Both institutions have sought to 'reframe' American history in terms of slavery
Harvard University made news last week with its announcement that it has set up a $100 million fund to help ‘redress’ its historical ties to slavery. The fund comes on the heels of a report which found that the peculiar institution was ‘integral’ to Harvard’s rise and ‘essential’ to its ‘growth as an academic institution’.
That may very well be true, but it’s hardly the only injustice on which Harvard cut its teeth. The list of wrongs is long, ranging from a notorious collaboration with the Nazis, enthusiastic support of eugenics, centuries-long discrimination against women, and a troubled past with Jews. It even played a direct role in the Salem Witch trials, though the witches condemned to die by prominent Harvardians were men, not women.
This prompts an important question: why this one issue, and not the others? Harvard’s president, Larry Bacow provided a complete and clear answer to this question. In an op-ed co-authored with another Harvard official, Bacow wrote that it was part of an effort to address ‘continuing inequities—tangible legacies of slavery—affecting communities in the United States and in the Caribbean, to which New England’s slavery economies were closely tied’.
This is what Bacow meant by invoking the ‘tangible legacies of slavery’. Far from an effort to redress historical wrongs, the donation comes in the context of this effort to cast America as a slave society, once removed.
This language and the concepts behind it are the distilled essence of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which, by attempting to ‘reframe’ American history in terms of slavery rather than liberty, sought to show nearly all the structures of American life are artefacts of a slave society.
But the response from the 1619 Project’s creator this week, Nikole Hannah-Jones, was just as telling: it’s not enough. “Well, one, you didn’t ask this, but that $100 million that Harvard has put aside, you know, it’s nice, but it’s way too low,” Hannah-Jones said at an event where she also took a moment to castigate the GOP as a “White party”.
This is the key point. The racialist culture wars that have erupted in America over the past few years are, as much as anything, about power. It’s no coincidence that this new power dynamic emerged in the wake of the 1619 Project’s deepest achievement — reworking the notion of truth from the classic enlightenment idea that it is an objective thing we approximate to the idea, created by Critical Race Theory, that it is whatever serves ‘to emancipate the oppressed’ — in other words, it is what serves power.
What’s remarkable is the extent to which these two elite, agenda-shaping institutions are in lockstep on this topic. That’s a testament to the success of the 1619 Project, but even more so, the messaging alignment shows that these institutions form part of a larger whole, a network of interlocking organisations that are virtually inseparable from an ideological perspective. It is a troubling development, and one we should follow closely.