Several years ago my hometown newspaper ran a series on race in Lima, Ohio. That during a continuous political and cultural moment where so many of my family and friends were posting defenses for a variety of openly racist policies and politicians not one mentioned– even disparagingly– an earnest examination of the subject locally bothered me enough to write what is still far and away the most frequently read thing I have ever written (Why I Can Never Go Home Again).
Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine launched a much more ambitious project on race in America. The 1619 Project, named in reference to the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery, aims to reframe the United States history with the date of “1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” Again, no white people I know have posted or talked much about this ambitious and highly public project. But it has lit a fire in the conservative punditry class.
Newt Gingrich called the project propaganda. Classic Newt, lazily relying on the slanderous tropes he first started trotting out in the 1990s. This was the prevailing narrative of the day. Indeed, few conservative pundits seemed to have read anything published yet by the project. Instead, they rejected whole cloth that this could be an honest intellectual endeavour. They assumed bad faith on the part of the authors and jumped to conclusions based on that. Assumptions and conclusions that they presented as fact to their consumers.
Erick Erickson took to twitter to claim that the aim of the project was some sort of logic trap: if the United States was tainted by racism from its inception then everything derived from the American project was tainted and illegitimate, hence political revolution of a racially liberal variety that overthrows the Constitution is both rational and just. Unlike Gingrich, Erickson still has the energy to actually spell out what he thinks the propaganda is. He cannot cite anything in the 1619 Project that makes these claims– because it does not. Instead, it is the logical progression of his assumption that this is the real goal (as opposed to the stated goal, which is reorienting history so it can be seen through another lens– a 100% legitimate way of practising the craft of history).
Yet when Erickson actually engaged one of the articles in an honest way, his tone changes.
Historian Kevin Kruse penned a piece about traffic in Atlanta and how it explains a lot about the legacy of racism in America. Read it. A little context here: Kevin Kruse is one of the foremost academic historians on the subject of race, modern conservatism, and the American south in the 20th century. He is an active public intellectual who engages contemporary politics in a way most are too fearful to (I cannot fathom how much time he spends on twitter fighting ahistorical thinking and outright historical falsehoods– it is a wonder he still has time to research, write, and live any kind of life outside of that). Kruse is personally one of my favorite practicing historians and I think every educated American should have read his book White Flight (go buy it and read it).
Erickson’s response to Kruse’s essay is instructive. Because Erickson has personally encountered the impacts and legacy of this racist practice he is able to acknowledge it. It helps that in this case one of the major villains is government– ideology often colors our ability to accept information as true or false. But the overriding reason Erickson gives is that he saw this. It is real because he lived it.
Thinking historically (let alone working as a historian) requires a certain level of empathy. You have to be able to see the world from the time and place of people very different than yourself. To understand their fears (real or imagined). To know their “truths” and understand where they learned them from. It requires that you drop your personal narratives and follow the evidence where it leads.
Take the Kruse essay for example. Research and writing on the subject of zoning or eminent domain did not start from the premise of “local, state, and federal governments have systematically used these powers in ways that harmed black communities to the profit of whites.” They simply look at the evidence of what these bodies did, the words (private and public) of the people who made up those institutions, and the results of those decisions. Done well, such history shows you a past as real as the one in your memory (and much more well-sourced).
When you think historically you are able to experience the past in powerful ways. Erickson didn’t need to live through the construction of I-75 in Atlanta to understand the racially destructive impact it had. The mere facts of the case combined with his experience of seeing the area later confirmed the correctness of this narrative. This is how I understand my hometown– not simply based on my memory of people saying or doing racist things (they were rarely so explicit) but instead as the embodiment of the same trends that segregated and harmed communities of color in Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta and many other cities, great and small, across the United States.
Thinking historically means you do not have to be limited to your own life experience. For too many Americans, their historical gaze is very limited. Because of this, their ability to understand how the past influenced the present has huge blind spots. The 1619 Project is an attempt to broaden our view and eliminate one of the most glaring blind spots in our collective historical memory– slavery and racism in America. Instead of treating it as a bad faith argument meant to destroy some version of America (past or present) that you cherish, I would suggest you take another approach. Read it as a historian. Evaluate the facts of each essay on their own merits. And when it is all over, reflect on what the project said at large. I suspect you will learn something.