Actualizing the Potential of the 1619 Project
By Anne Price, President, and Jhumpa Bhattacharya, Vice President of Programs and Strategy
On August 18, 2019, the New York Times launched the 1619 Project. Curated by writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project is a collection of essays and artwork from renowned researchers, activists, and artists brilliantly documenting the ways in which the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and anti-Blackness continue to undergird our economic and social systems and policies, and deeply impact our American culture and narrative.
Among social justice advocates, 1619 quickly became the talk of the town. Our Twitter feeds were filled with high praise and love for it.
Yes, finally, we thought. This is exactly what we need to be able to diminish the false race vs. class dichotomy. Now more than ever, our colleagues won’t shy away from talking about the impact of structural racism in economic issues. Race will become a part of our collective vernacular, and we will finally stop hesitating to talk about how anti-Blackness — the devaluing and de-humanizing of people who are Black — is deeply rooted in our economy, the criminal justice system, and public benefit programs.
Perhaps that was wishful thinking.
We are headquartered in the Bay Area, which prides itself on being a progressive bastion of justice and equity. In some ways we are, but when it comes to talking about race, we’re no gold standard. There is still a great deal of reluctance, even among the progressive minded, to talk about race specifically, to consider the Black experience as unique and foundational to shaping our nation’s economic and social policies, and to embark on a serious and sustained effort to center Blackness as a necessary condition of economic liberation for all Americans.
We continue to encounter a class focus in our work on fines and fees, government-sponsored child support debt, and the future of workers — all of which disproportionately impact Black people. Many well-intentioned advocates working in these and other spaces are still not speaking to race for fear of backlash.
The 1619 Project shows us that we can no longer shy away from talking about race when talking about justice of any kind — whether it be environmental, economic, reproductive, or criminal justice. It brings to light how the needs of Black people have been historically overlooked and undervalued in the creation of our nation’s culture, economy, and democracy. Its adjoining curriculum gives us the tools to effectively and specifically talk about anti-Blackness, and we must use it.
Anti-Blackness doesn’t just impact Black people; it holds back and harms all Americans, and its deep wounds necessitate collective healing. We must consider that anti-Blackness ensnares all the beneficiaries of policies and programs that shape our economy. Structural racism generates unequal life outcomes for Black people, which in turn shape economic policies that negatively impact white people as well as other non-Black people of color.
Over the last three months we have been crafting a Centering Blackness framework as a policy development and organizational tool to address the far-reaching effects of anti-Blackness. We view it as the lens in which we can see the interactive effects of discrimination, subjugation, and disempowerment on the lives of Black people, and how they are baked into our policies, practices, and institutions. Simply put, Centering Blackness recognizes the uniqueness of the Black experience and puts it at the core of our vision of racial justice and healing.
Last month we sponsored and launched The Black Thought Project, our first interactive public art installation at the Oakland Museum of California, conceived and curated by Alicia Walters.
The Black Thought Project transforms public and private spaces into sanctuaries for the expression of Black thought. We envision communities where Black people are given safe spaces to reflect, and are listened to and honored for their experiences and perspectives. This is just one project in our Centering Blackness work and we will continue to host Black Thought Projects throughout Oakland and other cities. Additionally, in the coming months we will be releasing our framework and other exciting opportunities to engage in this new work.
Moving forward, we hope we see the opportunity for collective awakening around the 1619 Project as not a quickly passing moment in our national conversation, but a major stepping stone for taking action on its aims and spirit in all our work. This is how we will give life to its message, and truly move toward a just society.