It’s almost like the universe, appalled by our inattention, used COVID, George Floyd, the broken economy and Trump’s post-election lie-fest, right up to the Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6, to make us stop. To make us see how polarized and lost America has become and force us to re-examine the roots of this tree that has come to bear such strange fruit.
As a nation that claims to value honor and human decency, we are obliged to sort through America’s dark deeds — slavery, of course, but other sins too — the destruction of Native American cultures, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, a whole range of political chicanery and lawlessness on the national stage — to reckon with our worst before we can even begin to seek the best way forward out of this mess.
But that need to shake hands with the skeletons in our closet is just one more point of disagreement. A Pew Research Center poll from last summer revealed that the more conservative, right-leaning the respondents, the greater their belief that acknowledging America’s historical flaws weakens the nation. (Overall, 71 percent of American voters disagreed, including, not surprisingly, 83 percent of Black voters).
In August 2019, The New York Times launched “The 1619 Project,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning historical revisionist work of journalism that moves America’s birth date back to the arrival of the first slave ship that year, not 1776. To “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.”
The project had a classroom component that challenged teachers to reframe our nation’s birth and acknowledge fresh realities. As the project’s lead author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, wrote, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.”
Donald Trump hated “The 1619 Project.” He claimed public schools were teaching a “twisted web of lies” about systemic racism in America, teachings that he described as “a form of child abuse.” He threatened any California public schools that might use the 1619 materials, tweeting, “Department of Education is looking at this. If so, they will not be funded!”
Trump’s response to 1619 and anti-racism protests was to form The 1776 Commission, a group of conservative thinkers, academics, politicians and activists (but no American history professionals) charged with creating what he described as suitably “patriotic education.” The commission’s 41-page 1776 Report, released two days before Trump left office, claimed the evils of “progressivism” and “racism and identity politics” were “challenges to America’s principles,” and conflated them with fascism, slavery and communism.
Historians decried the report as pseudohistory, including American Historical Association Executive Director James Grossman who said, “This report skillfully weaves together myths, distortions, deliberate silences, and both blatant and subtle misreading of evidence to create a narrative and an argument that few respectable professional historians, even across a wide interpretive spectrum, would consider plausible, never mind convincing,” adding “They’re using something they call history to stoke culture wars.”
Shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden disbanded Trump’s commission and removed the report from the White House website.
If Americans still believe we have the capacity to fulfill our nation’s promise, it will require the individual and collective will to take an honest look at our past and accept that change will have to come before we can even begin that work. A lot of people believe in “American exceptionalism.” But it’s a notion that will never become a reality until we have the guts to face our sins.