Alive during Jim Crow? Then walk the walk

  • Dark moment in time: clouds of teargas fill the air as state troopers, ordered by Alabama governor George Wallace, break up a demonstration in Selma on what became known as “Bloody Sunday”. The incident is widely credited for galvanising the nation and yielding the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (File photograph/AP)

    Dark moment in time: clouds of teargas fill the air as state troopers, ordered by Alabama governor George Wallace, break up a demonstration in Selma on what became known as “Bloody Sunday”. The incident is widely credited for galvanising the nation and yielding the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (File photograph/AP)

  • Philip Bump

    Philip Bump

On Sunday, The New York Times Magazine published a series of essays constituting what it calls “The 1619 Project”, a look at America’s legacy of slavery at the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to what is now the United States.

The project is a necessarily politically sensitive one, given its subject. That the anniversary happens to overlap with a political moment in which race is a particularly potent subject is a coincidence, but one that heightens the project’s political sensitivity.

That it also published shortly after the online magazine Slate released a transcript of an internal Times discussion was a more unfortunate coincidence, given that part of that conversation was interpreted by conservatives as suggesting that the paper wanted to use race to attack Donald Trump. (That interpretation is robustly dubious.)

This confluence of factors meant that the response to the project’s release was probably predictable. The essays were framed by some critics as questionable, flawed or even unnecessary. Some critics, such as former House speaker Newt Gingrich, determined that the project was about impeaching Trump. Others argued that it was an effort to diminish the United States — an effort that simply repurposed well-established history.

The essays stand for themselves, and you’re welcome to read them. But it is worth considering the ongoing utility of a discussion about the role of slavery in American history in the abstract.

By naming the project after the year 1619, it reinforces the scale of the oppression of black people in the Americas/America. But it also inadvertently can make it seem like something necessarily historic. The point of the essays, of course, is that the legacy of slavery extends into the present, but the date itself can make it instead seem distant.

Considering the intervening history, though, makes obvious how potent slavery and racism are in modern American society and politics.

The first slaves from Africa arrived in this month, 400 years ago — before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock. The presence of slaves from Africa was integrated into the earliest days of European colonisation of what is now the United States.

American colonies were slave states before they were states in the American union. Slavery was part of the United States at its outset. As Hannah Jones points out in her introductory essay for the project, the first person to die in America’s fight for its freedom from England was a black man, Crispus Attucks, shot to death in the Boston Massacre.

Slavery ended with the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Within 20 years, though, a new institutionalised oppression emerged: laws barring black Americans from voting or otherwise participating as equals in society. (The intervening 20 years, the Reconstruction, was a period in which America tried to rectify the effects of slavery. It ended with the 1877 presidential election.)

These Jim Crow laws segregated the South for decades after slavery was barred, establishing racist tiers to society that prevented black Americans from matching whites in employment, income, political engagement, land ownership and opportunity more broadly. Organised campaigns of physical assault and murder, often with quiet approval from authorities, reinforced that segregation.

While slavery ended in 1865, formal oppression of black Americans continued for the next century. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and the Fair Housing Act in 1968 eliminated most of the formal legal policies of segregation.

This is a central point. As of 2018, nearly one third of Americans were alive in 1965. One out of every ten Americans alive were adults at the same time that Jim Crow existed in the South. Some 2.6 million people living in the Deep South last year — Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina — were adults at the time that the Voting Rights Act passed.

Slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow make up more than three quarters of American history. The year 2022 marks a significant moment for the country: it will be the point at which the United States has existed in North America for a longer period than legal African slavery did.

Marking 1965 as an end point is itself overly simple. The passage of the Voting Rights Act didn’t spontaneously and magically eliminate any vestiges of racism or racial differences. We have seen repeatedly how backlashes to changes in racial policies occur. Jim Crow was in part a backlash against Reconstruction. It can be more subtle: in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education, there was a surge in schools being named after Confederate leaders.

The 1968 presidential election included segregationist former Alabama governor George Wallace as an independent candidate. He won five states. The election was won by Richard Nixon whose “Southern strategy” of amplifying race-based concerns to win over Southern voters prompted the Republican Party to formally apologise in 2005.

Forty-one per cent of Americans alive in 2018 were also alive in 1972, when Nixon won re-election.

There are myriad ways in which race and racism permeate American politics and culture to this day. It can be hard to recognise the effects of the legacy of America’s history in those divides, which is something that the Times’s project clearly aims to accomplish. Broadly, the project is predicated on recognising that those effects linger at all.

Race and partisanship are deeply intertwined in US politics in 2019, making such an exploration almost necessarily one to which one side may object. That Democrats have become increasingly sensitive to the effects of racial discrimination over the past five years — in part, it seems, a function of the Black Lives Matter movement — has led some Republicans to see discussions of race as being inherently partisan.

For those who see the 1619 Project as unnecessary, though, here is something to consider: perhaps an expectation that the Times is trying to make a big deal out of walking well-worn territory is a function of how poorly or incompletely that territory has been walked in the past.

Or perhaps it recognises that many people haven’t walked it.

Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post, based in New York. Before joining the Post in 2014, he led politics coverage for the Atlantic Wire website

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Published Aug 20, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Aug 20, 2019 at 8:10 am)

Alive during Jim Crow? Then walk the walk

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