As the 2020 presidential election approaches, social justice and education have been key topics at the center of debates.
President Donald Trump has opposed the push to reexamine American history and how racism and slavery are taught. Specifically, Trump has been vocally against The 1619 Project, calling it a “crusade against American history” and “toxic propaganda.”
The 1619 Project, from The New York Times Magazine and created by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, is a project that looks at the history of the United States through a different perspective, centering on the impacts of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans. It was started in August of 2019 at the 400th anniversary of 20 enslaved Africans arriving in Virginia.
Hannah-Jones argues in her opening essay that the founding ideals of the country have not historically been lived up to, and Black people have fought to change that.
Part of Trump’s education platform for this upcoming election is promoting “patriotic education,” a curriculum that is “pro-American.” He also has threatened to pull funding from public schools in California that teach the project.
Jeannette Jones, an associate professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, began incorporating The 1619 Project into some of her classes when it came out.
Jones said she feels the project is important in part due to its accessibility. Most of the information in the project is publicly available in different ways, according to Jones, but this format puts it all in one place and is more affordable. Jones also said that the most important part is that it doesn’t just give you the history, but it provides context and explains how racism in the past ties to today.
“We need to understand how 1619 moves through history … and most books are not going to do that,” she said. “They're just going to stick to the history of that time, and you're going to get a deep read into 17th century, American colonies, but you're not going to be able to pull back and say, ‘Well, okay, what does that mean for us today? How are we still reckoning with the past? What are the actual legacies of the past that are still with us?’”
Since its publishing, The 1619 Project has attracted heavy praise. In May, Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her essay. The Pulitzer Center also partnered with The New York Times to provide a curriculum centered around the project to schools in all 50 states.
On the other hand, the project has faced significant criticism. One of the main refutations has been against a statement Hannah-Jones made in her opening essay — one of the main reasons the 13 colonies fought in the Revolutionary War was to protect slavery. This and more were cited in a letter to The New York Times by a group of five historians.
“Raising profound, unsettling questions about slavery and the nation’s past and present, as The 1619 Project does, is a praiseworthy and urgent public service,” they said in the letter. “Nevertheless, we are dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it.”
The New York Times did not issue corrections on this nor any other critiques. Hannah-Jones defended her claim about the Revolutionary War but also acknowledged that she somewhat overstated her argument.
Trump has gone even further, dismissing the whole project as inaccurate.
“The left has warped, distorted and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods and lies,” he said in September. “There is no better example than The New York Times' totally discredited 1619 Project.”
Trump’s criticism of these types of teachings doesn’t stop at the 1619 Project. He has called critical race theory, which studies the relationship between race, law and power in society, “a form of child abuse.”
On Sept. 22, he signed an executive order against “divisive concepts” in programs that receive federal funding. The University of Iowa paused diversity and inclusion training for two weeks following the order.
Jones said when she heard the president’s critiques of the project, she was “disturbed” and “angry.” She said the patriotic education Trump pushes for is propaganda.
“These are not fictions, we know that this has happened,” she said. “The history of our own Supreme Court, our own amendments to the Constitution, speaks to the imperfectness of this union. And what patriotic history tries to do, as Trump envisions it, is it erases the truth of that history for something that is basically false. It's a false narrative about how we got here.”
While federal officials can’t legally mandate what content is taught, this narrative is harmful, Jones said, not only because it gives a false account of history but because it empowers dangerous ideologies.
“It is always dangerous when you try to frame truth-telling as abuse, as doing something that will potentially harm individuals,” Jones said. “But the other reason why I think it's really, really, really dangerous is because it empowers white supremacist ideology and empowers supremacist terrorists who insist that this is a white man's country, and that they will do whatever it is to keep the nation white.”
Trump is pushing for the teaching of American exceptionalism, which Jones said is a “racist vision” of the United States. By seeing the United States as exceptional, it inherently assumes that everything else is not exceptional.
“American exceptionalism presumes that everybody else is not exceptional, that other forms of government, other republics aren't exceptional, and that there's something that is exceptional about the United States,” she said. “The United States is unique as is others, there are no countries that are identical.”
One of the key differences between teaching The 1619 Project and teaching patriotic education is how slavery and injustices are viewed, Jones said.
“An exceptionalist narrative sees America as progressing, but without actually reckoning with the past or even the present,” she said. “For instance, we're talking about police brutality, and police misconduct, bias in the criminal justice system, they want you to believe that that is an aberration. That's not an aberration. Happens once. Yeah, maybe. Twice, maybe. Consistently, it's not an aberration. It's part of the fabric.”
Trump has also proposed starting a 1776 commission to push patriotic education. This commission has not come to fruition yet, but it would also aim to influence how history is taught. Jones said this an attempt to erase everything before 1776, framing the fight for freedom in a misleading way.
“They use the language of enslavement to position themselves as opposite to the crown. In tension with the crown, but who's the real slaves?” she said. “It's not the slave owners that signed the constitution, it's the actual people who are enslaved, which also included indigenous people.”
This election, according to Jones, is “crucial” and may impact how Black people are able to learn about their own history.
“Imagine growing up or having to live during a period where you can't even learn about your own people's history, that teaching your own people's history is considered seditious,” Jones said. “Because when you say it's unpatriotic, that's pretty much what you're saying, you know, that it's considered something that is anti-American. Or, God forbid, growing up, where you can't even learn about how implicit bias works, so you just accept the status quo.”
Jones said she encourages people to vote and think deeply about the America they want to live in.
“This is an ongoing project about what is truly American and how we should be teaching about America,” Jones said. “And I'm just fearful that we could be turning the clock backwards, and all of those gains will be lost.”