The prevailing conservative view is that America’s racial and economic inequalities are driven by differences in effort and ability. The work of Hannah-Jones and others suggests instead that present-day inequalities have been shaped by deliberate political and policy choices. What appears to be an argument about reexamining history is also an argument about ideology—a defense of the legitimacy of the existing social order against an account of its historical origins that suggests different policy choices could produce a more equitable society.
The 1619 Project is a particularly powerful part—but not the cause—of a Black Lives Matter–inspired reevaluation of American history that began in the waning years of the Obama administration. Many Americans were struggling to understand how a nation that had elected a Black president could retain deep racial disparities not only in the rate of poverty, access to education, and health care, but also in matters of criminal justice and political power. The election of Donald Trump, a president who understood American citizenship in religious and ethnonationalist terms, accelerated that process of reevaluation.
Like all the works this period of reevaluation has produced, the 1619 Project has its flaws—although fewer than its most fanatical critics would admit. But the details of its factual narrative were not what conservatives found most objectionable. Rather, they took issue with the ideological implications of its central conceit: that America’s true founding moment was the arrival of African slaves on America’s shores.
Hannah-Jones’s conservative detractors cast this claim as an argument that America is a fundamentally and irredeemably racist country—indeed, as NC Policy Watch notes, a columnist at the right-wing James G. Martin Center complained that the 1619 Project “seeks to reframe American history as fundamentally racist.” A different columnist at the same organization fumed that “young people—the white ones, at least—are even taught to hate themselves for the unforgivable sins of their ancestors.” The idea that ugly aspects of American history should not be taught, for fear that students—white students in particular—might draw unfavorable conclusions about America, is simply an argument against teaching history at all.
In truth, the animating premise of the 1619 Project is more threatening to the right—the idea that America can indeed be redeemed, by rectifying racial imbalances created by government policy.