The fear of 1619: Why distorting historical truth is needed to support oppressive political agendas
On April 30, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and 36 Republicans sent a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona accusing him of trying to advance a “politicized and divisive agenda” in the teaching of American history. This is a full embrace of the latest Republican attempt to turn teaching history into a culture war.
On April 19, the Department of Education called for public comments on two priorities for the American History and Civics Education programs. Those programs work to improve the “quality of American history, civics, and government education by educating students about the history and principles of the Constitution of the United States, including the Bill of Rights; and… the quality of the teaching of American history, civics, and government in elementary schools and secondary schools, including the teaching of traditional American history.”
The department is proposing two priorities to reach low-income students and underserved populations. The Republicans object to the one that encourages “projects that incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning.”
History teaching that reflects our diverse history and the way our diversity supports democracy can help to improve racial equality in society, the document states. It calls out the 1619 Project of the New York Times, as well as the resources of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History, to note how our understanding of diversity is changing. It notes that schools across the country are teaching “anti-racist practices,” which it follows scholar Ibram X. Kendi by identifying as “any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences—that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group.”
The Education Department invited comments on these priorities. The department does not have much at all to do with local school curricula. McConnell’s letter in response to this call for comments is disingenuous, implying connections between the teaching of a diverse past, the sorry state of history education, and the fact that “American pride has plummeted to its lowest level in 20 years.” There is, of course, no apparent connection between them.
He complains that Cardona’s “proposal” — it’s a call for comments — would “distort bipartisan legislation that was led by former Senators Lamar Alexander, Ted Kennedy, and Robert Byrd.” That legislation was indeed landmark for the teaching of American history… but its funding was cut in 2012.
What McConnell’s letter is really designed to do is to throw a bone to Trump Republicans. On April 29, Trump called for Senate Republicans to replace McConnell with a Trump loyalist, and embracing their conviction that our history is being hijacked by radicals is cheap and easy.
The prime object of Republican anger is the 1619 Project, called out in McConnell’s letter by name. The project launched in the New York Times Magazine in August 2019 to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the first landing of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans at the English colony of Virginia. Led by New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project placed race and Black Americans “at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”
The 1619 Project argued that the landing of the Black slaves marked “the country’s very origin” since it “inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years.” From slavery “and the anti-black racism it required,” the editors claimed, grew “nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, its diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day.”
Their goal, they said, was “to reframe American history,” replacing 1776 with 1619 as the year of the nation’s birth.
The most explosive claim the project made was that one of the key reasons that the American colonists broke away from Britain was that they wanted to protect slavery. Scholars immediately pushed back. Northwestern University’s Dr. Leslie M. Harris, a scholar of colonial African American history, wrote: “Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.” The project tempered its language over that issue but stood by its larger argument.
Trump Republicans conflated this project with so-called “Critical Race Theory,” a related scholarly concept that argues that racism is not simply the actions of a few bad actors, but rather is baked into our legal system, as well as the other institutions that make up our society. This is not a new concept, and it is not limited to Black Americans: historian Angie Debo’s And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes launched this argument in 1940 when it showed how Oklahoma’s legislators had written discrimination against Indigenous people into the law. But the idea that white people have an automatic leg up in our country has taken on modern political teeth as Trump Republicans argue that Black and Brown people, among others, are at the bottom of society not because of discriminatory systems but because they are inferior.
The former president railed against recent historical work emphasizing race as “a series of polemics grounded in poor scholarship” that has “vilified our Founders and our founding.” Calling them “one-sided and divisive,” he opposed their view of “America as an irredeemably and systemically racist country.” He claimed, without evidence, that “students are now taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but rather villains.” He said that “this radicalized view of American history” threatens to “fray and ultimately erase the bonds that knit our country and culture together.”
On November 2, 2020, just before the election, former president Trump established a hand-picked commission inside the Department of Education to promote “patriotic education” in the nation’s schools, national parks, and museums.
The commission released its report, written not by historians but by right-wing activists and politicians, on Martin Luther King Day, just two days before Trump left office. “The 1776 Report” highlighted the nation’s founding documents from the Revolutionary Era, especially the Declaration of Independence. It said that the principles written in the declaration “show how the American people have ever pursued freedom and justice.” It said “our history is… one of self-sacrifice, courage, and nobility.” No other nation, it said, had worked harder or done more to bring to life “the universal truths of equality, liberty, justice, and government by consent.”
Then–Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that multiculturalism [is]… not who America is.” It “distort[s] our glorious founding and what this country is all about.” Hannah-Jones retorted: “When you say that multiculturalism is ‘not who America is’ and ‘distorts our glorious founding’ you unwittingly confirm the argument of the 1619 Project: That though we were … a multiracial nation from our founding, our founders set forth a government of white rule. Cool.”
On his first day in office, President Joe Biden dissolved the 1776 Commission and took its report off the official government website.
But the fight goes on. The Pulitzer Center, which supports journalism but is not associated with Columbia University’s Pulitzer Prizes, produced a school curriculum based on the 1619 Project; Republican legislators in five states—Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota—filed virtually identical bills to cut funding to any school or college that used the material. Other Republican-led states have proposed funding “patriotic education.”
In Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves called for a $3 million fund to promote teaching that “educates the next generation in the incredible accomplishments of the American Way” to counter “far-left socialist teachings that emphasize America’s shortcomings over the exceptional achievements of this country.” South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem proposed a curriculum that explains “why the U.S. is the most special nation in the history of the world.”
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Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics