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If only Ida B. Wells had lived to see this. Wells, born into slavery in 1862, won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize last week for her courageous anti-lynching journalism at the turn of the 20th Century. Fittingly, her citation was awarded on the same day that the New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones – who pays tribute on Twitter by calling herself “Ida Bae Wells” (and launched a foundation in honor of the real Wells) – took home the 2020 Pulitzer for commentary on the same day, for her searing essay that launched the New York Times’ 1619 Project.
I couldn’t agree more with the judges who found Hannah-Jones’ piece challenged readers to think about U.S. history in a radically new way – to see the arrival of the first slave ship on American soil as foundational to who we are today as what happened here in Philadelphia in 1776 or 1787. Yet remarkably, there were a lot of conservative and right-wing commentators and even some pols who – in a week with coronavirus deaths soaring toward 80,000 and the highest U.S. unemployment rate ever recorded – found no more important project than trying to take The 1619 Project down.
I won’t even address some of the more extremist types who weighed in, but comes now the more respectable, bow-tied George Will, who’s expanded his fan base with the stunning realization that President Trump might not be ticketed for Mt. Rushmore and who himself won the commentary Pulitzer in 1977. Yet Will, too, seems convinced that swatting at tiny gnats will somehow take down the elephant in the room: That a strain of white supremacy has infected too much of what we do as a nation, and still does.
Will asserts factual errors in the 1619 essay but yet what he comes up with is a) a question of timing of when Abraham Lincoln’s sharp shift in his views on emancipation occurred and b) a different opinion (i.e., not a factual error) on the role that whites have played in black liberation movements.
Then there’s c) another difference of opinion in whether Hannah-Jones went too far in asserting fears of British liberalization on slavery motivated some 1775 revolutionaries. Here, even Hannah-Jones and her editors found some merit to those arguments and appended a clarification. Re-calibrating ideas is something that great and even good opinion writers do; only hacks won’t listen to criticism. None of this comes close to negating the main point: Racism influenced our Constitution, undid the brief progress of post-Civil War Reconstruction, and animates today’s conservative backlash.
George Orwell wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future, and who controls the present controls the past.” Will and the likes of Ted Cruz or Newt Gingrich couldn’t care less about the nits they’re trying, lamely, to pick in Hannah-Jones’ journalism, but they’re desperate to control a future in which America finally addresses 400 years of racial inequity.
Even more fitting than Ida B. Wells and “Ida Bae Wells” winning on the same day was – tragically – that by week’s end America had gone to the videotape on a 21st century version of the lynchings that Wells covered 125 years ago. In another parallel, right-wingers who wanted the cold-blooded pursuit and killing of unarmed Ahmaud Arbery by two white vigilantes to disappear picked at their own nits, insisting there were unsolved burglaries in the neighborhood (there weren’t) or making much ado of Arbery checking out a home construction site (something I and most white folks I know have done without fear of summary execution).
In fact, as the coronavirus festers, you’d have to be blind to ignore the impact of 401 years of racism in America, whether it’s cops in Brooklyn targeting non-whites for 95 percent of “social distancing” arrests, or Monday’s Times report that African-Americans with COVID-19 symptoms were six times more likely to be turned away from health care, or simply the gross social disparities that have helped the coronavirus ravage the black community.
Crisis brings opportunity: A future of universal health care, free higher education, living wages and better working conditions, and a belated redemption for America’s sins, is possible. No wonder the forces of reaction like George Will are frantically, unsuccessfully trying to win back the past.