The 1619 Project, along with historical sites such as James Madison’s Montpelier, is part of a deliberate effort to undermine civic education by targeting middle America. For middle America is the final and most formidable obstacle for woke cultural institutions.
The New York Times’ 1619 Project supplants 1776 as the date of America’s founding in favor of 1619, the year slaves were first brought to America. It does this because America’s founding principles are the source of our unity. The ideas of the Constitution and the Declaration, along with our shared history, language, land, and institutions, forged us into one people.
If Americans are taught to reject our founding principles, that leaves room for us to be defined and shaped by new ideas and theories. Coincidentally, the 1619 Project proposes an alternative founding principle: identity politics. America is not one people but a plurality of oppressed and oppressor groups. She was born out of a conflict between free and enslaved peoples and is defined to this day by struggles between men and women, straight and gay, black and white, etc.
To construct this narrative, the writers of the 1619 Project had to ignore certain historical facts. Rather than evaluate our history and founding documents objectively, they first crafted a theory and then looked for evidence to fit that narrative.
This strategy and narrative has already successfully captured higher education. Many universities welcome critical race theory but reject freedom of speech. Still, only about 36% of Americans over the age of 25 have a college degree. Identitarians understood that they needed to reach more Americans.
Newspaper outlets, schools, and historic sites are identitarians’ inlets to middle America. Our national education system serves to inform citizens of their rights and responsibilities. And presidential homes and battlefields are often the choice destination for Scouts BSA and Girl Scouts, families, and school field trips. These are the places where identitarians are working to re-shape the American story for our children.
The 1619 Project’s curriculum has already been adopted in high schools, and the agenda-driven Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has authored “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery,” a guide for discussing slavery and “how its legacies still influence us today.”
With such resources developed, historic sites can easily disseminate the identitarian narrative to an unsuspecting public. For example, the website of James Madison’s Montpelier praises the SPLC’s report on slavery: “While this study addressed the teaching of slavery in America’s schools, it is equally applicable to museums, historic sites, and other cultural institutions.” Indeed, its Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit features a film that purports to address “slavery's lasting legacies in modern society.”
Another exhibit takes direct aim at the Constitution, doing its best to argue that the Constitution is a pro-slavery document. Altogether, organizations like the SPLC, James Madison’s Montpelier, and the 1619 Project are reaching countless Americans in the heartland.
Such a multi-pronged approach is necessary because many Americans resist identity politics in their everyday lives. Parents are more attentive to what their ten-year-old child is being taught down the street than what their twenty-year-old learns in the ivory towers. They can send their children to a private school or do homeschooling themselves. Higher education does not boast such robust alternatives. (Unsurprisingly, options that empower parents to remove their children from places that teach the identitarian narrative are the target of vehement attacks.)
But with the support of elite institutions, identitarians are now more equipped to reach middle America. Montpelier and the 1619 Project have both won multiple awards, lending them credibility and prestige in the eyes of the public. In top-ranked schools of education at colleges and universities, future teachers frequently read the Marxist analysis “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” It is thus no surprise that high school teachers are disproportionately liberal, with 87 Democrats for every 13 Republicans. Unless combated, identity politics will flow through elite institutions and trickle down to middle America.
Yet there is hope. Still proud of our nation and its history, Americans in the heartland are the inheritors of the resilient and defiant spirit of our founding character. Many reject the woke narrative being pushed by academia, the media, Big Tech, and Hollywood. Now they must resist identity politics where our civic spirit was first constituted and continues to be fostered: at our historic sites and in our schools. For where goes middle America goes America herself.
Brenda M. Hafera is the Director of International and Continuing Education Programs at The Fund for American Studies, a James Madison Fellow at Hillsdale College, and an alumna of The Claremont Institute.