What Libertarian Overreactions to the 1619 Project Say about America

Aug 23 · 6 min read
Classified Ad to recover Runaway from Pensacola Gazette, 1840. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The New York Times Magazine’s The 1619 Project has earned a large amount of praise for its ambition to explore the breadth of the legacies of slavery in what was to become the United States. There was also a furious backlash, most notably from conservative and libertarian pundits about the impugning the ideals of the nation and misrepresenting the role of capitalism in American history. As a descendant of enslaved people who works at a libertarian think tank and writes about race, particularly as it remains so relevant in the criminal justice system, I found myself in an awkward position. The level-headed criticism by libertarian academics regarding the economic history of one particular essay seem plausible to me, but the incredulous social media reactions to the whole project as “anti-American,” “divisive,” or “immoral” were not only wrong, but offensive. No one asked me to publicly defend the project, though I did, but the cultural schism The 1619 Project exposed goes deeper than reflexive libertarian remonstrations on the Internet.

Matthew Desmond’s 1619 Project contribution traces the brutality of modern American capitalism to the slave plantation easily (and predictably) drew the most criticism from libertarians. Economic historian Phil Magness published a couple arguments undermining these claims. Magness’s argument, in an oversimplified form, is two-fold: He provides historical evidence that free market capitalists and slavers were at philosophical and economic odds with each other; and Magness also contests the economic history Desmond’s piece relied on, what Magness generally describes as the New History of Capitalism (NHC). The NHC thesis relies on cotton’s gross domestic product (GDP) estimates by NHC author Ed Baptist. As Magness points out, economic historians of varying ideologies have been highly critical of Baptist’s methodology and the broader NHC literature, to the point Magness calls the GDP statistic Baptist uses “unambiguously false” because it so greatly exaggerates cotton’s value as a percentage of American wealth.

Economic historian Dierdre McCloskey has previously made the argument in Reason magazine that America didn’t get rich because of slavery, as NHC proponents say, but in spite of it. Market capitalism of goods and services made America rich, the argument goes, while agrarian slavery made money for a precious few but wasn’t the economic behemoth Baptist and others allege. At the end of the day, Magness’s and McCloskey’s claims about American wealth creation are empirical matters, and I am not an economist, but a problem with their critique remains even if one grants everything they say is true.

Most people aren’t as ideological as academics or think tankers. Thus, while resolving academic discrepancies is important, King Cotton’s percentage of GDP is not something more than a relatively few specialists and ideologues will get upset about. People want explanations about what happened and how to fix the problems that the past has passed on to today. If slavery’s role in the antebellum U.S. economy is grossly overstated in The 1619 Project and elsewhere, Americans nevertheless live in a post-slavery society where the descendants of the enslaved are, on net, disadvantaged relative to white peers across nearly every socio-economic and quality-of-life metric. Regardless of how America got rich, it got rich while black people were made poor or, in many cases, after black folks started moving up the economic ladder post-Emancipation only to be kicked down and plundered in new ways. And race-based African slavery marks the genesis of these problems in the United States.

The failure to recognize this ongoing problem is compounded by the broader and longstanding libertarian habit of downplaying racism as a fact of life for minorities in the United States, and African Americans specifically. Perhaps economic historians should not take blame for the broader ideological fights in which their empirical arguments are used, but a recognition of the political implications of the data they refute probably warrants mention.

But if The 1619 Project were only triggering economic historians and libertarians on Twitter, the issue would have little cultural significance outside the handful of buildings and media spaces that libertarian scholars and pundits occupy. Rather, the less cogent and more vitriolic attacks on 1619 reflect a much larger segment of the American public who has yet to come to terms with the legacies of slavery that remain all around us.

While it may be more comforting to some to blame MAGA-hat wearing Trump voters for their cultural obstinacy, the question of whether or not — or to what extent — candidates should focus on racial issues is also being fought under the guise of “electability” for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. Racism and the fight against it remain at the core of American politics; and no party or faction is immune to episodic spasms of race-related cultural conflict. This presence remains because American institutions, public and private, still disadvantage black people and other people of color.

For its upcoming September issue, the Atlantic published The Great Land Robbery by Vann Newkirk, a story about the near-disappearance of black-owned farms in Mississippi since the 1960s. Newkirk’s remarkable reporting recounts the way racism can operate within both private and public institutions, including the federal government, despite half a century of prohibitions on government discrimination. Permits, co-operative memberships, good ol’ boy networks, illegal coercion, and secured government loans could make or break farms, and break them they did. “Thousands of individual decisions by white people, enabled or motivated by greed, racism, existing laws, and market forces, all pushed in a single direction,” Newkirk writes. That direction ended in what Newkirk calls “mass dispossession” of black-owned land and wealth. The Atlantic estimated that the value lost in the hundreds of thousands of acres of dispossessed land ranged between $3.7 and $6.6 billion in today’s dollars.

The 1619 Project itself was spearheaded by New York Times investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. Hannah-Jones often writes about school integration, including a moving 2016 piece about choosing to send her daughter to a segregated but well-run school in Brooklyn, P.S. 307. The story includes a local fight about integration and overcrowding in which well-off white parents exerted enormous political pressure to keep their kindergarten-aged children that were slated to attend an over-enrolled mostly white school in Brooklyn Heights from being rezoned into P.S. 307 — where the students are overwhelmingly black and Latinx. The parents from Brooklyn Heights pleaded that they feared for their children’s safety, ostensibly from the incumbent classmates at P.S. 307. In the end, the education council came to a political compromise that greatly advantaged the white parents. Far from MAGA country, this integration fight happened in a borough in which Donald Trump garnered 18 percent of the vote in 2016. Although visceral American racism is far more acute on the political right, the segregation, discrimination, and disadvantage we’ve inherited from America’s original sin are not geographically nor politically isolated.

The problem of American racism and racial disadvantage, then, goes beyond assaults on “capitalism,” however one defines it. It is true that American racism stems from the socio-legal justifications to implement race-based slavery for the profit of the slavers, but it has grown beyond that into politics, social assumptions, interpersonal reactions, public policies, and, of course, institutions. Economists can bicker over the dollar amounts, but African Americans (and others) have most certainly been victimized repeatedly over the years through theft, coercion, law, policy, and public disfavor. Some losses can be recouped in lawsuits, such as the Pigford v. Glickman settlement awarded to black farmers or the damages and reparations given to victims of Chicago Police Department torture. But other black losses cannot be quantified, let alone recovered, because there is no practical method for recovering decades of opportunities refused to them.

As Hannah-Jones wrote in her 1619 essay, “it would be historically inaccurate to reduce the contributions of black people to the vast material wealth created by our bondage. Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom.” The 1619 Project has sparked a much needed discussion about slavery’s myriad legacies that still effect the country today. It is not, and it cannot be the last word on this subject. Those who profess to know and love American liberty so much would do well to listen to the resulting conversations.

Jonathan Blanks

Written by

Research Associate, Cato Institute; Twitter: @blanksslate

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade