Staff Columnist

Iowans can't ignore the ways our history created racial disparities

A copy of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation is on display at the Civil War Exhibit at the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines, Iowa.
A copy of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation is on display at the Civil War Exhibit at the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines, Iowa.

Last week, the New York Times launched an ambitious project about slavery and its lasting effects on American democracy. People had thoughts.

Critics of the newspaper decried the coverage as counterfactual and offensive to our national history.

“The whole project is a lie,” former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich said during a Fox News interview. He said it’s a sign of a “tragic decline of the New York Times into a propaganda paper.”

The Times’ 1619 Project is a dozen in-depth articles, the length of a short book. I doubt Gingrich or other detractors took the time to carefully read it before delivering their reviews. In 2019, that is just as disappointing as it is unsurprising.

Instead, I suspect they were responding to the headlines and tweets about the project. Mara Gray, a member of the New York Times editorial board, wrote on Twitter last week that the project would demonstrate “that nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.”

As a fiercely patriotic white American, I admit those words made me uncomfortable. But that is what good journalism is supposed to do — challenge readers.

Instead of spouting off about how great our country is, I went out and bought the newspaper, something too few Americans do these days.

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As of this writing, I’ve read about half the essays. I don’t agree with all the framing and conclusions, but these are well-reported and substantive pieces of journalism, contrary to the common criticism.

If you need proof of slavery’s enduring consequences, look just up the road to Waterloo.

In the opening essay, investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones notes that her grandmother moved from Mississippi to Iowa in the 1940s, “only to have her hopes of the mythical Promised Land shattered when she learned that Jim Crow did not end at the Mason-Dixon Line.”

Hannah-Jones, now 43, grew up on the “black side” of Waterloo. The divide was a product of redlining, a system of de facto racial segregation imposed by the government.

Those lines are no longer legally enforced on the basis of race, but they persist. Several analyses in the past decade have found Waterloo is among the most racially divided cities in the country.

One goal of the 1619 Project — named for the year African slaves were first forcibly brought to America — is to connect our nation’s persistent racial disparities to their historical antecedents.

Early Americans must have known black people were human, and that slavery was wrong. To justify the brutality of ownership and forced labor, they had to convince themselves that Africans were inherently worse than Europeans.

The black inferiority doctrine did not disappear with the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment or the Civil Rights Act of 1866. It has slowly waned in the ensuing decades, but it still exists.

This does not mean modern white Americans are all bad people, or that our white ancestors made no meaningful contributions. Rather, it means the contributions and struggles of Americans descended from slaves have gone underappreciated.

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What does it say about our country that so many white Americans see stories about raising up black history as attacks on our national heritage?

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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