Your great saints were child rapists. Your sacred texts are false alibis for a world-historic crime. That isn’t a hill your shining city sits upon, but the unmarked graves of men it condemned to unlived lives. The prosperity you saw as confirmation of God’s favor is actually proof of your complicity in theft; tucked beneath the bounty your fathers bequeathed you are a pile of unpaid debts. And the collective identity that gave you belonging – that freed you from the solitary confinement of your self, and commuted the death sentence that is your flesh – is a hateful lie that all non-racists are duty-bound to lay to rest.
This is, ostensibly, what the typical white conservative hears when reading (or imagining what it would be like to read) the New York Times’ “1619 Project.”
The newspaper’s ambitious effort to spotlight the centrality of slavery to the American story – by tracing genealogical lines from the forced labor camps of the antebellum South to the rapacity of modern America’s economic order, the inequities of its health-care system, the excess sugar in its diet, the huddled masses in its prisons, and congestion on its highways – should not be above criticism. All histories are reductive to some degree; reality is too complex and multifarious for human language to fully contain. And popular histories are even more so, as lay readers do not want their stories constantly interrupted with parenthetical acknowledgements of competing narratives from other corners of the academy. Thus, the 1619 Project puts forward some tendentious claims that scholars (including ones who have no reverence for our nation’s founding slaveholders) feel compelled to contest. Meanwhile, various journalists and news readers have voiced coherent (if, in my view, unconvincing) qualms with the package’s overriding concept.
But on certain segments of the right, criticisms of the package have been so histrionic, they read less as arguments than primal screams. For The Resurgent’s Eric Erickson, the “1619 Project” is nothing less than a call for insurrection:
If the nation is founded on slavery and slavery is woven into the very fabric of our society, then our society is illegitimate. The only way to overcome it is to overturn it. That would take revolution. This is the path the New York Times goes down. Once it lights this fire, it will not be able to control it. But it wants to strike the match anyway.
The Week’s Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry sounded an equally histrionic note, arguing that if one accepts the Times’ claims, “the only moral response is to hate America and to hate all its institutions and replace them with ones based on diametrically opposed values.” The Federalist’s Benjamin Weingarten, meanwhile, insisted that the project’s true purpose was “to delegitimize America, and further divide and demoralize its citizenry.”
These arguments are unintelligible. The 1619 Project’s introductory essay is a paean to black American patriotism, in which reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones insists not merely on the possibility of rescuing our republic’s liberatory ideals from the legacy of white supremacy, but on the necessity of doing so. As a purely logical matter, meanwhile, it’s hard to see the connection between Gobry and Erickson’s premises and their conclusions. Why would accepting the (intuitive) premise, “the monstrous economic system that prevailed in the South for more than two centuries actually left some durable imprints on American culture and institutions” obligate us to violently overthrow our government? Which is to say, why would it invalidate all concerns about the human costs of insurrection? Isn’t a foundational claim of conservatism that all human institutions are inevitably flawed, and thus, that the existence of injustice within an existing order does not constitute a persuasive argument for radically remaking society?
But if the right’s catastrophizing response to the 1619 Project is incomprehensible in intellectual terms, it’s more understandable in psychological ones. The Times’s narrative does not delegitimize the U.S. nation-state, or American patriotism. But it very much does challenge the legitimacy of white American identity – and the secular saints and potted histories that lend that identity its substance. And for many white conservatives in the U.S., the idea of surrendering that identity is quite painful.
Liberals are (understandably) reluctant to empathize with this sort of pain. After all, such “white fragility” has been a perennial obstacle to both acknowledging the structural roots of black disadvantage in the U.S. and passing reforms to mitigate it. But, in my view, an essential premise of progressive politics is that individuals are largely the products of socio-political conditions that they do not choose or control. And there’s reason to think that the impulses that lead some white conservatives to cling to a triumphalist, racialized conception of national identity are not inherently hateful but merely manifest as such in the specific social context they were (blamelessly) born into.
Ethnic identity is a force that gives us meaning.
The impulse to seek meaning and belonging through identification with an ethnic group — which is to say, a collective defined by a myth of common ancestry — can be observed across a wide range of societies. That this form of social identity crops up in so many divergent places suggests that it answers some of our species’ basic psychological needs. Human subjectivity can be profoundly isolating; ethnic identity loosens the boundary between the self and society. Human beings’ singular awareness of our own mortality makes us subject to existential despair; ethnic identity lends the individual’s little life a timeless significance by situating it in a transgenerational story that will outlive her.
In his (justifiably) controversial book, Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities, the political scientist Eric Kaufmann criticizes the left for stigmatizing whites who avail themselves of the comforts that ethnic identity provides. Specifically, Kaufmann accuses progressives of preaching “asymmetrical multiculturalism” — a creed that venerates the ethnic identities of minority groups (even when such identities are constituted by illiberal traditions and spurious histories), but stigmatizes those very same forms of identity when they manifest in white majorities. The author argues that this disparate treatment of white and nonwhite ethnic identity is politically dangerous, and that the moral and conceptual distinctions progressives draw between the two are intellectually dubious.
Liberals might respond to the latter charge by observing that “white” is not an ethnic identity, but rather, an invidious social construct. There is no monolithic culture or line of descent that unites Anglo, German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, and light-skinned Hispanic (or mixed race) Americans into a single people that is distinct from their darker-skinned compatriots; there is only a phenotype that, in certain historical contexts, has awarded all of the former membership in America’s dominant racial caste. The Irish didn’t become white by suddenly developing a common ancestry with America’s WASP elite, but rather, by attaining enough social clout to gain admittance into their racial stratum.
Kaufmann’s answer to this complaint is simple: Yes, white American ethnic identity is a social construct with shifting boundaries and no firm basis in genetics or long-term historical experience. But all ethnic identities are fundamentally mythic constructions; every ethnicity is defined by essentially arbitrary lines marking when a distinct “people” came into existence, and who qualifies for membership in that people. Given the levels of intermarriage between “white” Americans of various stripes — and their embrace of a shared set of symbols, traditions, and potted histories — Kaufmann contends that “white American” is as coherent an ethnic identity as most any other.
Not all social constructs are created equal.
The conclusion that Kaufmann draws from this — that progressives should, in effect, respect white pride — is contemptible. All ethnic identities may be social fictions, but some fictions are more pernicious than others. In the U.S., white identity is only coherent when defined in opposition to a nonwhite other. Latinos may one day assimilate into whiteness. But the day that dark-skinned African-Americans are admitted into America’s dominant ethnic identity will be the day that white ceases to be the name of that identity. Which is to say: There is no whiteness without blackness. And as a result of the history the “1619 Project” spotlights, the legitimation of white ethnic solidarity is inextricable from the legitimation of black disadvantage.
In attempt to elide this fact, Kaufmann makes absurd claims about the state of racial progress in the United States, going so far as to assert, “[i]ndicators of structures of white oppression have largely disappeared.” This notion is impossible to reconcile with a simple fact: if you deny one racial group the opportunity to amass wealth for multiple centuries – while allowing another racial group to profit off the former’s exploitation – then, in a capitalist economy, compound interest will entrench and multiply that initial inequity, producing durable structures of race-based disadvantage. Kaufmann deals with this inconvenient truth by defining structural racism narrowly as race-based discrimination. He then ignores copious evidence of contemporary anti-black discrimination – and dismisses the significance of the evidence he does acknowledge in unintentionally revealing terms: After stipulating that research has found job applicants with “African-American-sounding first names such as Lakisha and Jamal” are less likely to recieve call-back interviews than similarly qualified applicants with white names, Kaufmann writes, “However, this could be because stereotypical African-American first names carry lower-class connotations[.]” The author never pauses to consider the provenance of those connotations, or whether a culture in which “stereotypical” blackness is equated with “lower class” might have oppressive implications for African-Americans.
White pride is unforgivable. People who’ve sought pride in white identity are not.
And yet: While Kaufmann’s equation of “white American” with less invidious forms of ethnic identity is misguided on the sociological level, it may have some validity on the individual one. Kaufmann’s research suggests that the impulse to adopt — and fiercely defend — an ethnic identity is common among humans of a “psychologically conservative” disposition in nations the world over. If this is so, then (some) white Americans may cling to a tacitly racialized conception of national identity — and defend that identity’s exclusionary symbols, heroes, and versions of history — for reasons that aren’t inherently hateful. Such Americans did not choose to be born into a society where the dominant ethnic identity was an invidious racial caste. And they did not choose to be reared in a culture whose self-congratulatory myths were premised on a belittling of black suffering. The impulses that led them to identify with that caste, and accept those exclusionary myths, may be largely indistinct from those that motivate nonwhite forms of ethnic identity.
In fact, the backlash to the 1619 Project arguably reflects some of the same impulses that informed that project’s creation. Nikole Hannah-Jones’s magisterial essay on the central role black Americans have played in democratizing the United States is a work of memoir, social criticism, and popular history. But it is also a celebration of black identity, which invites African-American readers to claim membership in a trans-historical community defined by a common ancestry, to see their little lives as chapters in that community’s heroic narrative, and to consider themselves “the most American of all” U.S. residents.
Hannah-Jones’s triumphalist account of black history is infinitely more accurate — and infinitely less pernicious — than Erick Erickson’s hagiographic version of (white) American history. And black identity is more deeply rooted in a genuinely common social experience than the whiteness that purports to unite mid-century Italian immigrants, second-generation Cuban-Americans, and descendants of Mayflower passengers into a common people. Nevertheless, parts of Hannah-Jones’s essay embody the impulse to seek a sense of belonging, meaning, and self-esteem through membership in an ethnic group with a heroic, historic mission. That some of the “1619 Project”’s most histrionic critics may be motivated by a fundamentally similar impulse does not render their tantrums — or the exclusionary conception of American identity those tantrums are meant to defend — any more acceptable. But it does make their response a bit more understandable.
Americans who were taught to see themselves as “white” do not deserve the psychic comfort of identification with a heroic, timeless community less than other humans do. That such Americans long to defend the honor of their identity’s defining heroes against the slings and arrows of the historical record does not make them bad people. But the historical record does make “white American” a bad identity.
Fortunately, human beings are capable of sloughing off inherited identities and adopting new ones. The “1619 Project” will be a demoralizing read for anyone who is (consciously or otherwise) invested in white American identity. But investing in that identity is a choice. The notion that a second-generation German-American is connected by heritage to Thomas Jefferson — but not Frederick Douglass — isn’t rooted in any objective fact. There’s no inherent reason why such a person should identify with the former and not the latter. It is a myth of common ancestry that makes Donald Trump and George Washington members of the same “people”; it is a fact of natural history that makes Trump, Washington, Eric Erickson, Harriet Tubman, and Malcolm X descendants of a common ancestor and thus members of the same human family.
And the facts of this continent’s history make them members of the same American nation.
If Erickson and Co. would simply choose to identify as Americans – instead of as white Americans – then they’d free themselves from the compulsion to defend Thomas Jefferson’s sainthood, and belittle Sally Hemings’s suffering. If they would only seek meaning and belonging through identification with every American whose deeds affirmed our republic’s highest ideals – instead of with those whose pigmentation affirmed their racial pride – they could feel themselves ennobled by MLK’s heroism, and unthreatened by a frank accounting of the Founding Fathers’ crimes.