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How the Trump administration's '1776 Report' warps the history of racism and slavery

Trump’s parting shot at diversity education gets panned by historians, as Biden prepares to disband the commission behind the report.
Image: President Trump Meets With National Association Of Police Organizations
President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with members of the National Association of Police Organizations Leadership in the White House on July 31, 2020.Anna Moneymaker / Pool via Getty Images file

During the closing days of the Trump administration, the outgoing president fulfilled a promise to issue a report that promotes a “patriotic education” about race and the birth of the nation.

The "1776 Report," released on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, followed Donald Trump’s September announcement to form a commission to refute teachings on systemic racism, critical race theory, and deeper examinations of how slavery has affected American society.

The “crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country,” he said at the time.

The report is a clear rebuke of the "1619 Project," a Pulitzer Prize-winning report by the New York Times published in 2019. It argues the true founding of America was not in 1776 as the new nation declared its independence from Britain, but in 1619 when the first enslaved people were brought to the shores of the Virginia colonies. The Times’ report, led by reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, set off a firestorm among conservatives, especially as many educators embraced its overall message, and sought solutions for history lessons that often watered down or ignored parts of American history that grappled directly with oppression and subjugation of people on the basis of race.

However, experts note that the new report, published by a group of conservative political operatives and academics, is rife with false assertions intended to distort well-documented accounts about how discrimination was enshrined by the nation’s founders and continues to persist in various forms, hundreds of years later.

Among the many sections called out for whitewashing historical narratives, the "1776 Report" claims there’s no truth to statements that the Founding Fathers were hypocritical for upholding slavery while claiming that all men are created equal, and that it’s destructive to “our civic unity and social fabric.” The report also paints slave-owning leaders such as George Washington and James Madison as pioneers who “set the stage for abolition.”

A portion of the report dedicated to the civil rights movement also misappropriates quotes from King, and claims that laws passed in favor of voting rights, housing and outlawing discrimination were the ultimate “culmination” of centuries of efforts to fulfill the nation’s founding principles. What follows is a rebuke of ongoing efforts to address discrimination, dismissing them as “group rights” that run counter to equality. The report is also notable in its omissions, as King issued searing critiques of racism in law enforcement and policing, access to economic opportunities, and various other elements of American society that went largely unaddressed by reforms passed in the 1960s.

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” the document quoted from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

But according to Daina Ramey Berry, a professor and chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin, the "1776 Report" didn’t incorporate King’s words properly.

“Yes, he talked about a promissory note, but he said that the United States wrote a bad check,” Berry said in a statement. “The very next sentence of King’s speech is, ‘It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.’ As historians, this is precisely what we are trained not to do — to use quotes out of context. A full history of our land must include an accurate portrayal of the sacrifices and contributions of the enslaved and other marginalized groups of people.”

Many prominent conservatives immediately balked at the core message of the "1619 Project" when it was published. A year later, as protests grabbed the attention of America, and the project gained further interest, Trump issued a ban on diversity training at federal agencies, that include lessons about topics such as white privilege, and then established the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission.

Paul Johnson, a professor of communication at the University of Pittsburgh, said that 1776 functions as an attractive starting point for the report because it plays into myths about the nation’s origins. Starting with 1776, he notes, allows the commission leeway to acknowledge that slavery and Jim Crow existed, while simultaneously portraying them as matters of historical happenstance that were resolved by time and human agency.

“They want to be able to tell the story as if racism is a thing of the past, and that the only racism that continues to persist is what they call identity politics, which in the document seems to be pretty routinely conflated with the discussion of race itself” and other characteristics “like gender and sexuality,” said Johnson, who focuses on the rhetoric of populism and American conservatism.

Further, according to an analysis from Politico, and Mississippi State University assistant professor Courtney Thompson’s use of the plagiarism detection tool TurnItIn, various sections of the report were essentially copied from previous works by conservative thinkers. The lifted writings include a 2008 opinion piece by 1776 Commission member Thomas Lindsay, and an article and an essay written by the commission’s executive director, Matthew Spalding, for the Heritage Foundation and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative education nonprofit.

During Trump’s moves to ban federal diversity training and establish the commission, the African American Policy Forum, a think tank focused on structural inequality, issued a 21-page report to launch the #TruthBeTold campaign. The organization says Trump’s moves amount to an “equity gag order” that aims to undo decades of progress toward racial and gender equity in the federal government and across society. The campaign calls for a repeal of Trump’s executive orders, and for the Biden-Harris administration to require that all federal agencies establish diversity, equity and inclusion benchmarks as part of a coordinated, governmentwide effort.

Kimberlé Crenshaw is the executive director of the African American Policy Forum and a leading scholar on critical race theory, who in 1989 coined the term intersectionality as a prism to examine the overlapping nature of marginalized identities and social characteristics subject to discrimination. Intersectionality is one of the academic concepts targeted in part by Trump’s 1776 Commission.

“The effort to suppress the truth repeats an ugly history of efforts to protect slavery by criminalizing abolitionist literature, intercepting it in the mail, and surveilling those to whom it was addressed. It was un-American to write about the unfulfilled promises of America,” wrote Crenshaw in the #TruthBeTold report. “This same twisted lie is in place today in Trump’s effort to portray this gag order as motivated by racial justice when the truth is that it is designed to eviscerate the thinking to advance racial justice."

After the Trump administration issued the "1776 Report," numerous critics and scholars on the experiences of Black Americans denounced the document for its attempts to dismiss the continuing legacy of racism in the service of a whitewashed narrative about American freedom. Among them was Ibram X. Kendi, a humanities professor at Boston University and the author of the bestselling book “How To Be An Antiracist.”

“It does not take long to read this report as the last great lie from a Trump administration of great lies,” he said in a Twitter thread.

“This report makes it seems as if […] since the civil rights movement, Black people have been given ‘privileges’ and ‘preferential treatment' in nearly every sector of society, which is news to Black people,” Kendi continued. “If we have commonly been given preferential treatment, then why do Black people remain on the lower and dying end of nearly every racial disparity?”

Although Jones hasn’t directly addressed the Trump administration’s counter to "The 1619 Project," she responded Tuesday to a tweet from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said “wokeness” and “political correctness” point toward authoritarianism, and that multiculturalism distorts “what this country is all about.”

“When you say that multiculturalism is ‘not who America is’ and ‘distorts our glorious founding’ you unwittingly confirm the argument of the 1619 Project: That though we were a multiracial nation from our founding, our founders set forth a government of white rule. Cool,” Jones tweeted.

Despite the last-minute release of the "1776 Report," the initiative will end as Joe Biden plans to dismantle the 1776 Commission in one of his first acts as president. Berry said that Trump’s tenure, including the Capitol riot, underscores the “consequences of purposeful disinformation.”

“I hope the new administration will lead us away from a debate about when American history began and instead have a full discussion about the history of this land,” Berry said, “About a land that has struggled with issues of freedom and justice for all.”

For her part, Jones reacted to the news of Biden rescinding the commission in a one-word tweet: “Welp.”

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