Truth in the Face of the 1619 Project: The United States and the West Did Not Establish Slavery—They Abolished It

“We wouldn’t have to have Black Lives Matter if we didn’t have 300 years of black lives don’t matter.” —Antiracist Jane Elliott

Slavery has been a fact of human societies across the world dating back to antiquity. Its terms are covered in the Code of Hammurabi and the Jewish Bible. The Greeks and Romans owned slaves. Slavery was widespread under Islam. The practice is not unique in world-historical terms. What is unique about the transAtlantic experience with respect to slavery is this: the West abolished the practice. The United States was a leader in slavery’s abolition from the country’s inception through the modern period, from banning the slave trade to globalizing the effort to abolish slavery everywhere. America remains vigilant (for example, in 2017, the US State Department established the Program to End Modern Slavery).

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Arab slave traders under Islamic hegemony

The United States did not establish slavery in North America. Slavery existed long before the United States was a country. Within a decade after establishing the republic in 1787 (the year the Constitution was ratified), Americans outlawed the slave trade. It was a promise kept. When, in 1860, some southern states elected to secede from the Union and put slavery at the center of a new nation, the Union took up arms and put down the insurrection, abolished chattel slavery, and reunited the country under one flag. The struggle saw the sacrifice of three-quarters of a million Americans, mostly white, for the sake of the freedom of black people. Overall, more than a million Americans perished in the conflict. The Confederate flag flies only in the imagination of a recalcitrant few.

The United States government made the former slaves and their descendants citizens and, in time, guaranteed all Americans equal rights—civil, political, and social—regardless of race. When the barrier of de jure segregation was erected in the aftermath of Reconstruction, a racism hardly dissimulated by the fiction of “separate but equal,” the United States government abolished that, too. Discrimination against black people has been illegal throughout the nation for more than half a century. Black people in America now ascend to high positions in the civil and political sectors of American society. Systemic racism has been abolished. Institutional racism is a thing in the past. And very few white people carry racist beliefs in their heads anymore.

The emancipation of humanity from the scourge of slavery was a product of the Enlightenment and of Western civilization. The Enlightenment is a European philosophical and moral movement emphasizing democracy, humanism, individual liberty, liberalism, republicanism, science, and secularism. The Enlightenment is the source of the doctrine of universal human rights, which recognizes the common humanity of our species. These are radical ideas. I do not write this to ennoble white people. At the same time, we should not tear down these ideas because white people authored them. The race of a people does not determine the validity of their ideas.

The founders of the United States reflected this way of thinking. Their Declaration of Independence expresses in inspired tones the humanist principles of inalienable rights and self-governance: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This is the American creed. Their Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, embodies Enlightenment ideals and principles. It was in this light that the institution of slavery and the ideology of racism was overthrow. And it is in this light that the fight against slavery and racism continues.

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The Libyan slave trade thrived in the wake of the Obama-Biden bombing campaign.

Yet, despite the devotion and success of the United States in shepherding these ideals through to practice, we are hearing, articulated by so-called radicals, the wholesale condemnation of the very civilization that gave rise to abolitionism and the granting of full citizenship to black Americans. Our people are being taught that the United States is a problematic construct because it was founded in a world where slavery was ubiquitous. Our children are being trained to gloss over such monumental facts as these: American revolutionaries overthrew a monarchy and established a secular democratic-republic and freed black people from bondage. The project seeks to move the date from our founding in 1776 to the year 1619 when Dutch slave traders brought twenty or so Africans to the Jamestown settlement in the British colony of Virginia. They mean to recenter world history on the black struggle in order to tell a tale of 400 years of uninterrupted oppression at the hands of white supremacists. This is a delegitimation project.

Today, thanks to a retelling of our common history from the standpoint of oppression, there are crowds in our street burning down government buildings, desecrating monuments and toppling statues, and physically assaulting their fellow citizens. Skirting the reality that it was white men who abolished slavery and ended Jim Crow (white men also guaranteed women the right to vote), the crowds insist that they’re overthrowing systemic racism and a regime of white supremacy. The white majority is portrayed not as a people who strived to form a more perfect union, but as habitually standing in the way of justice for minorities.

There is a fundamental error committed here—a grand ad hominem fallacy. This is the argument: Of the fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention, nearly half owned slaves. The nation was stamped from the beginning as a wicked thing because of the identity of its authors. All of them were white men. This is the essentialism of identity politics. But if a ubiquitous white male supremacy constituted government and made laws to preserve particular racial and gendered interests over against the interests of nonwhites and women, then why was it white men who secured equality and freedom for blacks and women? It was not a slave revolt that won freedom for blacks. It was white men advancing the ideals of a nation who freed blacks and made sure they became citizens. Likewise, it was white men who pushed the Nineteenth Amendment through Congress and saw its ratification as part of the ever expanding Bill of Rights. It was moral conscience and patriotism guided by the America creed that moved white men to fight for equality and justice. American history is proof of the righteousness of its institutions, not an indictment of them. The American republic is irreducible to the race and gender of the men who founded it. Identitarianism is a false proposition. Yet it is the prevailing form of racism in the West today.

Of course the enlightenment was not the product of white male thought (whatever that might mean outside of racialist claims) but the product of Western civilization and culture. Civilization and culture are not racial things. Only racists believe this. The Enlightenment was not an ideology constructed to secure the interests of white males over nonwhite people. It is a error of epic proportions to think that the radical ideas of the Enlightenment spring from racial type. Race is not an actual thing. How many times do we have to speak this truth before it sinks in? If one says that we must reject European values because they’re the values of people who are judged to be on account of race a problematic people, then that person is making the same sort of racist argument that white supremacists make when they reject good and beneficial ideas from Africa or Asia on the grounds that those who hail from these continents are problematic. It so happens that the Enlightenment emerged in a region of the world that was majority white. Racists make something of that. But we shouldn’t.

In Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi conflates race and culture in the same way racists do when he argues that, after biological racism was discredited as a scientific theory of racial separation and inequality, appeal to African American attitudes and culture as the explanation for disparities became the new racism. I cite his book because of all the attention it has generated, but Kendi is hardly alone in making this error. It is endemic on the left. For analyses of the problem, see my recent essays The Origin and Character of Antiracist Politics, Smearing Amy Wax and The Fallacy of Cultural Racism, and Race, Ethnicity, Religion, and the Problem of Conceptual Conflation and Inflation. (In The New Racism, which I wrote in 2008, you can see the beginning of my questioning of the new racism concept that many of us were taught from childhood. As an academic, this fallacy was reinforced in my training.) The fallacy has become more widespread over time and is now the popular understanding. It is at least the understanding that shapes discourse in popular culture. We see it, for example, in the essentialist rhetoric of “cultural appropriation,” which must assume that culture is rooted in race (see Race-Based Discrimination as a Model for Social Justice for a critique).

Kendi’s formulation is wrong. Culture and ideas do not belong to any race. They are the products of the brains of a single species: Homo sapiens. It therefore cannot be true that criticizing or praising culture and ideas is racist. For example, analyzing and criticizing the culture of violence and dependency associated black-majority neighborhoods is not a racist endeavor. There are many reasons for the relative degree of poverty that exists in the United States and the racial disparities associated with it, but it is not racist to reject the claim that systemic racism explains these inequalities. Nor can Western civilization be discredited on account of the fact that white people founded it. Western civilization is not a culture of white supremacy. It is the culture responsible for the ideas of democracy, humanism, individual liberty, liberalism, republicanism, science, and secularism that have resulted in the most advance and just societies in history—indeed, the culture in which abolitionism appeared. Defending these ideas does not require any appeal to white racial superiority. The preservation of Western civilization is not a racist project. The claim that it is a project that seeks to cancel Western civilization. Those who take up this project believe they can inoculate themselves from criticism by crying racism. We shouldn’t let them.

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I quoted antiracist Jane Elliott at the start of the essay not because I admire her; on the contrary, her presence in the struggle for justice and equality is toxic. She says on the one hand that there is no such thing as race, then proceeds to frame everything in those terms. The quote—“We wouldn’t have to have Black Lives Matter if we didn’t have 300 years of black lives don’t matter”—is the subject of memes shared across social media. I shared it yesterday on facebook so I could say this snarky thing: “Because abolition of the slave trade, civil war, Emancipation, the Fourteenth Amendment, Reconstruction, Brown v Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, affirmative action, and Barack Obama never happened.” Frankly, I am not sure she actually said this. It’s a meme. But it is something she would say. Race merchants like Elliott say things like this all the time to diminish our accomplishments as a people. The New York Times 1619 Project is an project to deny progress. Kendi’s thesis that racial ideas are constructed to legitimize white supremacist policy and structure rationalizes every advance in race relations as a tactic to keep in place a system that materially benefits white men. “Not-racist” is therefore a manifestation of racism.

The New Left racialist project is a massive exercise in gas-lighting. If a white person denies their white privilege that proves they enjoy white privilege (a white person has it anyway by virtue of being born that way). If a white person says he not racist that means he is racist. Kendi tells us that one can either be a racist or an antiracist. There is no between. If you oppose reparations, then you are racist because “the middle ground is racist ground.” Ironic that the offspring of poststructuralism are so eager to establish binaries (when it’s convenient, of course). You are one or the other and essentially so.

“Are you doing something about your racism?” is a variation on “When did you last beat your wife?” Somebody says you are sexist. You deny you are one. That is proof that you are one. You’re in denial. The trick is meant to undermine confidence in your self-judgment by people supremely confident in their own. Those who deny woke doctrine are in particular need of the therapies amateur pop psychologists peddle. The deniers are in need of healing. Or at least in need of acquiring the skills to live with their incurable disease (whites are categorically racist, after all). Racists Anonymous. Is that a thing? “Hi, I’m Bobby Charles and I’m a racist.” It is hard to believe anybody takes this nonsense seriously. But they do. And, no matter how much it’s dressed up in jargon and confused with bad argument and statistical manipulation, it is nonsense. It’s manipulative and arrogant. Woke scolds are insufferable.

Nobody I know claims that history is free of oppression and struggle. Peasants, workers, women, children, gays and lesbians—the story of human freedom is the overcoming of barriers and injustices to ascend to new heights of dignity and liberty. Justice isn’t like flipping on a light-switch. It’s realized in steps and slowed by missteps and resistance. But the claim that black lives didn’t matter for 300 or 400 years—at least in the West—is utterly false. Elliott, along with DiAngelo, Hannah-Jones, Kendi, and the other practitioners of racecraft, erase the history of progress in order to delegitimize the American project. As Glenn Loury put it (I am paraphrasing), the historical revisionists mean to relegate civil war, abolition, and civil rights to footnotes in order to construct a grand narrative of 400 years of white supremacy and racial oppression that depicts the black victim as the pivot of historical turning. From this standpoint, nothing short of dismantling the republic can redeem such a world.

Things have changed. In the past, one could point to the oppression of the day. Today, the cries of oppression have little to justify them. We are a substantively just society in every area of social class. The panic over “microaggressions” tells us that. We have reached this stage in our development because of the Western ideals that guided the struggle of people. We reached these heights not by rejecting our values, but demanding that they be realized in practice. We’re here because our creed is righteous and our devotion to it adamant. We need to put the matter of race behind us and get to the real task at hand: poverty and class inequality.

In the following videos, Glenn Loury, economist as Brown University, and John McWhorter, linguist at Columbia University, show us how to think and talk about our history. They discuss the 1619 Project after receiving numerous emails from viewers of Loury’s vlog at Blogging Heads asking them to address the problem of its regressive and racialist narrative. I want to close with their wisdom.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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