The 1619 Project helps us understand the racism underpinning American capitalism

Tom Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, introduced a bill in Congress to deny federal funding for schools which incorporate material from the 1619 Project in their curriculum. Attacking the latter as ‘racially divisive’ and ‘neo-Marxist propaganda‘, Cotton has also penned a New York Times article demanding that troops be sent in to shoot down Black Lives Matter protesters.

The 1619 Project, an ongoing collection of award-winning essays and educational materials, examines the foundation of the US as a state founded on slavery and white supremacy. The American war of independence and subsequent development of capitalism, rather than fulfilling the promise of equality and freedom, resulted in the construction of a racialised, economically exploitive society. Such a reexamination of American history has been met with hostility by US President Donald Trump and his supporters, such Tom Cotton.

The bill which Cotton introduced, the Saving American History Act of 2020, is not motivated by an altruistic concern about teaching history. It is a direct challenge to the BLM movement, and the historians and writers of the 1619 Project, to maintain a conservative vision of American capitalism and deny the racism that underpins US institutions. Cotton’s push to influence school curricula undermines any examination of America’s history as a white racist edifice.

Was not the 1776 American revolution about liberty and equality for all? The founding fathers, who called slavery a ‘necessary evil’, sidestepped the hypocrisy at the heart of the Declaration of Independence – liberty and equality applied only to the white race. Postponing any solution of the glaring racial disparities of the new nation, it took the US Civil War and the Emancipation proclamation to finally abolish slavery.

The abolition of slavery, while a monumental and historic achievement, did not resolve racial injustices. The slave-owning Confederacy was defeated, but white nationalism was not – it adapted to the new conditions by implementing economic and political measures to fight a rearguard action against the newly-freed African American community. The mythical ‘Lost Cause’ of the Confederacy was invoked as a way to disenfranchise and marginalise the black working class.

From education to housing, business and law enforcement, health care to politics, black Americans have faced a diverse set of measures and tactics which have as their unifying goal the enforcement of racial disparities. This is not a historical anomaly, or a thing of the past. Unemployment, poverty, and the racial wealth gap are issues that disproportionately affect African Americans today.

The current pandemic has shone a light on the existing racial disparities in health care. To be sure, the Covid-19 outbreak did not create these racially differentiated outcomes, but has exacerbated them. Death rates from the coronavirus have hit black and Hispanic Americans at more lethal rates than white communities. The greater number of Covid fatalities is a reflection of the unequal health structures that predate the current outbreak.

Writing in Vox magazine, Dylan Scott notes that throughout American cities, black and Latinx communities account for a higher proportion of death rates from the Covid-19 virus. In the state of Kansas, black Americans constitute six percent of the population, yet account for 30 percent of Covid-19 fatalities. Those communities which are already marginalised have been hit hardest by the current pandemic.

The end of the civil war, and the Reconstruction period, were historical achievements. However, white vigilante violence did not end. Wherever black communities demanded inclusion as equals, they were met with racist violence, usually under the watchful supervision of the police and law enforcement authorities. The Confederate flag, and its associated ‘lost cause‘ mythology, was an instrument for re-educating subsequent generations, falsifying the white supremacist character of American history.

Surely, there is no harm in recycling the Confederate flag? Not everyone who displays that flag is a vicious white nationalist? Yes, we have all watched the Dukes of Hazzard, a light-entertainment show featuring their car, coincidentally named the ‘General Lee’ with the Confederate flag emblazoned on the roof. Just ‘good old boys’, as the opening song suggested, Bo and Luke Duke were a pair of cheerful, happy-go-lucky rebels, defying comically incompetent authorities.

The Confederate flag has been sanitised, its racist undertones modified and made into a symbol of good-natured, moderated ‘rebellion’. Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit amplified these kinds of themes, a Southern maverick just trying to live his life unencumbered by federal authorities. Harmless fun…perhaps. However much the Confederacy is recycled as ‘Southern pride’, it cannot be dissociated from its racist and treasonous secessionist legacy.

When the late John Lewis, veteran civil rights leader, participated in the 1965 march across Edmund Pettus Bridge, his skull was fractured as the 600 marchers were attacked by troopers with clubs, attack dogs and tear gas. Lewis recovered and returned to the civil rights struggle.

The ideology of the Alabama police and state troopers is being kept alive today by Tom Cotton, Trump, and their supporters. The 1619 Project raises a badly needed national conversation about the inbuilt white racism which underpins the structural economic inequalities of American capitalism until today.

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