Black History Month – The 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory

This blog is the most controversial of my posts. I discuss how The 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory are being used to attack the study of Black History. Critics of these two programs focus on historical errors and white guilt to dismiss discussion of race in America and threaten to remove Black History Month from schools. — Allen Mesch

The 1619 Project

The 1619 Project is a journalistic program developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones and writers from The New York Times, and The New York Times Magazine. The 1619 Project  “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.” 

The project’s first publication was in The New York Times Magazine in August 2019 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colony of Virginia. The project prepared an educational curriculum accompanied by a broadsheet article, live events, and a podcast. 

Historians, journalists, and commentators have described The 1619 Project as a reinterpretation of accepted history that takes a negative view of traditionally recognized events and people in American history. The project criticizes the patriots in the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers, and Abraham Lincoln and the Union during the Civil War. 

Among the more controversial elements of the 1619 Project are the claims that “1619 is the true founding of America” and “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”

The 1619 Project was criticized by several historians who question its historical accuracy. In a letter published in The New York Times in December 2019, five important historians expressed “strong reservations” about the project and requested factual corrections, accusing the project’s creators of “putting ideology before historical understanding.” The scholars disputed the project’s claim that slavery was essential to the beginning of the American Revolution because colonists wanted to protect their right to own slaves. The scholars and political scientists specializing in the American Civil War wrote to the Times saying that “The 1619 Project offers a historically-limited view of slavery.” While agreeing to the importance of examining American slavery, they objected to what they described as the portrayal of slavery as a uniquely American phenomenon, to construing slavery as a capitalist venture, and to presenting out-of-context quotes from a conversation between Abraham Lincoln and “five esteemed free black men.”

Some articles written in conjunction with the project discuss important events in Black history including Crispus Attucks the first American killed in the revolutionary war, Phillis Wheatley Peters the first African-American author of a published book of poetry, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 guaranteed a right for a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave, the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 provided that no new slaves were permitted to be imported into the United States,  and The New Orleans Massacre of 1866 when a peaceful demonstration of mostly Black Freedmen was set massacred by a mob of white rioters.

[SOURCE: The 1619 Project, Wikipedia]

Critical Race Theory (CRT)

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a cross-disciplinary examination by social and civil-rights scholars and activists of how laws, social and political movements, and media shape and are shaped by social conceptions of race and ethnicity. The goals of CRT include challenging all mainstream and “alternative” views of racism and racial justice, including conservative, liberal, and progressive. The word critical in the name is an academic reference to critical thinking, critical theory, and scholarly criticism, and NOT criticizing or blaming people.

CRT is also used in sociology to explain social, political, and legal structures and power distribution through a “lens” focusing on the concept of race, and experiences of racism. For example, the CRT conceptual framework examines racial bias in laws and legal institutions, such as highly disparate rates of incarceration among racial groups in the United States. A key CRT concept is intersectionality or how different forms of inequality and identity are affected by interconnections of race, class, gender, and disability. Scholars of CRT view race as a social construct with no biological basis. One principle of CRT is that racism and disparate racial outcomes are the results of complex, changing, and often subtle social and institutional dynamics, rather than explicit and intentional prejudices of individuals. CRT scholars argue that the social and legal construction of race advances the interests of white people at the expense of people of color, and that the liberal notion of U.S. law as “neutral” plays a significant role in maintaining a racially unjust social order, where formally color-blind laws continue to have racially discriminatory outcomes.

Critical race theory has stirred controversy in the United States for promoting the use of narrative in legal studies, advocating “legal instrumentalism” as opposed to ideal-driven uses of the law, and encouraging legal scholars to promote racial equity.

In the 2020 U.S. presidential election, opposition to critical race theory was adopted as a campaign theme by Donald Trump and various conservative commentators on Fox News and right-wing talk radio shows. Trump issued an executive order directing agencies of the United States federal government to cancel funding for programs that mention “white privilege” or “critical race theory”, on the basis that it constituted “divisive, un-American propaganda” and that it was “racist”.

Opposition to what was alleged to be critical race theory was subsequently adopted as a major theme by several conservative think tanks and pressure groups. According to The Washington Post, conservative lawmakers and activists have used the term as “a catchall phrase for nearly any examination of systemic racism.”

[SOURCE: Critical Race Theory, Wikipedia]

Bans on Critical Race Theory and Associated Topics

In April 2021, the Idaho legislature passed a law that effectively banned any educational entity from teaching or advocating sectarianism, including critical race theory or other programs involving social justice.

In June 2021, the Florida State Board of Education unanimously voted to ban public schools from teaching critical race theory at the urging of Governor Ron DeSantis. The Florida Stop W.O.K.E. Act, standing for “Wrong to Our Kids and Employees”, also known as the Individual Freedom Act, prohibits instruction and teaching that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels” certain topics of race and gender.

In May 2021, the Tennessee state legislature passed a law that prohibits the teaching of 14 concepts surrounding race and gender discrimination, including the concept of systemic racism. The law “bar(s) any lesson that causes an individual “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress” because of their race or sex. As of July 2021, 10 US states had introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict how teachers discuss racism, sexism, and other “divisive issues”, and 26 other states were in the process of doing so. As of November 9, 2021, 28 US states had introduced such bills–all by Republican lawmakers. As of December 2021, 66 educational gag orders had been filed for the year in 26 state legislatures (12 bills had already been passed into law) that would inhibit teaching any race theory in schools, universities, or state agencies, by teachers, employers, or contractors. Penalties vary but predominantly include loss of funding for schools and institutions. However, in some cases, the bills mandate the firing of employees.

In January 2022, the governor of Virginia signed an executive order banning critical race theory in Virginia schools. 

Other state government officials and State Boards of Education (SBOE) also adopted similar measures in 2021. Montana attorney general prohibited teachers from asking students to “reflect on privilege.” Utah’s SBOE restricted the teaching of racism and sexism. Alabama’s SBOE banned the “teaching of concepts that impute fault, blame, a tendency to oppress others, or the need to feel guilt or anguish to persons solely because of their race or sex.” Georgia’s SBOE banned teaching that “indoctrinates” students. Florida’s SBOE prohibited teaching about critical race theory or the 1619 Project.

[SOURCE: Censorship of school curricula in the United States, Wikipedia.]


I reached several conclusions after reviewing the programs and their criticism:

Any study of Black history should be based on facts approved by historians. This includes misrepresentations of history in educational material. This information should be modified/corrected/updated based on new data and facts.

Attacks on presentations and the discussion of Black history actually promote racism. The bans on minority history perpetuate a false narrative that some use in order to suppress minorities.

We must understand our history with all its horrors to not repeat mankind’s past sins.

Allowing suppression of historical facts will lead to more attacks on other minorities. We have witnessed increased assaults on Asians, Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ+s, Blacks, and Hispanics. What minority will be the target of future hate crimes?

I believe that we have an unrecognized epidemic in the United States. The disease is composed of the “Three Is” of Intolerance, Ignorance, and Indifference. This epidemic threatens our country as much as any virus.

About Allen Mesch

Allen is an author, educator, and historian. He has written six books: The Analyst; Teacher of Civil War Generals; Your Affectionate Father, Charles F. Smith; Charles A. Marvin - "One Year. Six Months, and Eleven Days", Preparing for Disunion, and Ebenezer Allen - Statesman, Entrepreneur, and Spy. He taught classes on the American Civil War at Collin College. He has visited more than 130 Civil War sites and given presentations at Civil War Roundtables.
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