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:
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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’
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
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
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.