On ‘The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story’

It has taken me a bit longer than some, but I have reached the end of The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. This collection of essays on the repeated and repeating cycles of damage done by white supremacy is not an easy read. It is still a necessary one.

That said, the piece that will likely remain with me the most is the concluding one by Nikole Hannah-Jones herself, titled “Justice.” The essay deals almost exclusively with the case for federal compensation to African-Americans for white supremacy by law. Furthermore, it does so in a language almost exclusively aimed at the American left, right down to perfunctory endorsements for higher minimum wages, “universal health care,” and other progressive goals that any anti-racist conservative would find distractions at best – and roadblocks at worst – to a truly race-equal society.

However, I write the above not to criticize Ms. Hannah Jones, but rather my fellow 21st century conservatives. For Hannah-Jones accidentally yet vitally reveals how much damage modern conservatism has done to itself and to America by exiting the discussion on racial justice. After all, how often have you, dear reader, seen the phrase anti-racist conservative outside of this quarter?

What 1619‘s essays do clearly and painfully is describe, (1) how Black Americans tried repeatedly to make America live by the words of its creeds and myths, and (2) how successive federal, state, and local governments (at the demands of white electorates) thwarted them. As the works provide the Black perspective, the arguments within White America do not get discussed. If they were, it might come as quite a surprise to many American conservatives.

When Barry Goldwater carried the Deep South in 1964, it accelerated or began (depending on one’s perspective) what became the Southern Strategy for the GOP. What it has done for the GOP and to it has led to all sorts of spilled ink and used bandwidth. Far less, however, has been spent discussing the effect on the conservative movement. In effect, the movement forgot (or erased) its own history, relabeling its old political foes (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson, to name a few) as new allies and forefathers. To this day, conservatives and Americans as a whole are suffering from this disconnection.

Prior to the 1960s, it was American conservatives who were more uneasy with white supremacy and its impacts. Throughout his political career in the early republic, Jefferson identified with the political left. It was his Federalist opponents, who sought to conserve both virtue and liberty, who first saw white supremacy as an obstacle during Napoleon’s attempt to re-enslave Haiti in the 1800s.

It was the Federalists who repeatedly pushed back against attempts by Jeffersonians to replace wealth restrictions on voting with racial restrictions on voting. To the extent antislavery had sympathizers at all in the Second Party System, it was among the Whigs rather than the Jacksonian Democrats. The 19th century Republican Party was itself a center-right coalition, an inheritor of northern Whiggery.

Even as Republicans shifted from the larger-government conservatism of the 19th century to the smaller-government conservatism of the early 20th, they never abandoned the idea of racial equality (although they fell short of achieving it). The most archconservative politician of the New Deal Era – Republican Bob Taft – was also the most virulent anti-racist – and he had no reason to consider that a contradiction.  However, Taft died in 1953, and one could argue the tradition of anti-racist conservatism died with him.

Imagine what a strong and healthy anti-racist conservatism would say about American history. They would not see the Civil War as a clash between a big-government North and a small-government South. Rather, they would see one region (the North) looking to aid entrepreneurs in small-bore ways (some good – internal improvements; some not so good – tariffs) versus another region (the South) that created a virtual police state removing personal liberty for millions in order to convert a resource cost (labor) into an asset (slaves, one of the rare forms of appreciating capital). They would clearly land on the side of the smaller-government North.

They would hear the left insisting upon calling slavery and Jim Crow “systems of economic exploitation” and agree with them, while noting the importance of government power in making such rent-seeking possible. They would remind the political left that it was FDR who made redlining the law of the land. They would revive the well-founded criticism of the Davis-Bacon Act.

In short, they would make clear that the main weapon used by white supremacists was government power to deprive Blacks of liberty and property. Then they could be a part of the discussion on how effective reparations could be (Hannah Jones herself seems to have a blind spot on the effects on Black immigrants by insisting one would need a slave ancestor to qualify for compensation). They could expand the discussion to Beijing and Moscow’s current attempts to recolonize Africa de facto.

For too long, the American right has hid the problems of racial inequality from itself. In the process, it has rewritten its own history (to its detriment) and ceded the entire field to the left. That has been bad for all Americans. It needs to stop.

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