A threat to White truth: How the 1619 Project reignited America’s racial reckoning
“In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late. There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality. This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses, for engaging in peaceful demonstrations: This bill will not protect the citizens in Danville, Virginia, who must live in constant fear in a police state. This bill will not protect the hundreds of people who have been arrested on trumped up charges.” – John Lewis, original version of the March on Washington speech – August 28, 1963
This strongly worded speech by a very young John Lewis was too much for the organizers to handle and he had to re-write the message to make it less controversial. He changed the language to say “We come here today with a great sense of misgiving. It is true that we support the administration’s Civil Rights Bill. We support it with great reservation, however.” This type of censorship is similar to what we are seeing today. Those speaking loudly about racism are being challenged and told that their views are too “militant.”
Lewis said this in the original “We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy.” This was taken out completely.
As we deal with a deadly pandemic, the undercurrents of an issue that America had avoided to its detriment for far too long is tearing the nation apart. The nation’s original sin was not slavery. It was racism, a word that did not exist at the founding of the nation but was nevertheless in full effect in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was written. Two hundred forty-four years later the consequences of that original sin have once again bubbled up to the surface like the flow of lava out of a volcano waiting to erupt.
These are not the same forces that led to the Civil War or Civil Rights Movement. Those momentous eras allowed issues of racism against Black people to bubble to the surface, but in both cases it quickly went underground again as we passed laws to alleviate the problem, unaware that laws have very definitive limits. Morality cannot be legislated, a lesson learned and forgotten with Prohibition. Real change goes much deeper than new laws. It will be resolved in the hearts and souls of the three hundred thirty-one million people in this Un-United States of America.
The underlying hatred of Black people in this country by far too man Whites over far too many years is now once again expressing itself on a world stage during a pandemic, much like it did during and after WWI. While the “Spanish Flu” was ravaging the world, Whites expressed their disdain for Blacks in multiple anti-Black race riots around the nation. From the devastation in East St. Louis in 1917, to the more than two dozens riots which caused historians and others to call the summer of 1919 “Red Summer,” through the devastation in Tulsa in June 1921 – America was on fire. These riots were perpetrated by Whites. The fires, the looting, the killings were at the hands of Whites unhappy with Blacks showing a sense of pride. Because we did not learn about these in school, most Americans cannot draw comparisons from one hundred years ago to today. We would not see rioting and looting as a symbol of Black “culture” if we were taught how often Whites did these things.
Students of American history have been cheated for way too long. As most countries do, America teaches history to make us patriots and lovers of our country. In order to accomplish this, most of the ugly parts are left out of our history textbooks, and classes. As pressure has mounted to change the way we teach, and just importantly talk about the ugly parts of American history a battle is ensuing, going all the way to the White House. The most recent salvo came from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue when President Trump forced the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to crack down on antiracism training sessions within federal agencies, calling them “divisive, anti-American propaganda.”
A memo by OMB Director Russell Vought included this language:
“The President has a proven track record of standing for those whose voice has long been ignored and who have failed to benefit from all our country has to offer, and he intends to continue to support all Americans, regardless of race, religion, or creed. The divisive, false, and demeaning propaganda of the critical race theory movement is contrary to all we stand for as Americans and should have no place in the Federal government.”
So now I suspect that those agencies will fall inline without questioning the motives of the President as we have seen at the State Department, EPA, CDC and FDA among many others. Americans have sat back quietly allowing their federal government to be destroyed from within by people too worried about their careers to call out the utter cruelty of what is being done to agencies holding immense responsibility over its citizens.
He has also threatened to have the Department of Education defund California if they continue to use The New York Times award winning journalism 1619 Project. That project centers American history by telling the story of the country from the time the first kidnapped Africans were brought to this country in 1619. They have worked with the the Pulitzer Center to develop curriculum aligned with the scholarship. There has also been pushback by Republican lawmakers who threaten to prevent the curriculum from being used.
“Department of Education is looking at this. If so, they will not be funded!” – Trump wrote on Twitter
When the State Department was flushed of career diplomats barely a word was spoken. When the Environmental Protection Agency started to pass policies anathema to protecting the environment, denying climate change, barely a word was spoken. When the Federal Drug Administration gave emergency authorization to COVID treatments with no measurable evidence of their efficacy, barely a word was spoken. When the CDC issued directives that were in stark contrast to best practices from around the world to deal with this current pandemic, barely a word was said.
The silence is deafening as political pressure has defined these and many other agencies over the past four years. We as a nation will suffer the consequences of this silence for a significant period of time.
Now we face protests across the country against the pandemic of police brutality which has been a common thread in the lives of Black people for far longer than most are willing to admit. As we see more viral videos and read of more horrific killings by those promoted as our “protectors” a movement has risen to challenge how we police in this country.
Out of that we have seen a surge in White people buying everything they can get their hands on about white privilege, white fragility, and systemic racism. The books are flying off the shelves. Book clubs are sprouting like dandelions in the early summer. Conversations are happening that have never been considered before. White people are acknowledging the truths they are learning about their nation for the first time in their lives. However, none of this happens in a vacuum. The backlash has been swift.
This latest political move by the president is the next bomb dropped on a movement to be honest about racism. Just as we saw in the 1950s and 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement forced America to deal with its continuing legal racism, the lens is pointed at the heart of this nations’ devaluation of Black people. Now as was the case then other marginalized groups are joining to ensure their stories are being told as well. At the same time some Whites are pushing back by claiming that they and their nation have done nothing wrong.
Smithsonian Magazine published an article in 2018 written by James C. Cobb about how unpopular Dr. King was when he began to challenge America to live up to its creeds by funding the efforts to improve the Black community.
“It was one thing to capture public sympathy nationwide when pitted against the raw hatred and brutality that seemed the peculiar province of whites below the Mason-Dixon Line. It proved quite another to persuade whites outside the South to share their neighborhoods and jobs with blacks, or to support expensive federal assistance programs dedicated to helping blacks overcome the historic disadvantages imposed on them by whites of earlier generations. King had a better grasp of what he was up against after his 1966 open-housing campaign in and around Chicago, where he confronted white mobs he described as more “hateful” than any he had seen ‘even in Mississippi or Alabama.’”
Courageous Black people are on the front lines again trying to make America live up to what it often says it is but never really has been. Freedom, justice and liberty has not been the lived experience for many in this country. The Stars and Stripes, that many want to protect with all of the passion they can muster, has flown over a nation that has been racist since it was founded.
The simple gesture of taking a knee by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick just a few short years ago led to so much outrage that NFL players and team owners seemed on the precipice of having their own civil war over the right to protest. At the time President Trump attacked Kaepernick as being un-American. Kaepernick has been kept out of the league which now pretends to be “woke” and supportive of the Movement for Black Lives.
The National Basketball Association has been openly supportive of the movement and as a result many Whites have tuned them out literally. Ratings are the lowest they’ve been in recent memory despite what many said was a need to “get back to normal” by watching sports. You cannot tune into the games in Orlando without seeing the large “Black Lives Matter” signage on the courts. I’m sure this makes the blood of many White basketball fans boil. Seeing the words on the jerseys of NBA players calling for justice is causing cognitive dissonance for many lifelong NBA fans.
Psychology Today defines cognitive dissonance as “the state of discomfort felt when two or more modes of thought contradict each other. The clashing cognitions may include ideas, beliefs, or the knowledge that one has behaved in a certain way.” There is a great deal of angst felt when people have to choose one thought over another. America as a nation is currently dealing with cognitive dissonance.
The months-long protests around the country have forced this dissonance to grow. It has led to the current racial reckoning and is bringing raw emotions to the surface. In Wauwatosa recently a letter was being distributed which caused a great deal of anger.
“Dear White Wauwatosa Resident,
We hope that this letter finds you in good health. We just wanted to touch base. Thank you for proudly displaying the blue house lights. Your support of our common cause is greatly needed and appreciated. We whites must stand together. We must keep Wauwatosa free from blacks and their lack of morels. We must keep blacks from destroying our property, raping our wives and daughters, and recruiting our children into street gangs. We MUST keep Wauwatosa great. Together we can keep Wauwatosa white! Together we can keep Wauwatosa safe!”
According to a police report, a week before the letters began to arrive, four residents put up a yard sign that read, “For Sale, Unless Politicians Keep Tosa Safe (Paid for by Tosa Taxpayers fed up with Mayor and City Council).” The backlash from residents and Mayor Dennis McBride was swift condemnation of the letters and the sentiment expressed in them. Mayor McBride posted on Facebook.
“Anyone who believes that ‘Wauwatosa should be for whites only’ should leave Wauwatosa now. Your statement is racist, immoral, unconstitutional, and un-American.”
Juxtapose the mayor referring to a racist letter sent by a person who cannot correctly spell morals (written as morels) with the memo sent by OMB Director Vought which calls training related to American racism as “The divisive, false, and demeaning propaganda of the critical race theory movement is contrary to all we stand for as Americans…”
On one hand racism is being called un-American, and on the other hand training designed to mitigate racism is also being called un-American. I am reminded of the words of President Abraham Lincoln in his famous Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863.
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
One hundred and fifty-seven years later the words resonate as just as true today. America did not heed the words of the erstwhile President. We are moving in the wrong direction despite the seeming progression on display by the nationwide protests. For those paying attention, the protests are increasingly being attended by armed militia members who see themselves as maintaining “American values.” They are sending a clear message as they march around with assault rifles and camouflaged clothing. The message I get from them is this.
“We are not a racist nation. We have never been a racist nation. Racism is a fallacy. Black people need to stop complaining about racism. The police are good guys even if they kill an occasional black person. We Support the Badge. Blue Lives Matter more than Black Lives.”
The racial reckoning is upon us. What happens moving forward will define what America really is. Will America prove to be a nation of introspective people who are mostly willing to admit the racism that has been a common thread or will those who say America is not racist prevail? Only time will tell.
“I wish I could say that racism and prejudice were only distant memories. I wish I could say that this Nation had traveled far along the road to social justice and that liberty and equality were just around the bend. I wish I could say that America has come to appreciate diversity and to see and accept similarity…We cannot play ostrich. Democracy just cannot flourish amid fear. Liberty cannot bloom amid hate. Justice cannot take root amid rage. America must get to work. In the chill climate in which we live, we must go against the prevailing wind. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust…We must dissent from the poverty of vision and the absence of moral leadership. We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.” – Thurgood Marshall, Former Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (July 4, 1992)