Slavery in the United States is one of its many original sins. How can such an abhorrent institution be consistent with the ideals that America claims to uphold? Does the existence of slavery for centuries – including a large presence at the time of America’s founding documents – negate or supersede all other factors of US history?

The 1619 Project is a collection of written and audio pieces from The New York Times that aims to re-examine the history of the United States from its legacy of slavery. Beginning in mid-August and continuing slowly onward, the project takes its name from the year the Trans-Atlantic slave trade came to the United States.

The material in The 1619 Project should be seen as a valuable addition to the typical US history curriculum. To the extent that conservative critics are right that 1619 leaves out some important context, it’s only because the project’s value is not as a comprehensive overview of US history, and “what people are taught in schools” is so direly minimal anyway.

So how is it possible that slavery – something so universally abhorred today – can somehow make us fall into our partisan tendencies?

The Contributions

I read everything available at this point, have listened to the handful of podcast episodes that have been released, and read a select number of the criticisms. There’s a lot to be learned from the material in the 1619 Project. The history of slavery casts a long shadow in subtle ways on facets of daily American life today from music and traffic jams to healthcare and our democratic processes.

The lead essay of 1619, written by the project’s leader Nikole Hannah-Jones, tells of Hannah-Jones’s father always flying an American flag in their yard when she was growing up. She wondered for a long time why her father seemed so committed to America when her father’s childhood was “an apartheid state that subjugated its near-majority black population through breathtaking acts of violence.” Even after slavery was legally abolished, blacks fought tremendous legal and social forces whose sole intentions were to keep them down. Yet against this context, her father believed in hard work and sought to shape America in away that fulfilled its stated ideals.

This story sets the tone of 1619 and should be viewed as the project’s underlying message: As Hannah-Jones said on Ezra Klein’s podcast, “Those who would have the most right to hate this country have the most abiding love for it.” The rest of the project’s material should thus not be viewed through a lens of scathing criticism and a relentless quest to bring down the country’s credibility. The pieces in the project are stories from slaves and their descendants that show how this wretched institution impacts America’s music, healthcare system, and ethos to this day. Yet through all those centuries of injustice, slave descendants continue to embrace their America. Conservative critics miss the point by thinking any story that sheds a more honest light on our past is motivated by a desire to tarnish its reputation.

My memory of my US history curriculum from high school is not perfect. My recollection is that my schooling mentioned slavery’s role in our country’s history, gave a nod to the obvious contradictions between slavery and the Founding Fathers, and of course described its role in the US Civil War. But I don’t think I ever had a vivid picture of the brutality of slavery. And I don’t remember one story from the viewpoint of a slave.

By focusing more on the lives and experiences of the slaves and descendants themselves, 1619 changes the lens by which the reader sees the country’s past. History in school is narrated from a very politics-centric lens that looks at changes through the vehicle of who was in power and how those changes came to be. We heard a lot more about how Andrew Johnson screwed up Reconstruction than how the slaves themselves were actually living.

Exploring the long shadow of slavery’s history through a variety of verticals helps paint a more vivid picture of slavery’s legacy in America. The social safety net for blacks ran parallel to the superior system for whites through a variety of mechanisms: jobs that were disproportionately worked by blacks were left out of the Social Security Act, the American Medical Association barred black doctors, and medical schools excluded black students.

Kevin Kruse draws a connection from emancipation to a traffic jam today in Atlanta: “Once they had no need to keep constant watch over African-Americans, whites wanted them out of sight. Civic planners pushed them into ghettos, and the segregation we know today became the rule.” One need not look far to see how NIMBYism and hyper-restrictive construction laws have deep racial roots that stem from the desire to racially segregate, either explicitly or implicitly.

One piece by Wesley Morris and complemented by a solid podcast episode tells how black music first crept into the American mainstream. Morris’s piece starts the history with T.D. Rice singing a song he heard first sung by a black man grooming a horse owned by a man with the last name Crow. The anecdote is meant to express the beginning of proto-gospel and other musical characteristics brought over from America creeping into the American mainstream, whereas previous white music derived mainly from the Irish harmonies and classical music from Continental Europe. Also from Rice’s lyrics, the “Jim Crow” term was born. It’s not hard to find traces of black music across all genres now, but the story shows just how deep these forgotten roots are.

The emphasis on black history also uncovers stories that are woefully under-appreciated: How many people know there was a “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma that was burned down by white rioters in 1921? And how can one deny the parallel of voter disenfranchisement today with the ugly history of suppression found in Jamelle Bouie’s essay?

Industries run on the back of slaves had a tremendously big presence in the United States economy for centuries. In her podcast interview with Ezra Klein, Jones notes, “By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States…the combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation.” Did you know that? Also under-appreciated compared to King Cotton, Queen Sugar was so profitable that during the antebellum reign Louisiana was the second most wealthy state in the country.

The Critics

I have taken a look at a select handful of the criticisms of the 1619 Project, basically from conservatives who think it doesn’t give America due credit for what it did right and how it’s unique. In more ways that I predicted, I’m fairly sympathetic to some of these criticisms. By and large, we would benefit from knowing a greater context for a lot of these stories, especially to compare America to the history of other countries. Some of the causal connections between slavery and modern-day systems are at least oversimplified. Where the criticisms go wrong is by arguing that a lack of full context negates the stories or points the pieces in 1619 make. Instead, the stories are a new angle with which to view the country’s past, despite not being a completely comprehensive look.

One way to interpret the framework of most critics is this: a) America was one of many – most – countries that had slavery, so slavery is not a unique identifier; b) the emphasis on slavery thus overlooks the things that actually made us unique. Rich Lowry leans on this thinking heavily in his numerous critiques of 1619, arguing that slavery was ubiquitous in world history and many countries had the slave trade longer and more intensely than the United States did. One point specifically, which I think most people don’t acknowledge, was that in the Western Hemisphere it was actually Brazil that was the most common destination for African slaves and the country that abolished the practice the latest. 95% of slave transported across the Atlantic, he notes, went to countries south of the United States. And in Lowry’s words, “Both Brazil and the United States had slavery; only one of them had the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.”

Indeed, most people casually make the connection between the existence of free labor and America’s prosperity today. But because the institution was so ubiquitous across the Western hemisphere, it’s a leap to say the explanatory variable for America’s current riches is its history with slavery. In fact, if slavery were indeed the significant characteristic in the long-run for the bottom line of a country’s economic output, a country like Brazil would be the richest of them all, and Canada incredibly poor.

Slavery was more likely a force against a more productive economic order in the South. In Acemoglu and Robinson’s terminology, slavery is the ultimate “extractive” institution – a set of rules that does not plant the seeds of broad prosperity in the long-run like “inclusive” institutions, but instead soaks up revenues from a resource with no propensity towards increasing productivity. A focus on exploiting slave labor in order to sell natural resources in the South made it focus less on things like public education and other factors that are better for sustained productivity gains that ensure prosperity in the long-run.

A counter to this, of course, is to note that slavery can cast a shadow on other countries and it still have an impact on our daily lives. So perhaps the right phrasing is to say that it is inaccurate to think of slavery as a unique American identifier, but instead a very significant part of our history.

Andrew Sullivan takes issue with 1619’s statement that “our democracy’s ideals were false when they were written.” In his mind, focusing on the contradictions and hypocrisy’s of the Founding documents glosses over the ways that they represented a seismic shift in how anyone would even think about the ideals of liberty and equality under the law. To his credit, I would say that we view Athenian ideals of democracy more than two thousand years ago as rightfully credited for theorizing and developing a model for how democracy works. Of course, Athens had slaves, women had no rights, and who Athenian leaders considered entitled to these ideals was very limited. We should hold higher standards for the birth of a nation only centuries old, but the point remains: Discrediting the philosophy of America’s founding because of the contradictions at the time is a step too far.

In fact, Hannah-Jones even proves the power of the ideals of the United States – no matter how contradictory or unrealized at the time of their founding – by showing that her father, a man not treated with the respect he deserves by American society, still perseveres to get America to the point that it lives up to its ideals. The ideals under the umbrella of American Exceptionalism – though still not fully realized – are at least powerful enough to make her father think this way. The contradictions are present and we must acknowledge them, but it’s hard to argue that the American ethos is not an unusual aberration compared to other countries.

Sullivan believes though that explaining everything through the lens of the history of slavery is overlooking everything else. Indeed, the story of why America doesn’t have universal healthcare right now may be in part because of racist intentions, as argued in 1619, but a larger part of it is because of an odd history of price controls leading to employers offering insurance and then the status quo inertia making it politically difficult to scrap the system.

Sullivan:

Take a simple claim: no aspect of our society is unaffected by the legacy of slavery. Sure. Absolutely. Of course. But, when you consider this statement a little more, you realize this is either banal or meaningless. The complexity of history in a country of such size and diversity means that everything we do now has roots in many, many things that came before us. You could say the same thing about the English common law, for example, or use of the English language: no aspect of American life is untouched by it.

What Sullivan is thus arguing is that he does not deny how slavery’s past puts itself into every facet of our lives today, but that he views the 1619 Project as overemphasizing, or perhaps even going so far as to being essentially monocausal, the role of slavery in the context of every other force in our history. There may be some truth to what he’s saying, but I don’t view 1619 as trying to argue that its stories are the defining script of American history; I see them as a fresh set of perspectives about stories that have so far gone untold.

Jones says in her interview with Ezra Klein that “Capitalism is not a system of morality” and Ezra responded that there are many countries that are just as capitalistic as the US but have different manifestations. I take issue with the fact that capitalism is inherently an amoral or immoral system. Read literally, yes capitalism is indeed not a system of morality – our set of moral values and culture come separately from our economic system. Rather, I would argue that the market economy is a set of rules and institutions whose endpoint for production and morality is a result of the interaction between these legal frameworks and the culture found in the system. I imagine the conservatives who have criticized the 1619 Project and many proponents of the market economy take statements like this to be throwing a grenade in any hopes of finding common ground.

I’d be much more sympathetic to the arguments these conservative critics are making if they demonstrated more support for righting the remedies we “all agree are terrible atrocities.” I believe it is possible to think simultaneously a) the Founding documents were a huge leap in how the world thought about equality under the law and b) the racial wealth gap is the product of centuries of injustice that needs to be corrected. But too often writers like Lowry and Sullivan will, in the same sentence, talk about how terrible treatments of blacks were in American history and then downplay the need or justness of ways to correct those injustices.

The Brutality of American Capitalism

One piece by Matthew Desmond argues that an unusually high degree of brutality in American capitalism has its roots in slave plantations. This paper in particular irked me. He makes a lot of weakly supported connections and faulty analysis connecting slavery and the contemporary American economy.

Desmond writes, “Like today’s titans of industry, planters understood that their profits climbed when they extracted maximum effort out of each worker.” This is a widespread economic fallacy that I can’t ignore. Adam Smith put this to rest as far back as 1776 in the Wealth of Nations. Smith’s contemporaries thought it natural that a firm will pay its workers only at subsistence level, believing workers’ struggles would motivate them to be more productive for fear of losing the ability to survive. Smith recognized that no, this was not the profitable approach: Paying workers more will increase productivity because they can take better care of themselves, it will reduce turnover, and workers won’t accept such direly low wages because they have outside options. Firms need to compete to some extent for even the lowest skilled workers. In modern-day terminology, “efficiency wages” actually suggest that paying workers more is a profitable venture. In this regard, slavery, for all its brutality and poor health for the slaves, can be argued as counter-productive. In any case, the American workplace is not one where capitalists are soaking all the spirit out of its workers. Supervisors know that morale, culture, and overall health impact the productivity of its workers.

I also wonder how tenuous the connection is between corporate practices today that have their roots in the slavery industry centuries ago. The point Desmond hopes to make is that our corporate structure and financial system still resemble the times of slavery in nontrivial ways. He claims that asset depreciation or even spreadsheets have their roots in the American plantation and that workplace hierarchies displayed “a level of complexity equaled only by large government structures, like that of the British Royal Navy.” And that “enslaved people were used as collateral for mortgages centuries before the home mortgage became the defining characteristic of middle America.”

Does the use of Excel to increase efficient resource use, or having multiple layers of management at large corporations really deserves to be tied in to the history of slavery? And does the use of collateral for loans in our financial system today really mean we have a brutal system because slaves used to be held as collateral? Slave-run industries like cotton and sugar were a huge part of the economy for centuries. It only makes sense that changes to corporate governance were not excluded from these industries and yes, slave-owners tried to be efficient. Steel was also used to keep slaves in bondage, but is it fair to connect our use of steel today to its use during slavery? Indeed, any industry that co-existed with slavery can be tied to it in some way; does that mean that our economy today has traces of its brutality? If train lines were accelerated to support the slave trade, is it fair to make a moral connection between train tracks now to the institution of slavery?

These connections to me are thus unconvincing, and it makes the reader question why collateralized debt has been around long before American slavery or why other countries that had long experiences with slavery don’t have the “brutal” economies America does. America may have rugged individualism in its national fabric – “brutality” in Desmond’s mind – but this ethos existed before and independent of the existence of slavery.

Overall

A deeper story needs to be told for America’s experience with slavery than “slavery is really bad!” 1619 makes a significant contribution by telling stories, giving a personal touch with real people from history, of how slaves and their descendants experienced life and continue to impact American through various channels today.

One 1619 piece by Khalil Gibran Muhammad mentions that tourists to a local sugar plantation museum in Louisiana are warned by locals that the museum is misrepresenting the past. Earlier this year, stories were told of how tourists consistently complain about being reminded so much of the history of slavery. Against this context, it’s hard to argue that Americans wouldn’t benefit by learning more about slavery’s role in US history and confronting its brutality more vividly. It’s an inconvenient history for many people, but it’s vital to understanding our past.