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Carman: To understand the legacy of slavery, look no further than the fragile white folks who can’t handle the truth

It’s been weeks since the New York Times Magazine published its intense, sprawling 1619 Project and the shock waves continue. 

Listen carefully and you’ll notice that white people overwhelmingly express two very different reactions when the topic arises over the pinot grigio and dry martinis. It’s either, “Why haven’t I ever heard this stuff?” or “The whole project is a lie.”

And then there’s Rush Limbaugh’s blustering appraisal: “The New York Times has moved on to a new hoax.” 

Diane Carman

Greg Moore has heard it all and remains awestruck by the depth, the factual rigor and the remarkable impact the powerful collection of essays has had on our collective consciousness.

“The 1619 Project is one of the most significant journalistic endeavors by a news outlet in my lifetime,” said Moore, who is editor-in-chief of Deke Digital, was a member of the Pulitzer Prize Board for more than a decade and served as editor of The Denver Post for 14 years. 

“Most of the information is new to the American public,” he said. “It’s been researched by scholars and published in books, but bringing this important part of American history to the public in this way is critically important, especially at this time in our history.”

The 1619 Project reveals the enduring impact that slavery has had on American institutions and our culture, history and economy. For all of us white people who were taught, among other outright falsehoods, that the Civil War was not about slavery, this sprawling, intense exploration of the legacy of our original sin is powerful and enlightening.

Moore remembers one of the first times he realized just how flawed his own education was.

“When I learned that Crispus Attucks was the first person to die in the Revolutionary War, I was shocked that no one had ever talked about that in school,” he said. “To think that a former slave was willing to die to challenge the oppression of all the people in this country, that’s amazing. And we never heard about that.”

It’s one of many buried facts that is so unsettling to those who were indoctrinated in — and still prefer — the blue-eyed version of history.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Professor Joanne Belknap calls this panicky communal anxiety “white fragility.”

“For white people living in North America, almost all of us live in a social environment that protects us from race-based stress,” said Belknap, who teaches ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We almost never have the experience where we stick out because we’re white or are treated differently because of our race.”

As a result, “we aren’t good at tolerating racial stress,” she said, “so even a minimal amount is intolerable. We quickly move to restore our white privilege and comfort.”

Sometimes that means clinging to lies.

Like the one that so many embrace that suggests the Founding Fathers created the Electoral College for a reason other than to perpetuate slavery. Once again, revisionist historians use the tired code for legitimizing white supremacy — states’ rights — which has always meant that people in some states have a lot more rights than people in others in order to protect the status quo.

Or that our country was conceived as a democracy, of, by and for the people when it was plainly a plutocracy in which only white Protestant, land-owning males had the right to vote.

Or that the GI Bill boosted the lives of World War II veterans, when its benefits were not available to 1.2 million African American veterans when they came home from the war.

Or …

“Talking about this aspect of American history makes a lot of white people uncomfortable,” Moore said. “They feel they lead integrated lives, and they don’t want to hear about that part of our past. It’s hard to talk about, hard to believe that people could do those things.”

Belknap said in 30 years of teaching, she’s heard all manner of arguments from her students, who often insist that they couldn’t possibly be racist because they’ve always lived in white communities and never did anything to hurt people of color. Therefore, how could they possibly have any racist attitudes?

“They tend to get very defensive, saying things like, ‘I can’t help that slavery happened,’ and ‘If I had been alive then, I know I would have been against it.’ ”

But Belknap said we can’t have a healthy relationship with our history or our future if we can’t confront these uncomfortable truths.

“We need to acknowledge this country for what it is,” she said. “It’s not just a history of innovative, hardworking people and rapid industrialization. We did all that on the backs and the lives of slaves and indigenous people by stealing things from them — their labor and their land — and, incidentally, it included a lot of murder.” 

That legacy continues to have a huge impact on all of us.

“We have to find a way to talk about this,” Moore said. “When white people say they didn’t have anything to do with slavery, that’s not a way to start a conversation. They may have had nothing to do with slavery, but they benefitted from it. Advantages were passed on for generations.

“With my white friends we have some of the best conversations about race when we read a book together and sit down and talk about it,” he said. “It opens their eyes.”

Just like the buried stories unearthed in the 1619 Project, Moore said his white friends say, “Why didn’t I know this?” And, “What should I do with this information?”

The answer?

“Share it,” the lifelong journalist said. “After all this time, we all have to find a way to talk about it.”

Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.