not under revolt, but under presidential war powers he did in areas in revolt, and the legal effect of the Proclamation was to free the slaves wherever Union armies occupied territory in revolt. (Juneteenth, for example, commemorates the date, June 19, 1865, when the Emancipation Proclamation was put in force in newly surrendered Texas.) However, he also feared that the Emancipation Proclamation might be reversed after the Civil War, and so the only way to absolutely secure the freedom of former slaves was through Constitutional Amendment, which was a major goal of the Republicans in Congress by that time. The 13th Amendment freed the slaves of Kentucky and Delaware; Missouri, Tennessee, Maryland, West Virginia, and parts of Louisiana and Arkansas abolished slavery before the Amendment went into full force, and slaves in Washington DC were freed by congressional action in 1862.

  14. “Slavery does have lingering consequences, and the economic, cultural, and political history of the country does reflect the awful institution. “

    As does the war that was fought to end it. Nowhere in all the discussion of slavery is it ever mentioned that one White Northerner died for every ten slaves that were freed, nowhere in the discussion of reparations is subrogation ever mentioned, and few even know what the letters “G.A.R.” even stand for.

    While the 54th Massachusetts was an exception, it’s reflective of how units were formed back then, with units largely comprising young men from the same (often small) town. When most/all of the men in the unit became casualties, the town became a casualty as well — with all of the young men dead, there was no one left to carry on the community and everyone moved away. There are towns in Maine (and I presume elsewhere) that simply evaporated in the late 19th Century for this reason.

    Two of my Great-Great-Grandfathers fought in that war, one came home without his leg and the other didn’t come home at all — and while military records indicate that he died in “Hospital, Washington”, I’ve yet to find where he’s buried as Arlington says it isn’t there.

    I’m not willing to concede the lingering consequences of slavery without an equal concession of the lingering consequences of the price paid to end it.

    And while we’re at it, let’s look at where the slaves came from. Most of Africa is 1000 feet above sea level and hence has no natural harbors. No safe place to anchor a ship, and as it’s your *only* ride home, you’re keeping your crew aboard in case a squall comes up. So how do you obtain the slaves you are going to transport?

    Nowhere in the angst of Social Justice is it mentioned that the slaves were captured by other Africans who then sold them to the Europeans. Were it not for this, there’d been no African slaves because there’d have been no way for the boat-bound Europeans (and Americans) to have captured them.

    And hence the ultimate irony is that an African immigrant, quite possibly a descendant of those who perpetrated slavery is considered a victim while I, a descendant of those who paid a very high price to end slavery, am considered a perpetrator of it. Welcome to the land beyond the looking-glass….

    This isn’t about equity, or even history — it’s about tribalism and bare naked power. It’s a demand to be recognized for something other than the content of ones character — and where are people like Dr. King when we so badly need them….

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