Last week, The New York Times published a powerful and unusual feature called the “1619 Project,” which marked the 400-year anniversary of a pivotal, but largely forgotten, event that defined everything about America as first a British colony, and then a nation, through history and up to the president day: the first recorded arrival of a ship loaded with enslaved Africans.
One of the curious responses to the 1619 Project, however, was the massive explosion of outrage from Republicans and conservative commentators. Why, exactly, did an in-depth discussion of slavery trigger such a firestorm from the right?
To understand, it helps to look at the specifics of some of their complaints, which differ in details but converge on a central grievance.
Benjamin Weingarten of The Federalist blasted the feature as an attempt to “delegitimize America” and “divide and demoralize its citizenry”:
Contrary to its stated goals, it appears the purpose of the 1619 Project is to delegitimize America, and further divide and demoralize its citizenry https://t.co/1c1F0hyZ5A
— Benjamin Weingarten (@bhweingarten) August 18, 2019
Right-wing commentator Erick Erickson claimed that it is a “neo-Confederate worldview” to assert that slavery was a founding principle of America, and listed off a litany of principles and events that he thinks outweigh slavery in defining America:
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) August 19, 2019
Perhaps the most ludicrously over-the-top reaction came from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who raged on Fox News that the Times didn’t give credit to the “several hundred thousand white Americans” who died in the Civil War — and that the whole thing was somehow an underhanded plot to impeach President Donald Trump:
Fox’s Newt Gingrich calls The New York Times’ #1619Project “a lie” and complains that the “several hundred thousand white Americans who died in the Civil War” don’t get enough credit. Gingrich also suggests that the #1619Project is ultimately about impeaching Trump. pic.twitter.com/W489EABIsX
— Bobby Lewis (@revrrlewis) August 19, 2019
Some commentators, like Elie Mystal, have noted the absurdity that all these complaints seem to center on the idea that no one would like America if a full and complete history of slavery and its brutality was debated publicly.
But there is another, deeper common thread that runs through all these complaints. Conservatives seem to be bristling at the idea that slavery is not just something in our past, but something that shapes what our nation is to this day.
They don’t want to grapple with the structures we have cyclically built and rebuilt to reduce black Americans to a state “almost” like slavery, from mass incarceration to attacks on voting rights. They don’t want to talk about how stereotypes we formed about black people during slavery affect everything from how willing employers are to hire them to how willing doctors are to prescribe them pain medicine. And they also don’t want to hear how white people were not, in fact, selfless saviors who swooped in and ended slavery in 1863, because that forces them to confront how unwilling they are to address its lasting effects now, from civil rights to reparations.
The 1619 Project brings all those issues bubbling to the surface. And as such, conservatives find it unacceptable.