The New York Times, History, and the Emerging Anti-White Majority

By Lee Lane


The main theme of the New York Times 1619 Project (as sociologist Alexander Riley aptly sums it up) is: “It is not just the American Founding that is racist to its core; every facet of white identity, from the beginning to the present moment, is directed in a laser focus toward the oppression of blacks. … Indeed, it is blacks who made everything valuable and worthwhile in this country.”   

But the Project’s anti-white screed, as I explain below, badly distorts history on four key points:  

  1. The Times paints U.S. slavery as a unique evil; and by current standards, it was brutal; yet, at the time, slavery prevailed nearly worldwide; and the U.S. system was not as harsh as many others.
  • The Project asserts that slavery and racism have enriched current U.S. whites; they have not, and the Times case relies on studies that other scholars have largely rebutted.
  • The Times also ascribes U.S. blacks’ problems solely to white malice; such a claim is, at best, simplistic.  

The 1619 Project seeks to justify punishing U.S. whites for what it regards as their sins against blacks. But the social model that the Times promotes can only lead to endless, bitter strife.    

The Times Moralistic View of History

The 1619 Project’s goal is not to understand history. It is to judge it. And at least as far as whites are concerned, the Project is a hanging judge. Most scholars try to avoid judging past events by present moral standards. The Times relishes doing just that. And in the process, it shows why the practice should be shunned.

As noted above, to the Times, U.S. slavery was uniquely evil. But slavery was by no means unique to America. Far from it. In China, slaves existed by the beginning of the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600 BCE). Indian slavery is also ancient and long-lived. Slave societies ringed the ancient Mediterranean. The empires of the New World Indians owned large numbers of slaves. In fact, until early in the last century, slavery was worldwide, save only for the modern West and some hunter-gatherers.

Ignoring slavery’s global history helps the Times to proceed as if whites were its main perpetrators. For centuries, though, the Muslim states of North Africa enslaved large numbers of whites. So, too, did the Ottomans and the Crimean Tartars. And in West Africa, not whites, but local black elites ran the supply-side of the slave trade. Until the late 19th Century, Europeans were unable to project much military power onshore. Slaves were most often captured by other blacks in local wars or in slave raids. Some of them were then sold to whites in markets on or near the coast.

The Atlantic slave trade was also only one of three main export routes from Sub-Saharan Africa. The Trans-Sahara route supplied slaves to markets in North Africa, Asia Minor, and the Levant. In fact, cumulatively, nearly as many slaves were exported across the Sahara as were transported across the Atlantic. “The trans-Saharan caravan route,” notes Thomas Sowell, “was also the most deadly. … It has been estimated that, for every slave to reach Cairo alive, ten died on the way.” A third export route ran up Africa’s east coast to markets around the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and beyond.  

Of course, many slaves also toiled in Sub-Saharan Africa itself. Slavery had been common there before the Atlantic trade route opened. And when that route declined, local West African slave buyers used the resulting fall in prices to greatly increase their own purchases: “By the end of the century,” according to historian Patrick Manning, “there were more West African slaves than there had been at the beginning.”

One might say, then, that past slavery did not comport with the U.S. pretense to being a global moral paragon. Neither, though, does it bear out the claim that U.S. whites are supremely wicked. Most societies, after all, behave ruthlessly when they judge their vital interests to be at stake. And like the U.S. South, they make fairly frequent mistakes about where their interests actually lie.

The Times, of course, is all-in on judging the past by current standards. But presentism makes for bad history. It tends, for one thing, to obscure the stark contrasts between the modern age and all those that came before it. It can, therefore, blind tender-hearted moderns to the fact that some past deeds, while harsh, nonetheless, when all is said and done, make the world better than it was. Very few people in the world today would be better off had whites not conquered North America (although the Times Hannah Jones demurs).

Presentism can also lure people into a kind of time-based parochialism; namely, societies can come to think of their own values as universal laws. The Times scorns the U.S. founders as hypocrites for exempting blacks from Jefferson’s statements about all men having equal rights. In fact, though, such leading thinkers as Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, and Voltaire—men widely read among the U.S. founders—had  already rejected the view that a single concept of law or of rights could apply to all people and at all times. In that same spirit, many of the U.S. founders preferred to be guided, not by abstract theories, but by experience. And it was good that they did; taking-on slavery when the country was still new, weak, and divided would have been shear folly.

The South’s Insoluble Dilemma 

The Times downplays many U.S. whites’ unease with slavery. But it was widespread, and it led to vigorous debate about what should be done. For a number of factors, though, debate never led to consensus. For one thing, although slave life was poor and brutal, the whole world was then poorer and more brutal than it is today. In a real sense, people could not afford nearly such broad sympathy as the modern West takes for granted. Then, too, extant social and legal norms sanctioned slavery.

Also, for some while after independence, many leaders assumed that slave-labor could not long compete with free-labor. And accordingly they surmised that, in time, it would become extinct. What happened instead was surprising.

A long boom in British textile output caused a sustained rise in the world demand for raw cotton. Meanwhile, better cotton gins enabled U.S. planters to expand the use of upland short-fiber cotton strains. These varieties grew very well in the new lands then opening in the U.S. South and Southwest. Per acre cotton yields rose. As they did, so did output per field hand. Slaves became more profitable to own, and slave prices kept pace with their worth as productive assets.

Slavery’s predicted end went a-glimmering, but, at the same time, its future also became more fraught. Most white southerners still owned no slaves, and most of those who did, owned only a few. But large planters owned much of the South’s total wealth. And most of that came to be tied up in their slaves. Abolition portended ruin.

Nor were the risks only financial. The bloody race war in Haiti 1791-1804 drove the point home. There, free blacks and mulattos had triggered much of the violence. U.S. blacks, therefore, once freed from close oversight, might acutely threaten their former masters’ lives, families, and property. Nat Turner’s small but lethal uprising reinforced the need for tight control.     

Meanwhile, many whites’ views of blacks conflated lack of education with lack of ability. The state of the relevant sciences rendered the whole issue moot. Attitudes toward blacks in the antebellum North were not greatly different from those in the South. 

In the end, it turned out not to matter very much. A very large sample of soldiers’ letters shows that, when the enlisted men of the Union armies saw slavery for themselves, their views of it tended to change. And they came to demand that the North make freeing the slaves a major war aim. In effect, their sympathy for the slaves’ plight, plus their outrage at what they perceived as Southern whites’ sexual depravity, trumped their racism.

Their impulse for abolition also proved to be strikingly durable. The troops held long and hard to their purpose—as did the Republican side of the Northern political elite. As historian Gregory Downs observes about Reconstruction, “Even moderate Republicans were bolder — in their use of the Constitution and of force — than almost any American politicians from any other era in history. In their fight for liberal rights, they did not shy away from illiberal methods.”

The Times, needless to say, pays no heed.

Slavery, Discrimination: Not Sources of Current White Wealth

The Times also avers that the wealth of U.S. whites depends on slavery. The gravamen of the Project’s indictment is that U.S. cotton grown by slaves (on land “stolen” from Indians) is the major source of whites’ current wealth. The thesis derives what force it has mainly from the writings of historians such as Sven Beckert and Eduard Baptist. Their work, though, has drawn heavy fire from other scholars. 

It is true, for instance, that in the Antebellum era raw cotton was the biggest single source of U.S. export revenue. Still, exports of all kinds were a modest part of GDP. And exports of raw cotton amounted to only about 5 percent of GDP.       

The Civil War embargo and then blockade caused U.S. planters to lose market share to growers in India, Egypt, Latin America and elsewhere. Then, post-War, U.S. cotton exports returned to the market. Prices plunged and stayed low. Nonetheless, as Beckert himself notes, U.S. cotton output rebounded. Within 5 years after the War’s end, U.S. output returned to its pre-War peak, and it continued rising. The shortage became a glut.

Yet, slavery was no more. Beckert, though, fails to note (as does the Times) that the post-War surge in output implies that slavery had not, after all, been vital before the War. In effect, share-cropping combined with new rail links to white-owned upland farms outperformed pre-War slave labor. When slavery ceased to be an option, planters soon found alternatives that worked better.  

As to Baptist’s claims, the Times accepts them as credulously as it does Beckert’s. Baptist contends that output per slave rose because masters ratcheted-up output quotas. And they enforced the higher quotas with ever crueler beatings. But why would earlier slave-owners not have done the same? Flogging, after all, does not require high-tech skills. And would torture not risk injuring slaves who, as their prices rose, became increasingly costly to replace? Or for that matter to risk driving them to abscond, or even to rebel?

Baptist’s thesis is lurid. And it fits the Times Satanic image of whites. But that does not make him right. U.S. planters raised output mainly by the methods discussed above. They developed and planted higher-yielding strains of cotton. And they opened new, highly fertile lands. We know because on the coastal lands unsuited to the new strains, output per hand was largely flat.

Also, for slavery to be a main source of white wealth after the War, its profits would also have to have exceeded the immense costs that whites incurred because of the Civil War and its aftermath. But it is highly unlikely that they did. The Times claims that blacks mostly freed themselves, which is absurd. Black troops were roughly 10 percent of total Union forces. So, whites did the vast bulk of the North’s fighting and effectively all of the South’s. And they must have shouldered an even larger share of the economic costs.       

The Times, in effect, claims that whites have also, more recently, enriched themselves by valuing blacks’ inputs and custom at less than their worth. These claims, too, are hard to credit. Bias against black workers might, to be sure, drive up the wages of some whites who would face less competition if blacks were excluded from their lines of work. But it is also likely to harm others, whose wages would be depressed by competition from lower-paid blacks. Consumers and investors would suffer from the drop in total productivity due to placing less capable white workers in jobs that could be filled by more capable blacks. The net effect on whites as a group is more likely to subtract from their wealth than it is to add to it.

Nor is it clear, if whites are so invested in treating blacks unfairly, why so much of the white-dominated administrative state is so heavily biased in their favor. In fact, much of the administrative state is designed expressly to cause whites to receive less than their due as equal citizens so that blacks and a few other identity groups can receive more. That pattern hardly fits the Times narrative.

White malice as a source of blacks’ problems 

The Times views the problems of today’s blacks as rooted in the same force that it sees as the source of white wealth. White racism, it believes, causes both. And a large body of evidence does, to be fair, link some current black problems to the after-effects of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and some whites’ hostile attitudes.

At the same time, though, reforms clearly have swept away the prior formal handicaps on blacks in employment, housing, education, voting, and more. The informal ones have diminished. And some of those that remain are grounded in experience. As such, they are unlikely to change until some aspects of black society change. How to effect such changes is a conundrum, but the Times, proposes no remedy. Indeed, it refused to credit the problem. 

The Times analysis consists, in part, of anecdotes that prove nothing. And, in part, it is based on a string of far-fetched theories of black victimhood. For instance, are so many blacks in prison because the criminal justice system is biased? Or is it because the black crime rate is so high? Do U.S. cities have traffic jams because white racism starves mass transit of funding? If so, why do so many foreign cities, including those in Africa, also have traffic jams? If racism causes Republicans to gerrymander, is it also to blame when Democrats do it? The Times Project’s essays merely lurch seemingly at random from one puerile slander to the next.

Meanwhile, many factors other than white racism figure in the problems of U.S. blacks. Long ago, for instance, rural blacks adopted much of the Southern white culture that surrounded them. Later, the mechanization of Southern farms forced them to move to Northern cities without the cultural assets needed to fit in. U.S. blacks, in effect, experienced social shocks very much like those of the Irish immigrants fleeing the Potato Famine.

The resulting black urban culture also mirrored that of the 19th Century Irish immigrants. Both cultures shared poor job skills, unstable families, and present-oriented values. Crime and substance-abuse flourished. And in both cases, ethnic culture, itself, became a barrier to further progress.

Finally, it is also vital to note that public policy meant to help blacks has often gone badly awry. The case of expanding Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) is a famous one. The changes in AFDC super-charged the trend away from two-parent families. As Sowell observes: “… while two-thirds of black children were living with both parents in 1960, only one-third were by 1994. While only 22 percent of black children were born to unmarried women in 1960, 70 percent were by 1994.” Slavery, pretty clearly, is not the cause of the current weakness of black families.

Social engineering of the black community has been fraught with many such pitfalls. Supreme Court rulings discouraged schools from expelling disruptive students; classroom disruption, predictably, burgeoned. When penalties for violent crimes are curtailed, law-abiding blacks increasingly suffer at the hands of violent black criminals and criminal gangs recruit more members. Weak screening of criminal immigrants compounds the harm.

Open borders are yet another policy that harms U.S. blacks. It stiffens the competition for unskilled and semi-skilled jobs that many blacks face. And it ratchets-up the competition for scarce public funds.

The Times Plan for an Anti-White Majority

The real goal of the 1619 Project is to transform current U.S. society. Past, U.S. institutions were built around the Western ideal of equal personal rights within a unified nation. And the early Civil Rights Movement supported this consensus.

The Times project promotes quite a different model. It is one of a congeries of rival rent-seeking identity groups. This model is not novel nor are its effects unknown. Rather, it prevails in most of the Third World. And its results have been studied extensively. Easterly and Levine, for example, analyzed a broad cross section of countries. They found that interest group polarization fosters rent seeking, reduces consensus on public goods, and leads to “long-run growth tragedies.” Studies of U.S. cities yield similar results. Namely, proliferation of identity-based interest groups curtails the supply of useful public goods. And it also boosts wasteful public employment.

The Times Project, though, with nary a hint of well-earned self-doubt, looks forward with high hopes to an emerging anti-white majority. Native-born blacks, Third-World immigrants, and white leftists, if united, the Times knows, have the votes needed to plunder whites of their (in its view, ill-gotten) wealth. The Democratic Party already enfolds all of the main parts of the planned bloc. And it has rallied to an agenda of ethnic group rent seeking. Thus, the Times hour of racial vengeance seems to be nearly at hand. If it does indeed come to pass, voters will have embraced, for the first time, a Third-World concept of U.S. society. And to manage it will be a thoroughly First-World administrative state. One would be hard pressed to devise a more perfect recipe for endless social strife.

The editors are pleased to introduce our contributing columnist Lee Lane.  Lee is a historian by training and vocation, despite spending many years as an influential figure in Washington policy making and consulting.  Most recently he was a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and has written on a wide range of topics including energy and climate policy and the implications of the New Institutional Economics for understanding history and politics.