Is White Supremacy the Real Story?
Yesterday, in reviewing the Democrat’s third debate, I mentioned the advice of Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan to Democrats. Noting that from Trump’s point of view everything is grim, dark and menacing, she suggested that the Dem’s might take a more balanced and hopeful view of life and the country.
While agreeing with her suggestion I noted that any such hopefulness has become increasingly difficult for liberals because of an emergent consensus on the left that racism and white supremacy is the true and real story about this nation.
Subsequent to making that observation I read Andrew Sullivan’s weekly essay in New York Magazine in which he ponders the New York Times 1619 series. The 1619 series, argues that the real founding of the nation took place when the first slaves arrived in Jamestown. America is not a flawed democracy but a slavocracy.
“America was not founded in defense of liberty and equality against monarchy, while hypocritically ignoring the massive question of slavery. It was founded in defense of slavery and white supremacy, which was masked by highfalutin’ rhetoric about universal freedom. That’s the subtext of the entire project, and often, also, the actual text.”
Sullivan acknowledges, of course, the reality of slavery and racism but argues that this perspective is wildly reductive.
“Hence the replacing of 1776 (or even 1620 when the pilgrims first showed up) with 1619 as the “true” founding. ‘True’ is a strong word. 1776, the authors imply, is a smoke-screen to distract you from the overwhelming reality of white supremacy as America’s “true” identity.
“’We may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue. It is not incidental that 10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers, and some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy,’” Hannah-Jones writes. That’s a nice little displacement there: ‘some might argue.’ In fact, Nikole Hannah-Jones is arguing it, almost every essay in the project assumes it — and the New York Times is emphatically and institutionally endorsing it.”
Sullivan charges the Times with moving from the business of journalism to activism, from reporting to ideology. One more excerpt:
“This [the 1619 project] is therefore, in its over-reach, ideology masquerading as neutral scholarship. Take a simple claim: no aspect of our society is unaffected by the legacy of slavery. Sure. Absolutely. Of course. But, when you consider this statement a little more, you realize this is either banal or meaningless.
“The complexity of history in a country of such size and diversity means that everything we do now has roots in many, many things that came before us. You could say the same thing about the English common law, for example, or the use of the English language: no aspect of American life is untouched by it. You could say that about the Enlightenment. Or the climate. You could say that America’s unique existence as a frontier country bordered by lawlessness is felt even today in every mass shooting.
“You could cite the death of countless millions of Native Americans — by violence and disease — as something that defines all of us in America today. And in a way it does. But that would be to engage in a liberal inquiry into our past, teasing out the nuances, and the balance of various forces throughout history, weighing each against each other along with the thoughts and actions of remarkable individuals — in the manner of, say, the excellent new history of the U.S., These Truths by Jill Lepore.” (I too recommend Lepore’s book and have drawn upon it in a number of posts here.)
There are a couple of things going on here. One, as Sullivan notes, is rigid ideological thinking. Instead of viewing slavery and doctrines of white supremacy as one truth, or part of the truth, about America, it is presented as the truth.
Another is a morphing of the NYT from, as Sullivan puts, “liberalism to activism.”
My point is that this reductive explanation is increasingly becoming in left/ liberal quarters the “correct” way to think, the only correct way. To the extent that it takes hold in the Democratic Party and its field of candidates it becomes impossible for these candidates to suggest that America might have some redeeming virtues to draw upon for its future. No, it is all a sham and a cover for the real truth: white supremacy.
There’s an odd way in which this, it seems to me, plays into Trump’s hands. Trump, despite his scripted repudiation of white supremacist doctrine after El Paso, relies on this ideology to animate the worst in America and worst in his base. To claim, as the NYT does, that white supremacist doctrine is the single truth about the nation confirms Trump and his bed fellows even as it claims to repudiate him.