The 1619 Project Revisited

The Anglo-Saxon Roots of Critical Race Theory

In the light of the ongoing controversy over Critical Race Theory, I thought it might be interesting to revisit the earlier controversy over the 1619 Project. While the 1619 Project is not really an instance of CRT, it definitely is an instance of “CRT” according to the discourse has been formulated by right-wing ideologues. For some reason, I sort of wasn’t that interested in the 1619 Project controversy when it broke out, but now it seems to have only been an opening salvo in the ongoing ideological spat about the national character and “the basic symbols of the American political tradition,” to borrow from the title of Wilmoore Kendall and George Carey’s book.

Just to recall briefly, the 1619 Project was a series of essays in the New York Times Magazine about the legacy of anti-black racism in the United States. The leading conceit of the initiative was that the founding date was 1619, the year the first enslaved Africans were brought to the colonies, rather than 1776. The biggest part of the controversy erupted over Nikole Hannah-Jones keynote essay, and was ostensibly focused on the empirical claim that colonists had declared independence mostly to preserve slavery. This claim was eventually amended by the paper. But I think everyone knows that the controversy is really about the ideological and symbolic foundation point of the nation rather than the factual details

One objection to the 1619 Project and Hannah-Jones’s essay in particular among liberals was that it undermined belief in the American national project of progress toward ever greater quality and liberty. The thinking there is roughly something like, “If there wasn’t a germ of truth in the Founding, then the entirety of the nation’s history was just force and fraud.” The thinking was the basis for shared purpose and the continuation of the American experiment would be threatened if racism infected every inch of the nation’s history. Defenders of the project pointed to the strongly stated commitment of Nikole Hannah-Jones to the American ideals of freedom and equality and in ways her essay does often sound like a standard invocation of the American creed. It is, in fact, a deeply nationalist essay—Hannah-Jones begins with a meditation on her father’s patriotic dedication to flying the flag and arrives at the ultimate correctness of this gesture—but the character of its particular kind of American nationalism is worth investigating.

In his recent book, After Nationalism, Samuel Goldman describes three types of American nationalism, each with its own characteristic symbol. They have all existed in some form throughout American history, but have a roughly chronological succession as the dominant ideological underpinning of national unity. The first of these symbols is the Covenant, the idea that the United States is a kind of chosen people on the model of the Biblical Israelites, the second is the Crucible, the notion that the United States is a melting pot where a new people is being forged out of diverse sources, and the last is the Creed, where the United States is bound by its adherence to democratic-republican principles of liberty and equality embodied in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Logically speaking these ideas may have mutually exclusive premises, but in practice politicians often mingle the metaphors and the popular imagination shifts between these.

Covenant nationalism comes from the self-consciousness of the Northeastern Calvinists: “Emerging from New England, it ultimately sought to constitute all of America as an offshoot of the Puritan experience. Elements of this project survive in the celebration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. When we commemorate the survival of the Mayflower passengers, we symbolically place ourselves in that lineage.” This required a shared ethnic and religious identity—an Elect group—that was difficult to sustain in the expanding, diverse Republic and it was put aside, or rather complemented, with other sources of national identity. Its belief in the virtuousness of a certain ethnic group—namely the WASPs or proto-WASPs—eventually made Covenant thinking as much a source of snobbery and even bigotry as comity. But its legacy lives on in various ways, sometimes as a mere rhetorical trope, sometimes as something a bit more substantive: Russel Kirk spoke of our British patrimony, the aforementioned Kendall made the Mayflower Compact—the virtuous people deliberating before God—the original symbol of American democracy, and the sociologist Samuel Huntington thought America required “Anglo-Protestant” values. There is a kind of paternalistic version of this story that reconciles it with American diversity: the godly Elect were a light unto the goyim of immigrants, teaching the swarthy masses how to do democracy.

What I find so interesting about the Hannah-Jones essay, and why I think it was so upsetting to many, was its implicit participation and reversal of this Covenant tradition of American nationalism. First of all, the arrival of the slave ship in 1619, the leading image of the entire project is obviously meant to displace the Mayflower’s arrival in 1620. But both posit a “Founding before the Founding.” Instead with the end of the Exodus and the entrance into the land of Canaan, Hannah-Jones’s narrative begins with the Israelites in Babylonian or Egyptian captivity. It is well known how the Biblical story of the Israelites is a very old source of symbolic inspiration to black Americans. But here Hannah-Jones replaces the Puritan WASPs as the original Americans, keeping the Covenant when others did not. Instead of the Mayflower Compact, the Covenant is the faith shown by black Americans in the nation. Let’s look at some examples in the text:

But it would be historically inaccurate to reduce the contributions of black people to the vast material wealth created by our bondage. Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.

Suffice it to say, role of the guardians or custodians of American democracy was traditionally given to the WASP elite.

The truth is that as much democracy as this nation has today, it has been borne on the backs of black resistance. Our founding fathers may not have actually believed in the ideals they espoused, but black people did. As one scholar, Joe R. Feagin, put it, “Enslaved African-Americans have been among the foremost freedom-fighters this country has produced.” For generations, we have believed in this country with a faith it did not deserve. Black people have seen the worst of America, yet, somehow, we still believe in its best.

And this quote is perhaps the most striking appropriation of WASPdom—emphasis mine:

I wish, now, that I could go back to the younger me and tell her that her people’s ancestry started here, on these lands, and to boldly, proudly, draw the stars and those stripes of the American flag.

We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.

Before I consider the meaning of this extraordinary statement, I want to point out how Hannah-Jones’s essay, the 1619 Project and shares characteristics with another old tradition of “Anglo-Saxon” thought, one that also dates back to the 17th century. In fact, I think elucidating this strain of thought might help recast the entire controversy over “CRT” in a more constructive direction.

In his 1975-1976 Lectures at the Collège de France, Michel Foucault identifies what he rather provocatively calls a “discourse of race struggle” emerging in the 17th century England. This was mentality of the lawyers and parliamentarians struggling against the Stuart regime, either legally, or later in the English Civil War. This discourse of race struggle opposed the “discourse of sovereignty,” which basically said the monarchy was a legitimate regime and the peace it imposed was the foundation of justice, etc. According to Foucault, this discourse of race struggle attacked the legitimacy of the constitutional order by emphasizing the fact of the Norman conquest: there was no actual peace, there was just the perpetual extension of war upon and enslavement of the Saxons by the Normans. There was a great deal of historical and legal scholarship—17th-century critical race theory—that sought to establish the ancient rights of the English people that had been usurped by the monarchy:

Henceforth, in this new type of dis­course and historical practice, sovereignty no longer binds everything together into a unity—which is of course the unity of the city, the nation, or the State. Sovereignty has a specific function. It does not bind; it enslaves. The postulate that the history of great men contains, a fortiori, the history of lesser men, or that the history of the strong is also the history of the weak, is replaced by a principle of hetero­geneity: The history of some is not the history of others. It will be discovered, or at least asserted, that the history of the Saxons after their defeat at the Battle of Hastings is not the same as the history of the Normans who were the victors in that same battle…What looks like right, law, or obligation from the point of view of power looks like the abuse of power, violence, and exaction when it is seen from the viewpoint of the new discourse, just as it does when we go over to the other side.

Significantly, Foucault immediately connects this new consciousness to the Biblical history of the Israelites:

This way of speaking related this type of dis­ course not so much to the search for the great uninterrupted jurisprudence of a long-established power, as to a sort of prophetic rupture. This also means that this new discourse is similar to a certain number of epic, religious, or mythical forms which, rather than telling of the untarnished and uneclipsed glory of the sovereign, endeavor to formulate the misfortune of ancestors, exiles, and servitude. It will enumerate not so much victories, as the defeats to which we have to submit during our long wait for the promised land and the fulfillment of the old promises that will of course reestablish both the rights of old and the glory that has been lost.

With this new discourse of race struggle, we see the emergence of something that, basically, is much closer to the mythico-religious dis­course of the Jews than to the politico-legendary history of the Romans.

These Critical Race Theoreticians of the 17th century came up with different formulations to ground their claims and different ways to deal with the fact of the Norma Conquest. For instance, the notion that the Norman conquest was not a conquest at all, but a legitimate transfer of power which made the pre-Norman laws and rights still in force. J.G.A Pocock writes in The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century:

In a certain way, we can see something similar going on here to the standard liberal “compromise” story of the American founding: “Yes, we know the Founders enslaved people etc. but ultimately the principles enshrined in the Constitution remain intact and untainted by this fact. And even if they messed up, it was all put right after the Civil War with the Reconstruction amendments.”

There were also more radical interpretations of the Norman Conquest and its relationship to the Constitution that emerged after the English Civil War from groups like the Levellers and Diggers affirming the conquest and denouncing the entire ensuing legal order as a result:

What the Levellers will say is this: "The monarchy is perfectly right to say that the invasion, defeat, and Conquest did take place. It's true, the Conquest did take place, and that has to be our starting point. But the absolute monarchy interprets the fact that the Con­quest took place as providing a legitimate basis for its right. We, on the other hand, interpret the fact that the Conquest did take place, and that the Saxons really were defeated by the Normans, as meaning that the defeat marked, not the beginnings of right—absolute right— but of a state of nonright that invalidates all the laws and social differences that distinguish the aristocracy, the property regime, and so on." All the laws that function in England must be regarded as tricks, traps, and wickedness—this is John Warr's text The Corruption and Deficiency of the Laws of England. The laws are traps: they do nothing at all to restrict power. They are the instruments of power. They are not means of guaranteeing the reign of justice, but ways of promoting vested interests. The first objective of the revolution must therefore be the suppression of all post-Norman laws to the extent that, either directly or indirectly, they impose the “Norman yoke.” Laws, said Lilburne, are made by conquerors. The entire legal apparatus must therefore be done away with.

This is something like the perspective attributed to “CRT” by Conservatives today: they are saying, “Slavery and racism infects and invalidates the entirety of the social and legal order and it all must be ripped up.” It is true that many CRT texts, meaning from the actual legal movement, seem to incorporate the “Leveller” belief that the laws are the products of usurpation by the powerful, but more often than not seem to settle on the Common Lawyers’ insistence on the discourse of rights as fundamentally untainted by the “Norman yoke.” But much of the discomfort with the discourse of the 1619 Project and “CRT” is definitely about the way it introduces conflict—slavery, conquest, and exploitation—into the story of America rather than agreement and consensus. That may be so, but in doing this it paradoxically confirms rather than displaces very old sources of American political thought. After all, many of the Critical Race Theorists of the 17th-century—rebels against the Stuart regime—became some of the earliest settlers to New England.

To return to 1619 Project and Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay for a moment, I think the issue for so many people is that it cleaves so closely the sources of American political imagination but just inverts them. In fact, it interweaves the symbols of creed, crucible with the original covenant: the crucible is here not the melting-pot, but the struggle against slavery and racism that forged black American identity, an identity with a particular insistence on the American creed. Some of the issue people have with 1619 is clearly simple racism: it is just very upsetting and alienating for many white Americans to have to imagine black people—not to mention enslaved black people—as our Founders. Then there is the other, more ideological form of racism motivating the hysteria about “CRT:” that which takes the presence of certain groups as disturbing, heterogenous elements disrupting the integrity of the national body.

For my own part, I find neither narrative of American history—that of WASPs or blacks to be “original Americans” or “most American”—to be that offensive or even particularly incompatible: I’m happy to grant New England Puritans a formative role as well as the black freedom struggle. As a the descendant of immigrants, I am willing to be tolerant of a little ethnic pride or even a touch of chauvinism from time to time. But I purposely say “ethnic” and not “racial.” I think Hannah-Jones’s project can succeed so long as it presents African-Americans as a people, an ethnicity, with a particularly important history in our shared country, not as a race, which smacks of a certain biological fixity. Ethnic and ethos have the same root and I think it’s not wrong to say there’s a Puritan ethos and a black ethos, presented in the freedom struggle, and they both contribute to make the country what it is. And there are of course other ethnicities and ethos as well.

But I do think ultimately Americans of all backgrounds should give up on being a nation and stop looking for a source of specifically national unity, because we are not really a nation: we are not in the end bound by a single ethnic background or historical memory. History is never going to provide a single, stable source of unity for the American people. We just have to accept that pluralism and even a certain degree of conflict are the inevitable price of living in our democratic society. With that in mind I want to close with Hannah Arendt’s rejoinder to the anti-communists of the 1950s, to which I’ve compared the opponents of “CRT”:

Your aim, to make of democracy a "cause" in the strict ideological sense, contradicts the rules and laws by which we live and let live.

America, this republic, the democracy in which we live, is a living thing which cannot be contemplated and categorized, like the image of a thing which I can make; it cannot be fabricated. It is not and never will be perfect because the standard of perfection does not apply here. Dissent belongs to this living matter as much as consent does. The limitations of dissent lie in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and nowhere else. If you try to "make America more American" or a model of democracy according to any preconceived idea, you can only destroy it. Your methods, finally, are the justified methods of the police, and only of the police.