A Juneteenth celebration in Logan Heights in 2021. Photo by Chris Stone

Conversations about our history and inequalities can be difficult. This is why the book “Red, White, and Black” matters ─ far more than the New York Times 1619 Project.

“Red, White, and Black” is integral to a robust understanding of slavery in American history, its legacy, and ultimate fulfilment of Black America. Written primarily by Black scholars and commentators, and put together by 1776 Unites, it upends stereotypes about the Black family, work ethic, educational gaps and entrepreneurship.

Several essays reflect on Black self-image and offers a constructive ethic within America’s better self. The essays ask us to move from a grievance narrative that has muffled the ability to hear a can-do rather than a victim philosophy.

Unfortunate Stereotypes

It would be surprising if you didn’t think about the legacy of slavery and racism. But empirical data is required to demonstrate the extent of that legacy, and whether other factors overwhelm and supplant it in daily life.

Consider the relatively high rate of illegitimacy in the Black community. This is primarily a modern phenomenon. From 1925 data until the 1950s, 85% of Black families were two-parent families, and even during slavery about three-fourths of children had the same mother and father. Today, that figure is inverted with about 75% Black illegitimacy.

It is more likely that today’s high rate of out-of-wedlock child-bearing is tied to welfare’s pay-per-child and other factors ─ affecting the white community as well but to a lesser degree.

Cover of “Red White and Black.” Courtesy of Amazon

Another unfortunate stereotype is the presumed impact of slavery on the Black psyche. Did the typical enslaved Black acquire a child-like and submissive personality, resulting in the stereotype of “Little Black Sambo?” The assumed infantilization of Blacks during slavery was thought to destroy family values with mothers being indifferent to their children. This line of thinking led to the opinion that many Black men lacked a strong work ethic.

But we’ve already noted the predominance of Black family stability during slavery. Fewer than 20% of marriages ended as a result of slavery.

Yes, there was sexual abuse and aggression by whites. That exploitative behavior should not blind us to an awareness of the strengths that existed within the Black community. That includes a notable work ethic that emerged and followed slavery. 

Thinking about slavery is problematic. The easy answer is to throw up a wall of condemnation; the difficult one is to actually analyze its mechanics and consequences.

For one, despite the abuse that slaves were subjected to they were generally not put to work in high-risk activities. Irish immigrants were hired by plantation owners since they were considered disposable. Also, the expense of hiring white overseers on many plantations led instead to enslaved Blacks taking on supervisory roles, and learning many artisan activities.

One might ask, so what? If one looks at the labor market after emancipation, one finds that Blacks accounted for 80% of the South’s artisan class. Many occupations were available to Blacks in the South while craft unions in the North excluded Blacks because of the unions’ racial practices.

Failure to acknowledge the strong work ethic and skill sets of Blacks, despite the manner of acquisition, has often led to a racist and misleading stereotype of laziness that is ironically held both by their oppressors (fawning dependency) as well as those who sought their liberation (child-like submissiveness).

A Success Paradigm

The 1910 census revealed that American employers were more likely to be Black than white and nearly as many as whites in self-employment. Part of this success can be attributed to Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League.

The failure paradigm did not include entrepreneurship, nor did it encourage education. While those who went into factory work, joined a union and enjoyed the bubble of employment, the bursting of that bubble in the North led to more unemployment than in those Black communities that had a sustaining community ecosystem of entrepreneurship and college education.

This ecosystem for success was a Southern-states’ phenomenon, despite its history of segregation. Self-help prospers in this model as it had for the Igbo in Africa, Jews in Europe, Mormons in America and Japanese in California.

This wider perspective of Black society includes Black millionaires who lived and achieved at the turn of the 20th century, such as Madam C. J. Walker, and acknowledges that Black enterprises, such as those in Durham, NC, withstood the shock of the Great Depression as others failed.

The 1619 Project and its Misunderstandings

In a tweet that Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones later deleted, “The #1619Project does not argue that 1619 was our true founding. We know this nation marks its founding at 1776” even though she had argued the 1619 claim in earlier tweets. The New York Times followed suit rewriting the 1619 Project and abandoned its claim that the year of 1619 was the “true founding” of America.

Hannah-Jones subsequently explained that the 1619 Project was not about history, but about controlling the narrative against the idea of America being an exceptional country.

But what is the value of a narrative when its central facts are wrong?

The Times ignored its own fact-checker ─ a specialist in pre-Civil War African American life and slavery. Revolutionary patriots did not, as the 1619 Project claimed, fight the British to protect the institution of slavery.

The 1619 Project also resurrected the South’s King Cotton boasts. The South’s antebellum economy relied on cotton and claimed that secession would damage both the North’s and the world’s economy. The lack of cotton would presumably draw England and France into our Civil War.

But the South got it wrong. On the world stage, England had stockpiled cotton and later turned to Egypt and India for supplies. The English would be unlikely enter a war to defend slavery since it had earlier abolished it.

While cotton was an important part of the national economy, it was only about 5% of GDP in 1859-60. Slavery could not succeed against the dynamic economy created by the North’s industrial engine and free labor.

The economic arguments require readers to go beyond the 1619 Project and “Red, White, and Black” and are worth following.

The Moral Dimension

Perhaps equally important is to see how these facts fit into different visions about America’s coming to grips with its past and future.

Here we enter a moral dimension that accompanies the legacy of slavery and what has been achieved.

John Wood Jr. sets forth these two visions of America emerging from that “peculiar institution” of slavery: one vision is embedded in the 1619 Project; another vision emerges from the direction set out in “Red, White, and Black.”

“Who has the greater claim to the legacy of America ─ the men who enslaved their fellow human beings in contradiction of the principles that guided the nation’s founding (the 1619 Project), or the slaves who, through a greater belief in freedom, added to the canon of freedom that enriches America’s understanding of herself to this day (1776 Unites)?

“Do the triumphs of these devotees of freedom and equality in America begin with a story about our moral failures (1619 Project), or is it a story about America’s long march toward her higher aspirations (1776 Unites)?”

Joe Nalven is a former associate director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University.

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