Overview:

The 1619 Project aims to acknowledge the central role African-Americans played in American history. Republicans don't want it taught in schools—even though it isn't

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The quote below is apropos today for Kristi Noem, the governor of my state, South Dakota, and a visceral “critical race theory” opponent:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

This famous and consequential retort was leveled against rabid anti-communist U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) on June 9, 1954, by Joseph N. Welch, a “soft-spoken lawyer with an incisive wit and intelligence.” Welch was then representing the U.S. Army as special counsel in hearings before McCarthy’s Senate Government Operations Committee concerning whether communists had infiltrated America’s military.

It is clear that none of the claims perpetuated by the 1619 Project hold legitimate historical accuracy …‘[T]he poisonous errors and coarse misinterpretations of Nikole Hannah-Jones and her colleagues will be transmitted, like a disease, to young Americans.’

Liberty scholar, an anti-public education website targeted at parents and “student influencers.”

When McCarthy, frustrated by Welch’s relentlessly successful countering of his accusations, falsely claimed that a member of Welch’s law firm “had been a long-time member of an organization that was a ‘legal arm of the Communist Party,’” Welch let him have it:

“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” Welch said, lambasting the senator’s bullying and litany of unsubstantiated lies, innuendo and insults that ruined careers and lives during the fearful “Red Scare” era against Communism. “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

Wild spontaneous applause erupted among citizens and news reporters in the audience.

McCarthy’s meteoric rise in the Republican Party instantly began a nosedive that ended in the senator’s increasing isolation, alcoholism, and finally (in 1957) death. And the “Red Scare” was essentially over.

What Welch was really decrying was not just Sen. McCarthy’s mean-spirited mendacity but his utter shamelessness—his willingness to destroy innocent careers and lives and trash American democratic values, not to right wrongs but to further his political ambitions, with no apparent moral or ethical awareness that such behavior was unconscionable.

Sound familiar?

Critical Race Theory hysteria

Gov. Noem’s latest civic sin, in addition to purposeful, continuous Christian proselytizing in official settings, is her campaign to ostensibly block Critical Race Theory (CRT) from being taught not only in the state’s primary and secondary schools but also colleges and universities.

The problem is she clearly misunderstands what CRT is, and that, in any event, it is not now and never has been formally taught in any South Dakota educational institutions, from primary school up.

And I strongly suspect she knows all this, because 1. Critical Race Theory has been clearly explained ad nauseam in the media universe since Republicans inexplicably and perhaps disingenuously decided it posed an existential danger to children, and 2. The governor certainly knows what’s taught in her state’s schools and higher education institutions—and that CRT isn’t.

Keep in mind that, whether you personally agree with an academic theory or not, it’s at least a supremely bad idea to censor it in colleges and universities if it’s a valid, rational concept, which it is.

This whole Critical Race Theory hysteria, which most recently helped Virginia’s new Republican governor get elected, is a political sham, shameless propaganda propagated because Republican soothsayers noticed CRT’s stipulated “threat”— however bogus—really gets the GOP’s voting base exorcised. And exorcised voters vote.

That’s all it is. Nobody with an ounce of objective intelligence could believe otherwise, so to act otherwise is a form of lying. And Gov. Noem is all in with mendacity regarding CRT. No shame.

Rather than being Black propaganda designed to make Whites feel guilty for American slavery practiced by their ancestors, Encyclopaedia Britannica describes CRT in these terms:

Critical race theorists hold that racism is inherent in the law and legal institutions of the United States insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites, especially African Americans.

In a nutshell, CRT proposes that the social damage wrought by slavery is still with us in the form of fundamentally racist societal structures, norms, and laws in American culture today. Considering that African-Americans remain predominantly an underclass in the U.S., despite emancipation in the 1860s and landmark Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s, the idea that a reason other than lack of gumption exists to explain this disparity hardly seems far-fetched.

What Republicans are really worried about, or so they say, is that their mostly White children will be taught in schools to feel ashamed, somehow responsible, because their ancestors practiced slavery in the past.

Except that’s not what CRT aims to accomplish and, regardless, it’s not being taught now in any schools in the U.S. and only vanishingly few higher-ed institutions. Yet, Kristi Noem, Fox News, et al. in alt-Right land, seem obsessed with it as the most terrible bogeyman of our time.

The 1619 Project

What brought CTR to Right-wing consciousness was the launching of The 1619 Project by The New York Times and New York Times Magazine in 2019, the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans’ arrival in the English colony of Virginia.

The purpose of the in-depth journalism project was to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” according to the Times. The project, developed and directed by Nikole Hannah-Jones, complemented long journalistic articles with live events, and a podcast. Various Times writers participated.

Hannah-Jones was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her introductory essay in the project.

Unsurprisingly, virulent opposition immediately erupted on the Right.

Among the naysayers is Liberty Scholar, an online forum “for parents and student influencers purposed to provide a solution to the failure of the American public education system,” according to its website.

Pushback against 1619 Project

The website claims without substantive evidence that “thousands of copies of 1619 Project curriculum have been taught in schools across the nation, leaving countless American children with the notion that their country is racist,” adding:

The main function behind implementing this type of an ideology to young students has long been thought to introduce the Marxist principles of collective responsibility, intersectionality, and victim mentality. … It is clear that none of the claims perpetuated by the 1619 Project hold legitimate historical accuracy, and it is questionable whether or not its founders even believe the doctrine which they perpetuate. …‘[T]he poisonous errors and coarse misinterpretations of Nikole Hannah-Jones and her colleagues will be transmitted, like a disease, to young Americans.’

I’ve read Hannah-Jones’ award-winning intro to The 1619 Project, titled “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true,” and it is anything but transgressive. It is an achingly eloquent plea that African-Americans, despite centuries of abject slavery and degradation in American society, be fully acknowledged as proudly and even quintessentially American. That, among many other historical achievements, they are producers of some of the nation’s most unique art forms, stimulators of transformative democratic advancements for all citizens, and worthy of all the sacred, inalienable rights of a free people.

But she fairly insists the struggle for equality and respect is not finished.

“For centuries, white Americans have been trying to solve the ‘Negro problem,’” she wrote in her 1619 Project introduction. “They have dedicated thousands of pages to this endeavor. It is common, still, to point to rates of black poverty, out-of-wedlock births, crime and college attendance, as if these conditions in a country built on a racial caste system are not utterly predictable. But crucially, you cannot view those statistics while ignoring another: that black people were enslaved here longer than we have been free.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones, developer/director of The 1619 Project

Replacing American flags with ‘slightest tatter’

She evocatively recalls a poignant reminder of the fact that black Americans honor the nation’s founding ideals of freedom perhaps more deeply than many others. Her father, the descendant of slaves and poor all his life, continuously and proudly always flew a U.S. flag in his front yard as an adult—replacing it “as soon as it showed the slightest tatter.”

Even if Critical Race Theory ideas and ideals were routinely taught in American primary and secondary schools, which they aren’t, why would it be anything but enlightening and uplifting? Why should our children be kept ignorant of the shameful realities of slavery-induced racism and its continuing destructive legacy in America? Certainly, if we don’t understand a problem, how can we transcend it?

Kristi Noem surely knows this.

But still, she signed an executive order in July barring her Department of Education from applying for any federal grants in history or civics until after the 2022 state legislative session. The purpose of the order, the Sioux Falls (SD) Argus Leader reported, is “to ban grants that tie to Critical Race Theory, a topic that has become a hot-button topic among conservatives and educators alike in recent months.”

And then in December, the governor drafted new legislation to pre-emptively ban CRT teaching anywhere in South Dakota, from kindergarten through university.

Kristi Noem apparently cares less about being honorably right than being a key national player in the GOP and possibly a presidential candidate.

So, with invented Critical Race Theory demons, she hopes to convince, to falsely inspire, those who might support and vote for her that we are a white, Christian nation that deserves to always be applauded for its inherent exceptionalism, and never criticized in the present for the appalling sins its fathers committed in the past.

There is something indecent about this. And also bad for kids.

Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...