New 1776 Initiative Aims to Counter 'Lethal' Narrative of 1619 Project

Bob Woodson, president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise / Getty Images
February 17, 2020

A group of predominantly African-American academics, journalists, entrepreneurs, and community activists on Friday launched one of the most significant challenges yet to the New York Times’s controversial 1619 Project, which is named for the year slaves arrived in Virginia and argues that the United States was founded on racism.

Bob Woodson, a leader in the African-American community who has spent his career fighting to stave off the cycle of poverty and crime, argued on Friday that the 1619 Project’s message—that life outcomes for African Americans are shaped by the history of slavery and Jim Crow—is a "lethal" narrative that perpetuates a culture of victimhood in the African-American community. During the launch of his new 1776 initiative, named for the year America was founded, Woodson said the new group would challenge those who assert America is forever defined by past failures.

While different academics and journalists have criticized the 1619 Project since its release last year, the 1776 initiative represents one of the largest coordinated challenges to the New York Times’s narrative. It will focus its efforts on opposing the negative impact the 1619 story will have on future generations of African Americans.

1776 will promote a series of essays and educational resources that provide an "aspirational and inspirational alternative" to the Times’s narrative. "People are inspired to achieve when they’re given victories that are possible, not always showering them with injuries to be avoided," Woodson said alongside partners at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The fatalistic narrative of the 1619 Project, which is already taught in "thousands of classrooms" across the country, according to the partnering Pulitzer Center, deprives African Americans of the agency to improve their lives, Woodson said.

"This garbage that is coming down from the scholars and writers from 1619 is most hypocritical because they don’t live in communities [that are] suffering," he continued. "They are advocating something they don’t have to pay the penalty for."

Glenn Loury, a professor of economics at Brown University and a 1776 contributor, echoed Woodson on the damaging impact the 1619 Project's message would have on future generations.

"The idea that the specter of slavery still determines the character of life among African Americans is an affront to me," Loury said at the Friday event. "We have shown, and will continue to show, that we are not merely bobbles at the end of a historical string, being pushed this way and that by forces beyond our control."

"I believe in America, and I believe in black people," Loury added. "Something tells me when I read that document that the 1619 Project authors don’t. They don’t believe in America … and I’m sorry to have to report, I get the impression they don’t believe in black people."

"The 1619 project offers a very crippling message to our children," said Dr. Carol Swain, a former professor of political science at Princeton and Vanderbilt University. "I was spared from having that message brought to me. And I believe that if I had been exposed to that, if I had internalized that negative message, I don’t believe I would have been able to do the things I’ve done in life."

The 1619 Project was launched last summer to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of African slaves to the American colonies. It "aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative," and to show that "different aspects of contemporary American life, from mass incarceration to rush-hour traffic," are derived from America’s history of slavery.

In her inaugural essay for the Times’s initiative, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Times correspondent and head of the 1619 Project, wrote, "Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country, as does the belief, so well articulated by Lincoln, that black people are the obstacle to national unity."

1776 will promote success stories designed to counter the message of 1619, such as "slaves who became millionaires through entrepreneurial determination" or who went on to buy the "plantations on which they once worked," Woodson explains on the group's website.

The 1776 essays, published by the Washington Examiner, include pieces by Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, DePaul University philosophy professor and author Jason Hill, and Columbia University English professor and Atlantic editor John McWhorter.

1776 is not the first coordinated effort to critique the 1619 Project. Last December, the Times published a letter from five distinguished American historians—Victoria Bynum of Texas State University, James M. McPherson of Princeton University, James Oak of City University of New York, Sean Wilentz of Princeton University, and Gordon Wood of Brown University—requesting that the Times issue corrections for a series of factual errors.

Among the 1619 Project’s inaccuracies, the historians argued the Times should correct the claim that the Revolutionary War was fought to "ensure that slavery would continue." In a previous interview, McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his writings about the Civil War, said the 1619 Project is a "very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery." In November, Wood said he was surprised the 1619 Project has the "authority of the New York Times behind it" given the project is "so wrong in so many ways."

In a response to the letter, New York Times Magazine editor in chief Jake Silverstein refused to issue a correction and said, "Historical understanding is not fixed; it is constantly being adjusted by new scholarship and new voices."

In the months since Silverstein’s response, Princeton's Wilentz and journalist Cathy Young have highlighted historical inaccuracies in the 1619 Project. Young also argues that the project has a "fairly clear present-day agenda of furthering progressive-left ideology."

In one of the earliest critiques of the 1619 Project, American historian Wilfred McClay identified a "highly questionable" agenda motivating the Times's embrace of unsubstantiated historical claims, describing the project as a "political gambit of attributing comprehensive bred-in-the-bone racism to the overwhelming majority of Americans."

Woodson says he hopes 1776 will be able to "counter the false history that the 1619 Project espouses and has disseminated as a school curriculum."

Woodson will not aim to challenge each assertion presented by 1619 Project, but rather to offer forward-looking solutions to counter 1619's focus on the past.

"Our focus will be to identify and highlight solutions, models of success in reviving our streets and communities, and actionable goals that should be pursued," Woodson says.