The 1619 Project
The publication of The 1619 Project is a good place to start for understanding the controversy over critical race theory and woke liberalism. The project started as an effort on the part of a group of African American writers for The New York Times to focus on the role that slavery has played in the history of the United States. Led by Nikole Hannah-Jones, and relying on the work of academic historians, they shed light on American history, life, and government. This brilliant and powerful project has garnered a great deal of attention—but not all of it has been positive. In 2020, Donald Trump denounced it; through executive order, and without any scholarly consultants, he set up the “1776 Commission” to promote “patriotic education.” Joe Biden quietly rescinded it. Nevertheless, several Republican legislatures have picked up the mantra by passing or considering laws enshrining the 1776 Commission in schools. The laws are intended to withhold funding from schools that rely on The 1619 Project to teach what they consider an assault on American history.
Historically speaking, The 1619 Project does not contain new revelations. It is based on the work of a plethora of professional historians and academics. Its originality lies in making this history accessible to a larger audience, and linking it with journalism, criticism, and literature, to show how American history sheds light on contemporary American life. This is a much-needed corrective to the way in which the United States has traditionally mythologized its history.
In the traditional narrative, America is an exceptional nation, beloved by God, endowed with a special destiny, a city on a hill, a beacon of opportunity, and a refuge for the world. The nation was born out of the Revolution of 1776, which declared independence from the tyranny of King George III and created a republic, proclaiming that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Founding Fathers, who drafted the Constitution in 1787, established a government based on laws, liberty, and democracy. Slavery was but a “blemish” that the Founders grudgingly tolerated but intended to overcome.
The truth revealed by The 1619 Project is that in the history of the United States, slavery was not a “blemish” but a gargantuan wart. For Nikole Hannah-Jones, the nation was founded on slavery as much as freedom. In 1619, one year before the Puritans of New England arrived, an English pirate ship, The White Lion, dropped anchor in Jamestown, Virginia, with a cargo of abducted Africans. The English colonists of Virginia bought twenty to thirty enslaved Africans from the ship. The pirates had stolen them from a Portuguese slave ship that had abducted them from Angola in West Africa. All together, twelve and a half million Africans were abducted and brought in chains across the Atlantic Ocean. Two million did not survive the journey, known as the Middle Passage. Of these twelve million, 400,000 were sold in what was to become the United States. Hannah-Jones maintains that slavery is arguably the earliest American institution—an institution that made it possible to beat back the wilderness, grow and export the lucrative cotton that enriched the nation, and much more. All the original thirteen colonies engaged in slavery. The Founders and all the presidents, until Abraham Lincoln, were “enslavers.”
From my “loyalist” Canadian point of view, the American Revolution was an overreaction. The disagreements with the mother country could have been resolved by negotiation. As Andrew Roberts has pointed out in George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch, King George III was no tyrant; he was a constitutional monarch; he respected settled law, deferred to Parliament, and was opposed to slavery. So, why was the revolution necessary?
Hannah-Jones suggests that some of the colonists opted for the Revolution in order to protect slavery as an institution in America. The idea that some of the champions of the American Revolution might have been motivated by the desire to protect slavery has incensed some of her critics. Even if she is wrong and the protection of slavery was not a prime motivation for the Revolution, it remains the case that in 1807 the British Parliament passed an act abolishing the slave trade throughout the Empire, and King George III was happy to sign it. British common law has never permitted slavery on the soil of the mother country, even as the British were profiting from the slave trade in their colonies in the Caribbean and North America. Slavery itself was totally abolished in the British colonies by 1838—and that was twenty-five years before the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and the end of the Civil War (1865), which technically freed the slaves but only left them at the mercy of the horrific violence of the Jim Crow South, which lasted until 1965. It is impossible for something so terrible to disappear without a trace. The 1619 Project is an attempt to explore the scars left by the persistence of this gruesome institution.
Hannah-Jones does not condemn her country; she cherishes the liberty and full citizenship she enjoys today. However, the fact that African Americans were enslaved for 250 years in the United States is not an insignificant historical detail. It has ramifications that are reflected in the present. The levels of single-parent families, substance abuse, gang violence, and rampant poverty may be the result of individual choices, but they are also a result of bad schools, lack of health care, and lack of opportunity. For Hannah-Jones, the killing of George Floyd, the mass incarceration of African Americans, the voter-suppression laws, and the disproportional death of Black Americans from COVID-19 are all echoes of the past.
A great nation must recognize its wrongdoing and make amends—reparations are long overdue. African Americans have been full citizens of the United States only since 1965, and they have accomplished a great deal in this very short time. Their achievements in science, literature, music, sports, and other fields have refuted the idea of spurious inferiority, which was used as an excuse for slavery. In the absence of the African American contribution, there would be no distinctive American culture.
For African Americans such as Hannah-Jones and her admirers, looking at the history of the United States from this vantage point is enriching and inspiring. She describes her excitement and her pride in discovering that African Americans are not just a problem or a footnote in the history of the country. No; they built it; they fought and died in the Civil War to make it what it should be. Lincoln admitted that the North could not have won the Civil War, and the Union could not have survived, without the help of the freed slaves who joined the Union army. In World War II, despite the racism of the Jim Crow South, African Americans fought for their country against the Nazis, because they believed that racism was wrong in Germany and hoped it would be eventually recognized as wrong in America. In other words, they have contributed prodigiously to the fight for American ideals. In discovering this history, Hannah-Jones realized that American history is also her history—because this is her country.
History or Propaganda?
What is unique about the United States is not just the soaring rhetoric of its self-congratulation but the fervor with which Americans, liberals as well as conservatives, cling to their founding myths and their ability to spread their propaganda to the world—and the world’s inclination to believe it. Other countries have their myths too, but no one takes them as seriously. After the failed coup of January 6, 2021, the media and many of the representatives in Congress were in a state of shock that an insurrection, intended to overturn their democracy and install a dictator, was attempted in the United States. These things happen in other countries, but they are not supposed to happen here.
The truth is that the United States has never respected anyone else’s democracy. It has orchestrated an endless array of coups and overturned democratically elected governments around the world. Moreover, America’s own democratic credentials are questionable. The U.S. Supreme Court is packed with right-wing ideologues who cannot inspire respect. The lauded Constitution is 235 years old and is totally inadequate for governing a global empire of the twenty-first century. The Second Amendment has made the United States a lawless state of nature teeming with military grade weapons that the Founders could not have imagined. For all these reasons, The 1619 Project should not be dismissed out of hand. Republicans are deathly opposed to the Project and are determined to keep it out of the schools. If they succeed, the result will be replacing ideals with delusions and education with propaganda.
Despite its admirable qualities, parents have some legitimate concerns regarding the use of The 1619 Project in schools, especially when it goes beyond good history to understanding the present. It is understandable for White parents to object to the inculcation of guilt in young children if they are taught to think of their ancestors as “enslavers.” To my knowledge, The 1619 Project has never been used in grade schools. Nevertheless, it is ironic that the same people who worry about the inherited guilt that candid history may impart are intent on turning America into a “Christian nation” with the inherited guilt that original sin entails.
Parents of Black children also have good reasons for objecting to The 1619 Project when it goes beyond history to explaining the present. The legacy of slavery has resulted in systemic racism—racism that is consciously or unconsciously imbedded in institutions. For example, practices such as redlining explain why it is harder for an African American to get a loan to buy a house or start a business than a White American at the same income level. Black parents rightly worry that their children will conclude that they are powerless in determining the trajectory of their lives, regardless of their hard work or life choices. Parents of every other shade should also be concerned that, in a world where everyone has a fixed identity, children are unlikely to cultivate their unique and authentic individuality.
From Critical Theory to Critical Race Theory
Republicans have dubbed The 1619 Project “critical race theory” (CRT) even though the term is not used in the book. The term has its source in “critical theory,” which is the basis of the Marxist philosophy of Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment, these German Marxists tried to make sense of a world in which the progressive and rational ideas of the Enlightenment gave way to the horrors of the Nazis. In Negative Dialectics, Adorno surmised that the transformation of society in a progressive direction failed, not because the material conditions were not at hand but because consciousness has lagged behind. It follows that raising human consciousness (i.e., awareness and understanding) is a necessary precondition for the transformation of society in a genuinely humanitarian direction.
Once Adorno and Horkheimer decided that the greatest obstacle to social reform operates at the level of consciousness, they proceeded to examine culture to understand how it operates on the human psyche. They studied art, music, literature, and films. They found that culture is replete with ideologies that mesmerize the mind. Every aspect of culture conspires to shape the mind so that it conforms to the oppressive order of society. Every aspect of culture promotes acquiescence to the prevailing order of things.
In Minima Moralia, Adorno maintains that the individual “has no content that is not socially constituted” and no “impulse that transcends society.” However, none of this indicates that there is no truth beyond society. On the contrary, the point of critical theory is to allow human beings to transcend the “false consciousness” on which the established order depends. False consciousness presupposes truth beyond the lie.
It is not an altogether new idea; it has dark roots in the history of Christianity. Those who rejected the absurdities of the faith were accused of indulging in self-deception. Not believing what Christians believed was identical with sin. Jesus said: “If ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:24). Saint Paul said, “Faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Thomas Aquinas declared, “Unbelief is the greatest sin.” Those who rejected Christian beliefs were deceived—not by devious manipulators but by their own prideful wickedness. Their “false consciousness” was criminal.
In the context of Marxist theory, false consciousness was innocent, not criminal. Those who suffered from false consciousness were victims of the structures of power, which are formidable, especially in modern society. The point of critical theory was to transcend false consciousness and grasp the truth beyond the structures of power that distort our perceptions. It follows that “critical race theory” is an effort to transcend false consciousness by raising awareness of the role that slavery has played in the making of modern American society. In so doing, critical race theory fosters social change that would make America a more equitable nation.
Since Americans have a visceral, if irrational, fear of anything that smacks of Marxism, smearing The 1619 Project with the taint of “critical theory” allows Republicans to frighten their constituents by painting the Democratic Party as un-American, intent on robbing the nation of its liberty and imposing a communist regime of surveillance, censorship, conformity, cancel culture, vaccine mandates, multiculturalism, and “woke” liberalism.
Postmodernism and Woke Liberalism
Postmodern thinkers were deeply influenced by the critical theorists of the Frankfurt school. In his own effort to explain why the revolutionary transformation of society expected by the Enlightenment has not (and will not) materialize, Michel Foucault surmised that the Enlightenment itself is the problem, because it led to the development of a more insidious form of power. The old power (sovereign power) was harsh and overt; it operated through the mechanism of law, crime, and punishment. In contrast, the modern power (disciplinary power) is subtle, silent, unobtrusive, and dispersed throughout society in micro-powers that include the social sciences themselves. The new form that power has assumed operates through the mechanism of the norm. What is not normal is delegitimized as deviant and abnormal.
Foucault’s homosexuality led him to prefer the old version of power to the modern scientific one. In the Middle Ages, homosexuality was criminal—as it still is in many parts of the world. In the modern world of science and reason, homosexuality is deviant or abnormal. So, what was once an illicit act of defiance has become a perversity, even in the eyes of the homosexual. As a result, Foucault was led to make two provocative claims about the modern world: (1) that the self is constructed by power, and (2) that there is no truth independent of power. In short, power shapes the reality of the self and the world. What has never been made clear is whether Foucault lamented this state of affairs or whether he was at home in a post-truth world.
Postmodernism has had a prodigious influence on American “woke” liberalism. Woke is a term borrowed from African American slang. “Stay woke” means keep your wits about you, be alert—especially if you are jogging in a White neighborhood. Conservatives often use woke as a pejorative term, but it is quickly becoming a badge of honor. Woke liberalism has been awakened to the debilitating effects of normalization, and it sets out to mitigate them. Accordingly, woke liberals have developed a vocabulary intended to mitigate the harm that the language of normalization inflicts on those who do not fit the norm. .
Although I am not a woke liberal, I have a daughter who, as a high school teacher, has impressed upon me the importance of using woke terms in her classroom. For example, heteronormativity refers to the worldview that takes heterosexuality for granted as the norm—using the term indicates her awareness of the social bias toward the norm while acknowledging the existence of those who have a unique combination of chromosomes. By the same token, the term cisgender refers to people whose gender identity is the same as their gender assigned at birth. Again, the user is indicating that not everyone experiences this congruence. This allows students who don’t fit the norm to feel acknowledged. Intersectionality indicates that homophobia, racism, and sexism are interconnected. Those who listen to the very woke Canadian Broadcasting Corporation might have noticed talk of “pregnant people” rather than pregnant women. As my daughter explained, not all those who are pregnant identify as women. This is how woke liberalism mitigates the effects of what Foucault called “the discourse of normalization” on those who fall outside the norm.
In contrast to the classic liberal emphasis on individual uniqueness and authenticity, woke liberalism echoes the postmodern assumption that the self is a product of social forces, including culture, race, and religion. Far from lamenting this, as the critical theorists have done in the name of a universal humanity, the new liberals accept this reality in the spirit of postmodernism. Supposedly, individuals have neither the ability nor the desire to transcend these identities. What they need from society is recognition of these identities for the sake of their self-respect and self-actualization.
In my view, the woke project backfires in two ways. First, it entraps individuals within groups. The old liberalism tried to liberate individuals from the shackles of society by cultivating a spirit of individuality, uniqueness, and a devil-may-care attitude toward what society happens to think. The new liberalism has adopted the postmodern outlook, which dooms this project to failure. As a result, the primacy of the individual has given way to the primacy of the group. So, it is not surprising that the American melting pot has given way to Canadian multiculturalism. As a result, individuals are entrapped by the identities of the group to which they ostensibly belong.
Second, the old liberalism was satisfied with polite tolerance of a vast assortment of faiths, cultures, identities, and sexual orientations. If you don’t like homosexuals, you are under no obligation to befriend them, but if you throw rocks at their windows or hurl insults, slurs, and threats at them you will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Freedom of thought and speech does not include insulting, threating, or slandering others. In contrast, woke liberalism demands not only legal equality and social tolerance but also social respect, approbation, and recognition of a host of cultural, religious, and sexual identities. When cultures, religions, and sexuality are the domain of identities, the criticisms of religious beliefs or cultural practices become matters that are likely to give offense. As a result, woke liberalism is moved to regulate thought and speech. Like Christianity, it aims to command the heart. People who are suspected of not sharing the creed are likely to be “canceled” from social interactions, events, and social media—a version of excommunication. All this makes intellectual life in liberal universities intolerable, if not impossible.
By penalizing dissent, woke liberalism adopts the trope of conservative societies from time immemorial. In so doing, it allows conservatives and reactionaries to stand on the liberal high ground by demanding liberty of thought and speech. More often than not, this is hypocritical and opportunistic because these conservatives are the same people who are busy enacting state laws that censor books and force women to bear the children of their rapists in accordance with a benighted understanding of Christian morality.
Finally, one silver lining: in the context of the war on Ukraine, we have discovered woke capital—no one embraces woke conformity more readily than capitalists. Three cheers for people power.
It may be argued that North America has a special problem with race, which is too intractable for classic liberalism to deal with. Contrary to the early misgivings of classic liberalism, affirmative action has resulted in some progress. However, it was never meant to be standard operating practice but merely a temporary measure to redress inequities. In my view, despite its limited success, affirmative action causes resentments that exacerbate both misogyny and racism. It also forces outstandingly talented people to endure the soft bigotry of low expectations. The 1619 Project opens the door to more creative solutions by focusing on reparations and early childhood education, which do not contain the stigma of affirmative action.
There is a scene in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? where the father of the protagonist (Sidney Poitier) warns him against his decision to marry a White woman. He responds by telling his father that there is an important difference between them: “You think of yourself as a colored man, whereas I think of myself as a man.” It seems that the moment for the realization of that world has been missed, because woke liberalism is implicitly a denial that it is possible. It implies that we are entrapped in racialized, insulated communities and that heart-felt mutual recognition is what is needed. As a classic liberal, I prefer to think of a plurality of diverse cultural elements mingling through the creative powers of individuals to create a single shared reality.
The 1619 Project The publication of The 1619 Project is a good place to start for understanding the controversy over critical race theory and woke liberalism. The project started as an effort on the part of a group of African American writers for The New York Times to focus on the role that slavery has …