“There is no teaching on the horrors and myriad of monstrous manifestations of white supremacy and racism that will be palatable to white supremacists and racists.”
Dr. Bernice King
The past few weeks have been surreal to me as an American, and as an American of African descent, as I have listened to the back and forth on the 1619 Project and slavery coming from the highest levels of our government. It has been disappointing to say the least.
Last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before Congress and issued a stark warning that the biggest threat to our nation’s domestic national security is not Black Lives Matter or antifa, as Donald Trump, Bill Barr, and Fox News would have you believe. No, instead, it is, wait for it: white supremacist groups.
And these groups are organizing via Facebook and social media around core issues like the Second Amendment and now, “free speech.” A case in point here is 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two people during protests in Wisconsin, and who is now seen as a darling of the right wing. He was just given $50,000 by a gun rights group for his legal defense fund.
The president of the United States refuses to condemn or criticize him, and indeed even defends him. Just sit with that for a moment. Can you imagine a young Black man walking around with his AR-15 in the open at a protest, and killing two people? And living to tell about it? Trump would be all over Twitter spewing condemnation and demanding justice be served. Rittenhouse is being hailed as a hero by GOP congressional candidates. Worse, at a rally in Minnesota on Saturday, Sept. 19, President Trump spoke to an overwhelmingly white, rural crowd of Americans about so-called “race-horse” theory and their good “genes.” Otherwise known as eugenics—the superiority of one’s gene pool as opposed to other races, cultures, etc.
The recent rise in white supremacy is no accident. It has been quietly resurging for years, since before Barack Obama took office. But now it is louder, bolder, more acceptable, because it hides under the guide of “patriotism” or “preserving heritage and gun rights.” It is clear to me at least that the Trump base of voters and supporters who are always seemingly angry and aggrieved are in reality struggling with a rapidly changing America.
It is uncomfortable to look in the mirror. It is uncomfortable to confront things that have benefited us, and hurt others at the same time. That is what 2020 has done for all of us. It has held up a mirror, and asked us to deal with the reflection we see on the other side.
Enter The New York Times’ 1619 Project, released last summer for the 400th commemoration of the arrival of slaves in Virginia near Fort Monroe. History tells us that slavery had started in the colonies long before 1619, but the official start date is marked by the arrival of 20 enslaved Africans at Point Comfort, Virginia. The 1619 Project states as its aim “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of [the United States'] national narrative."
Couple the 1619 Project with unconscious bias training, critical race theory training, diversity and inclusion sensitivity training in federal agencies and in corporate America and you have the perfect storm for white resentment. The focus on preserving Confederate monuments, and keeping school curricula sanitized of the true horrors and impact of slavery, and full of good old-fashioned American values, is nothing new. It’s how you control the message. It’s how you keep oppressing a people by literally erasing their story, and their unparalleled contributions to the building of America.
As 1619 creator Hannah Jones said on CNN last Friday, “The 1619 Project does not argue that 1776 was not the founding of the country, but what it does argue for is that we have largely treated slavery as an asterisk to the American story.”
To bolster her point, the new historical commission Trump created last week to teach “patriotic education” has zero Black historians on it. None! Part of what is driving extremist white supremacy groups and racial division right now is white angst that the curriculum of 1619 will be taught in school and at work. So in response, Trump, playing to white fear, starts his 1776 Commission. There goes that word again. Anything white and approved by white historians is patriotic. Anything Black or brown is not. It’s an erasure of our true history. The whole story not told by white men since our founding. This is dangerous.
In the final analysis, one of the most basic things we should take for granted as Americans is that our president and the attorney general will, regardless of party, uphold and defend the laws of the land and protect the American people. As we all grapple with the sudden loss of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (a true champion of equality for women and racial minorities), and who may fill her seat, it frightens me that both Trump and Barr have openly stoked racial resentment. They’ve defined “slavery” as some long forgotten “civil liberties” issue of the past. If I were not a witness to this painful American moment, I would not believe it was possible in 21st-century America.
I am reminded of Justice Ginsburg's dissent in Shelby vs. Holder in 2013, a historic case which gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Justice Ginsburg raised her voice and read aloud from the bench her dissent. She opened with a call to arms by we the people, “there must be a steadfast national commitment to see through to completion the task of protecting voting rights.” And she ended by quoting Dr. King’s immortal words: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The bottom line is this: Our racial resentments and dividing lines will never heal unless and until we start telling the truth about who we are, and how we started. White discomfort has been something that I and every Black person in this country must navigate daily. I am tired. My peers are tired. Our parents were tired. Their parents were tired. If we truly want to live up to our founding ideals, we have to teach history as it happened. Not as we may want to sanitize it to be. The 1619 Project offers a critical window into the rest of our American story. We should tell it. We should teach it. And we should discuss it, along with the glorious revolution of 1776 that made America the great nation that she is to this very day.