Monocausality — whether it’s the clash of economic classes, the hidden hand of the market, or white supremacy and its consequences — has always been a seductive way of looking at the world. It has always been a simplistic one, too. The world is complex. So are people and their motives. The job of journalism is to take account of that complexity, not simplify it out of existence through the adoption of some ideological orthodoxy.
This mistake goes far to explain the 1619 Project’s subsequent scholarly and journalistic entanglements. It should have been enough to make strong yet nuanced claims about the role of slavery and racism in American history. Instead, it issued categorical and totalizing assertions that are difficult to defend on close examination.
It should have been enough for the project to serve as curator for a range of erudite and interesting voices, with ample room for contrary takes. Instead, virtually every writer in the project seems to sing from the same song sheet, alienating other potential supporters of the project and polarizing national debate.
An early sign that the project was in trouble came in an interview last November with James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Battle Cry of Freedom” and a past president of the American Historical Association. He was withering: “Almost from the outset,” McPherson told the World Socialist Web Site, “I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective.”
In particular, McPherson objected to Hannah-Jones’s suggestion that the struggle against slavery and racism and for civil rights and democracy was, if not exclusively then mostly, a Black one. As she wrote in her essay: “The truth is that as much democracy as this nation has today, it has been borne on the backs of Black resistance.”
McPherson demurs: “From the Quakers in the 18th century, on through the abolitionists in the antebellum, to the Radical Republicans in the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the N.A.A.C.P., which was an interracial organization founded in 1909, down through the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, there have been a lot of whites who have fought against slavery and racial discrimination, and against racism,” he said. “And that’s what’s missing from this perspective.”
In a lengthier dissection, published in January in The Atlantic, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz accused Hannah-Jones of making arguments “built on partial truths and misstatements of the facts.” The goal of educating Americans on slavery and its consequences, he added, was so important that it “cannot be forwarded through falsehoods, distortions and significant omissions.”