The New York Times' Wrongheaded Anti-Racism Agenda

The New York Times' Wrongheaded Anti-Racism Agenda

The New York Times Sunday magazine recently presented the first installment of an ambitious multi-pronged agenda, the 1619 Project, referencing the year that slavery was introduced into the American colonies. The magazine articles focus on the racist foundation of American society and link it to the behavior of President Trump and the Republican Party. As Byron York states, “The basic thrust of the 1619 Project is that everything in American history is explained by slavery and race.”

The thesis that slavery is the essence of America will not be reflected only in the Times’ news or arts stories but infused into its business, sports, and travel sections. Take, for example, a piece in the sports section on the lack of black ownership or top management in the NBA. To understand the struggles of NBA players — 80 percent of whom are black — we are told: “A line can be traced to the modern N.B.A. from antebellum slavery.”

A central claim is that slavery was primarily responsible for nineteenth-century US economic growth. This premise is based on the cause-and-effect fallacy that general economic activity can always be traced back to one core commodity or industry, which drives everything else. Cotton needed to be harvested, hence farm implements were developed. It had to be transported north, hence railroads were built. It needed to be traded, hence brokerage houses were formed. It had to be exported, hence ships were built. Shipments needed guarantees, hence the insurance industry expanded. If not for slaves, goes this logic, America would still be in the beaver-pelt and molasses business. In reality, economies are complex systems where different industries and sectors compete for capital, and operate co-dependently. Cotton, while an important product, was never central to American economic development, and at its peak in 1850 it accounted for about 6 percent of GDP. If you look here, here, and here you will find further evidence.

The Times’ Jamelle Bouie ties John C. Calhoun’s claims for state’s rights to contemporary Republican policies based upon “fear of rival political majorities; of demographic ‘replacement’; of a government that threatens privilege and hierarchy.” Whether or not this link is valid, Bouie ignores Calhoun’s central moral justification for slavery: it was kinder to the underclasses than capitalist industrialization. That is, according to Calhoun, compared to English manufacturing workers, enslaved US workers were treated more humanely. Supportive data has been provided by the Nobel winning historian Robert Fogel: The typical Southern enslaved worker had a longer life expectancy, better diet, and better living conditions than Manchester workers. Indeed, their material standard of living was comparable if not superior to the white southern yeomanry.

Slavery was indisputably evil, and the United States failed to accommodate the freed slaves in a humane way. Enslaved workers were whipped, and of course, enslaved families were broken up through sales, but neither their lives nor material wellbeing were threatened. Unlike girls working in Manchester textile mills, enslaved workers were costly to replace. Indeed, this cost calculation was the reason that in the 1850s, Irish immigrants were often used to do dangerous plantation work rather than enslaved workers. Furthermore, Fogel presented evidence that a sizeable share of enslaved workers could be considered skilled workers, many of them hired out during winters. 

This evidence is ignored because it would have weakened the argument behind articles like Matthew Desmond’s, “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.” Just as importantly, it would suggest that something other than slavery is responsible for the inability of black Americans to progress compared to Italian and Eastern European immigrants. 

Most importantly, today’s racial disparities have little if anything to do with a legacy of slavery. Patrick Sharkey estimates that 67 percent of African American families hailing from the poorest quarter of neighborhoods a generation ago continue to live in such neighborhoods today. Among all black families, 48 percent have lived in poor neighborhoods over at least two generations, compared to only 7 percent of white families. Black men are more than four times as many black men incarcerated for violent crimes than those convicted of all drug offenses. The violent crime rate is seven times higher among black than white men. Moreover, racial educational achievement gaps have been unchanged for decades.

These disparities are persisting in urban centers that have been managed by liberal mayors and senior administrators for decades. Federal and state governments have poured billions into initiatives that have sought to ameliorate these conditions. Thus, efforts to look to historical wrongs have proven to be wrongheaded, not providing effective guidance.

Most liberals continue to resist constructive policies. They refuse to take seriously policing strategies to reduce violent crime rates instead relying on so-called criminal justice reform that reduces charges against offenders and recommends diversion programs rather than incarceration, including for some convicted of violent crimes or gun possession. They refuse to expand charter schools with the hopes of turning around failing traditional public schools. They reject vocational training in favor of academic programs at community colleges despite high dropout rates. They also reject efforts at gentrification even though studies consistently find that virtually all low-income residents would benefit from the inflow of middle-class families. 

This alternative vision underpins the Purpose Built network: A private organization that has revitalized a series of communities, funded by successful investors including Warren Buffett. Its three pillars are targeted gentrification through mixed-income housing, a cradle-to-college education pipeline through charter schools, and community wellness programs and facilities.  Rather than modeling policies after these successful ventures, the Times has promoted housing initiatives, here and here, to subsidize the movement of a small share of black families to better neighborhoods. The Times’ race-related agenda might increase white guilt, it might help defeat President Trump in 2020, but it is also likely to continue to avoid meaningful efforts to improve beleaguered black communities.

Robert Cherry teaches at Brooklyn College and is author of Jewish and Christian Views on Bodily Pleasure (Wipf & Stock, 2018).

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