Were US Democracy’s Founding Ideals False, Or Just Unrealized for 190 Years?

The first sentence in the first essay in the NYTimes 1619 Project provoked particular controversy. “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true,” wrote Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer for the magazine. She’s certainly entitled to her opinion, and the article is well-written and thoughtful. At age 43 in 2019, she is part of “the first generation of black Americans in the history of the United States to be born into a society in which black people had full rights of citizenship.” Indeed, any African American born prior to 1965 did not have the full rights of citizenship at birth.

Yet she contends that African Americans have made “astounding progress, not only for ourselves but also for all Americans. What if America understood, finally, in this 400th year, that we have never been the problem but the solution?”

She describes her father’s journey in the military, his quest to be treated as a full American citizen, and how she didn’t quite understand his patriotism toward a country that did not grant him full legal rights.

Recalling an incident in elementary school in which a well-intentioned but insensitive teacher asked all the students, including the two black students in class, to pinpoint their family’s origins, not recognizing that African-Americans original identity in Africa was stripped from them, Hannah-Jones notes that “we were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.”

Of the 1619 Project, commentator Andrew Sullivan in NY Magazine accuses the Times of abandoning liberalism for advocacy. His criticism is a bit over-wrought: how can one abandon liberalism for advocacy? Liberalism is advocacy, Is he accusing the Times of abandoning journalism for advocacy? That is a more serious charge.

But he does make some good points. “I’ve been struggling with that sentence,” he wrote of Hannah-Jones first sentence. “It’s a strange formulation. How can an enduring “ideal” — like, say, freedom or equality — be “false” at one point in history and true in another? You could of course say that the ideals of universal equality and individual liberty in the Declaration of Independence were belied and contradicted in 1776 by the unconscionable fact of widespread slavery, but that’s very different than saying that the ideals themselves were false.” More.

3 thoughts on “Were US Democracy’s Founding Ideals False, Or Just Unrealized for 190 Years?

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