America is Still Stuck in 1619
Did you miss me? Whether you noticed or not, I’ve been gone for a month, taking advantage of an incredible opportunity to spend a month as a resident scholar at the wonderful American Academy in Rome.
The Academy’s a great institution, located on top of Rome’s Janiculan Hill, which brings together an exciting mix of people — artists, sculptors, composers, architects, historians, writers, classicists and an occasional outlier journalist like me — to work on a special project of their own. Its mission is admirably, yet simply, to give scholars “time and space to think and work.” How rare is that?
My own project had nothing to do with Rome. For me, it was the opportunity to do a deep dive into “The 1619 Project.” This all-powerful collection of essays — which first appeared in August 2019 as a special edition of the New York Times magazine and, in a somewhat expanded form, was published as a book in 2021 — documents how systemic racism pervades every facet of American life.
It’s probably the most important book written in the last 100 years. Think of its impact. Before it was even published, four other books were already in print attacking it, and Nikole Hannah-Jones, its editor and principal contributor, had won the Pulitzer Prize.
I took on "The 1619 Project" the way scholars study the Bible, the Torah and the Qur'an: painstakingly weighing the meaning of every word. It’s that important, it’s that sacred. The book is not, as some critics have argued, a broadside attack on white Americans, accusing us all of being racists. Instead, it’s a eye-opening reality check, documenting in stunning detail how, 157 years after enactment of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, racism still underlies everything we do, in ways most of us don’t even realize.
Starting with what we learn about our history, which is the key premise of "The 1619 Project." Most Americans cling to the belief we were taught in grade school, that America began with the arrival of the Mayflower and its cargo of white pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1620 — ignoring the fact that America actually began one year earlier, with the arrival of the White Lion and its cargo of captive Africans at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619.
That profound ignorance of the legacy of slavery continues. A 2018 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center showed that only 8% of high school seniors named slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. A 2019 Washington Post poll found that only half of Americans knew that slavery actually existed in all 13 colonies, not just in the South.
It’s true that, in terms of racial equality, we’ve come a long way. Unfortunately, we’re so busy bragging about the progress we’ve made that we ignore the lingering impact of slavery today. That’s the strength of "The 1619 Project," showing how almost everything we do is still based on whether you’re white or Black.
On COVID-19. Where Black Americans are 1.4 times more likely than white ones to contract the virus, 3.2 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 2.8 times more likely to die. On income inequality. Where Black households today hold only $10 in wealth for every $100 in white households. On prisons. Where Black people, who make up only 12.4% of the general population, account for 20% of American prisoners. On transportation planning. Where new highways plow through Black neighborhoods. On crime. Where whites who kill Blacks are 250% more likely to have their homicide ruled “justified” than when white people kill other white people.
And, most significantly, on voting rights. Where in 2021 alone, 19 states enacted 34 new laws restricting access to the ballot, which, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center, will place significant burdens particularly on communities of color. And the list goes on. Read it and weep.
Tackling "The 1619 Project" was personal for me, because I grew up in a segregated small town in Delaware, where whites and Blacks went to different schools, worshipped in different churches and shopped in different stores. I thought we’d put all that behind us. But my big take-away from "The 1619 Project" is: I grew up in a segregated small town, but I still live in a segregated country today.
"The 1619 Project" raises a challenge for all of us. It’s one thing to acknowledge the reality of systemic racism in this country, but what are we doing to fix it?
(Bill Press is host of The BillPressPod, and author of 10 books, including: “From the Left: My Life in the Crossfire.” His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org. Readers may also follow him on Twitter @billpresspod.)
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