Why Conservatives Want to Cancel the 1619 Project

Objections to the appointment of Nikole Hannah-Jones to an academic chair are the latest instance of conservatives using the state to suppress ideas they consider dangerous.

A red elephant with text from the 1619 project on top.
Raquel Zaldivar / Chicago Tribune / Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.

Nikole Hannah-Jones is an award-winning Black journalist. She is also one of the developers of the 1619 Project, a journalistic examination of slavery’s role in shaping the American present. Last year, that work won her a Pulitzer Prize. Now it appears to have cost her a tenured chair at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism.

The news outlet NC Policy Watch reported on Monday that the university’s dean, chancellor, and faculty had backed Hannah-Jones’s appointment to the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, a tenured professorship, after a “rigorous tenure process at UNC.” But in an extraordinary move, the board of trustees declined to act on that recommendation. Hannah-Jones was instead offered a five-year, nontenured appointment following public and private pressure from conservatives. Notably, other Knight Chairs at the journalism school have been tenured on its professional track, which acknowledges “significant professional experience” rather than traditional academic scholarship. Hannah-Jones’s Pulitzer and MacArthur genius grant surely qualify.

One anonymous trustee told NC Policy Watch that “the political environment made granting Hannah-Jones tenure difficult, if not impossible.” A statement from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education noted that “if it is accurate that this refusal was the result of viewpoint discrimination against Hannah-Jones, particularly based on political opposition to her appointment, this decision has disturbing implications for academic freedom.”

If you’ve taken recent debates about free speech and censorship at face value, you might find Hannah-Jones’s denial of tenure deeply confusing. For the past five years, conservatives have been howling about the alleged censoriousness of the American left, in particular on college campuses. But the denial of tenure to Hannah-Jones shows that the real conflict is over how American society understands its present inequalities.

The prevailing conservative view is that America’s racial and economic inequalities are driven by differences in effort and ability. The work of Hannah-Jones and others suggests instead that present-day inequalities have been shaped by deliberate political and policy choices. What appears to be an argument about reexamining history is also an argument about ideology—a defense of the legitimacy of the existing social order against an account of its historical origins that suggests different policy choices could produce a more equitable society.

The 1619 Project is a particularly powerful part—but not the cause—of a Black Lives Matter–inspired reevaluation of American history that began in the waning years of the Obama administration. Many Americans were struggling to understand how a nation that had elected a Black president could retain deep racial disparities not only in the rate of poverty, access to education, and health care, but also in matters of criminal justice and political power. The election of Donald Trump, a president who understood American citizenship in religious and ethnonationalist terms, accelerated that process of reevaluation.

Like all the works this period of reevaluation has produced, the 1619 Project has its flaws—although fewer than its most fanatical critics would admit. But the details of its factual narrative were not what conservatives found most objectionable. Rather, they took issue with the ideological implications of its central conceit: that America’s true founding moment was the arrival of African slaves on America’s shores.

Hannah-Jones’s conservative detractors cast this claim as an argument that America is a fundamentally and irredeemably racist country—indeed, as NC Policy Watch notes, a columnist at the right-wing James G. Martin Center complained that the 1619 Project “seeks to reframe American history as fundamentally racist.” A different columnist at the same organization fumed that “young people—the white ones, at least—are even taught to hate themselves for the unforgivable sins of their ancestors.” The idea that ugly aspects of American history should not be taught, for fear that students—white students in particular—might draw unfavorable conclusions about America, is simply an argument against teaching history at all.

In truth, the animating premise of the 1619 Project is more threatening to the right—the idea that America can indeed be redeemed, by rectifying racial imbalances created by government policy.

The fight to define the American past is not new. In the middle of the 20th century, a massive conservative backlash erupted in California against a textbook co-written by the celebrated Black American historian John Hope Franklin. In it, Franklin offered a very different rendition of Black history from the one found in generations of American textbooks that hewed to doctrines of white supremacy and portrayed people of color in ways that were overtly racist or, at best, paternalistic. Franklin’s reevaluation of American history was, like Hannah-Jones’s, related to a national movement for Black rights.

The civil-rights movement of the mid-20th century was concurrent with the academy’s reevaluation of the Reconstruction era, whose attempts at building a genuine multiracial democracy in the South had until then been portrayed by most white scholars as a tragic mistake. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to the historian C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow as the “historical bible” of the movement, by which he simply meant it showed that segregation had been the product of political choices rather than an inevitability. New choices could be made.

The tone of the textbook Franklin co-authored, Land of the Free, remained “resolutely patriotic,” as Joseph Moreau wrote in his account of the conflict in his book Schoolbook Nation. But this was not sufficient for the textbook’s opponents, who, Moreau wrote, believed that “history teaching existed to cultivate patriotism” and that the “debunking of historical myths or premature attempts to furnish young people with painful truths could not be countenanced.” Anxiety over the civil-rights movement, and this reevaluation of American history, fueled a white backlash against the textbook, and rewarded conservative politicians willing to exploit that sentiment. Franklin’s history was closer to the truth than the version his opponents wanted to promote—but the accuracy of the history was beside the point.

Again, it is not the case that every proposal to remedy racial inequality or fight discrimination is a good one. As my colleague Conor Friedersdorf has argued, some suggestions to remedy inequality in education are misguided or counterproductive. Good intentions do not a good idea make. But to accept that a problem exists is to accept the obligation to find a solution. And conservatives who don’t want to address America’s deep racial disparities are attempting to suppress any reading of history that suggests contemporary inequalities are the product of deliberate choices.

To that end, conservative opponents of what they derisively refer to as “wokeism” are engaged in a campaign to stigmatize such arguments, and where they can, use the state to purge them from the educational system. State legislatures are outlawing the teaching of “critical race theory” which in this context as my colleague Adam Harris reports, is ultimately a shorthand for “anything resembling an examination of America’s history with race.” The Trump administration threatened to investigate institutions of higher education that discussed systemic racism, and conservative state governments are interfering with state institutions of higher education.

In Texas, legislators are seeking to ban the teaching of the 1619 Project, and suppress the role of slavery in the state’s independence. The 1836 constitution of the Republic of Texas not only protected slavery, but also barred slave owners from emancipating the enslaved and denied “Africans, the descendants of Africans, and Indians” the ability to become citizens. The state government is seeking to prevent exhibits at the Alamo from “explaining that major figures in the Texas Revolution were slave owners.” As with the Trump White House’s “1776 Commission,” whose report reads like a Twitter thread from a cocaine-addled right-wing Wikipedia obsessive, the objective here is not a more accurate history but one that justifies the present economic and racial hierarchy, and offers conservatives, as Moreau put it in his book, a “comforting alternative to the burdens of the past.”

In the specific case of Hannah-Jones and UNC, the objective is to intimidate those who might share her views by showing that such views could cost them a job. As the conservative writer and aspiring politician J. D. Vance put it in a speech to the Claremont Institute, “If you’re fighting the values and virtues that make this country great, then the conservative movement should be about nothing if not reducing your power and if necessary destroying you.” The traditional argument between American liberals and conservatives is over what problems the state can or should remedy; the position of the Trumpist GOP is that the state is an instrument for destroying your enemies—by which its members simply mean Americans who disagree with them.

This won’t work with Hannah-Jones; in fact, I suspect it will make others more sympathetic to her arguments. But UNC’s decision also reflects an unhealthy conservative preoccupation with her as an individual—like many of us, Hannah-Jones has a combative social-media presence that has drawn critiques more personal than substantive. Although the essays from a variety of scholars and journalists published in the 1619 Project provoked a number of interesting discussions over issues such as slavery’s relationship to capitalism or health disparities, in the political debate these have been shunted aside in favor of a campaign to punish Hannah-Jones personally, and thereby discredit the 1619 Project as a whole, rather than contest its individual assertions or arguments.

Such attempts to stigmatize positions one disagrees with are a natural part of how societies form a consensus of acceptable opinion, and are distinct from using the power of the state to silence one’s opponents. But in this case, the same people who insist that harsh criticism of their ideas or behavior is a form of censorship are also highly engaged in using the state to suppress speech, on the grounds that the ideas they oppose are too dangerous to be allowed the usual protections.

The historical record shows that efforts to use the power of the state to settle an argument usually fail, although they can be successful for a time. The irony is that these awakenings about the truths of American history are the result of people attempting to warp the facts into a narrative that reassures them of their essential virtue, and subsequent generations discovering that what they were taught was but a bedtime story. These attempts to use the state to suppress ugly realities about the past are merely setting the stage for the next awakening.