How Harper’s Magazine Undermines the Struggle Against White Supremacy

Photograph Source: i threw a guitar at him. – CC BY 2.0

When the latest issue of Harper’s arrived in my mailbox in June, white racist grievances had reached a fever-pitch. The University of North Carolina had refused tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, Critical Race Theory had become a bogeyman like Communism was in the 1950s, and Republican state governments were working overtime to pass Jim Crow type voting laws. Instead of standing up to these racist threats, the magazine decided to publish a nearly 5,600 word attack on the 1619 Project by Princeton history professor Matthew Karp titled “History As End: 1619, 1776, and the politics of the past.” While the article is behind a paywall, you can register for one free article a month.

The article argues that it is futile to dwell on the racist history of the USA and to instead look forward to breakthroughs like the Civil War, the civil rights movement, etc. Essentially, Karp aligns himself with the cadre of historians that complained bitterly about all the falsehoods they supposedly saw in the 1619 Project. Among them, his Princeton colleague Sean Wilentz barked the loudest at Hannah-Jones. Mostly, the complaints were about her introductory article that stated that the colonists fought for independence in order to maintain slavery and that racism was in America’s DNA. Except for Wilentz, the historians took their case to the World Socialist Website (WSWS), an outlet distinguished by its hysterical Henny-Penny warnings that WWIII was always about to break out and that Socialist Workers Party leader Joe Hansen was a GPU agent.

Karp summed up opinion on the 1619 Project from the right and the left. There were only a “handful” of Republican legislators hoping to keep it out of classrooms. Somehow, he had not noticed the UNC’s egregious attack on Hannah-Jones’s right to tenure. As for the left, the Communist Party supported the project and the WSWS’s Socialist Equality Party did not. If these two sects were meant to represent the left, it would seem that Karp has tunnel vision. Jacobin, which has a far greater reach, published four articles pushing back on attacks on the 1619 Project, including two by Marxist historian Timothy Messer-Kruse. It might come as a surprise to Karp but most younger historians, especially those aligned with the new history of capitalism, identify with Hannah-Jones. Unlike Sean Wilentz, they see slavery as living on through white supremacy, a problem that Karp sweeps under the rug.

Karp’s argument is that both Republicans and Democrats have repudiated the Confederate legacy, with the Democratic Party top brass and woke corporations going so far as to embrace the 1619 Project. He ends up aligning with 1619 Project critic Adolph Reed Jr., who he credits with exposing its failure to adopt a class perspective. In a very Reed-like observation, Karp notes that there was only one vote out of thirty from the New York Times’s editorial board endorsing Bernie Sanders. He also writes, “In the past five years, Hannah-Jones has emerged as an outspoken Twitter critic of Sanders and his left-wing class politics.” Now, I tried to find evidence of this on Twitter but came up empty. Googling “Nikole Hannah-Jones” and “Bernie Sanders” also failed to produce any evidence of animosity toward the Senator. Since Matthew Karp signed the evidence-free Harper’s Open Letter charging the left with making their targets a living hell on Twitter, I am not surprised he now makes unfounded charges.

To prove that the right has abandoned David Duke style racism, he begins his long exegesis with The National Review and The Federalist, which in the past were defenders of Confederate monuments. Now they “overflowed” with conservative authors either questioning or rejecting these symbols. Hadn’t Karp noticed that The National Review had published an article in April titled “Why Not Fewer Voters?” that backed a return to Jim Crow laws since they would produce “better” voters? What good does it do to call for the removal of Confederate flags from state capitols when you are also pressing to rob Black people of the right to vote for the men and women who serve there? As for The Federalist, they publish articles like “The Monument-Destroying Mobs Don’t Hate The Confederacy, They Hate America.” I guess this must have missed the Princeton historian’s assiduous attention.

As for Donald Trump’s 1776 Report that was designed to refute the 1619 Project, Karp reassures us:

Instead, the report’s authors celebrated Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, praised Reconstruction, and condemned the postbellum South’s descent into Jim Crow, “a system that was hardly better than slavery.”

Well, that’s all well and good but over the past four years a movement developed to end cops beating or even executing unarmed Black people. What has Trump said about this? He is on record as likening police brutality to golfers who “miss a 3-foot putt.” Trump has also drawn from Adolph Reed Jr.’s dubious statistical talking points. He dismissed anger over police killings, saying that “more white people” are killed by police than Black people. Neither Trump nor Reed take into account the preponderance of unarmed Black people getting killed percentage-wise. I’d say Trump’s words matter much more than empty tributes to Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth.

For Karp, the only remaining standard bearers of the Old South are trolls like Dinesh D’Souza and Ann Coulter, as if these easily dismissed figures are the problem. Instead, the real threat to Black people is not the Old South but what Malcolm X was referring to: “As long as you’re South of the Canadian border, you’re South.” George Floyd was killed in Minnesota, not Alabama, after all. Karp fetishizes the Confederate flag, monuments and other paraphernalia when Black people are up against Republican state governments that are pushing votes that will keep them from voting, even as they accommodate themselves to the removal of such admitted irritants.

Karp recapitulates the arguments debunking the notion that the British were motivated to fight the colonists because of abolitionist sympathies. Leaving aside whether Nikole Hannah-Jones was right or wrong, Karp makes a single paragraph in her essay the litmus test that condemns the entire project:

Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South. The wealth and prominence that allowed Jefferson, at just 33, and the other founding fathers to believe they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery.

To buttress his condemnation, Karp cites African-American scholar Wendy Harris who found this analysis troubling: “The protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.” I took the trouble to have a look at Harris’s Politico article where these words appear. Fact-checking the Princeton historian revealed that he was right this one time. Harris did say such a thing. It also revealed that Harris had a different take on the 1619 Project and those who harp on this single paragraph about the British and slavery. She wrote, “Overall, the 1619 Project is a much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past—histories that wrongly suggested racism and slavery were not a central part of U.S. history.” Additionally, she wrote, “But it has also become a lightning rod for critics, and that one sentence about the role of slavery in the founding of the United States has ended up at the center of a debate over the whole project.” The first sentence clashes with Karp’s petty ideological agenda and the second seems like an accurate description of the Princeton professor himself.

To wrap up his indictment of the 1619 Project, Karp throws a kitchen sink of theorists against it. He starts with Michel Foucault, who, quoting Nietzsche, wrote:

History teaches how to laugh at the solemnities of the origin. The lofty origin is no more than “a metaphysical extension which arises from the belief that things are most precious and essential at the moment of birth.”

This rather obscure observation is supposed to remind us, according to Karp, that history is neither all good or all bad. I am not sure it is necessary to cite Foucault to understand what most children learn in the 8th grade. What they are not learning, however, is how White households ended up with 6.9 times as much wealth as Blacks’.

Showing once again his less than adroit understanding of Marxism, Karp cites Wendy Brown, another theorist, who once observed that at the end of the twentieth century liberals and Marxists alike had begun to lose faith in the future. Faith in the future? Is that what this verbose and pedantic article is supposed to encourage? With reports about catastrophes in the Western states now reverting back to the deserts from which they emerged, and unheard of flooding in Germany, having such faith is virtually prohibited. Maybe the cloistered world of a Princeton don tends to foster a more rosy view of the future. That’s one explanation, at least, for such foolishness.

How did Harper’s end up serving such reactionary ends? With the publication of the Open Letter in October, 2020, it declared war on the radical left. Missing entirely from Karp’s article is any engagement with the emergence of Black Lives Matter that organized some of the largest protests in American history. If Karp is intent on the need to show both the “good” and “bad” side of American history, it is odd that he chose to ignore the BLM, which is the form that the civil rights movement takes today. Perhaps, he shares Adolph Reed Jr.’s vilification of the movement as a tool of Goldman-Sachs and Nancy Pelosi.

Since the publication of the letter, Harper’s continues to attack black radical politics, mostly in the form of African-American memoir author Thomas Chatterton Williams’s opinion pieces that remind us, for example, that Blacks increased their votes for Trump. His point being, “so what’s the nonsense about white supremacy?” Since Williams is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, this evolution begins to make sense. The AEI was where fellow Charles Murray defended his theory that Blacks were genetically inferior to whites. If I were Williams, I would have turned down such an appointment but I am one of those Marxists who have no faith in the future. What good could have come from such a tie? Of course, my views on goodness and evil must differ from Williams’s.

Williams and the current editor of Harper’s are not primarily to blame. It is John “Rick” MacArthur who has been orchestrating this shift to the right. As A.J. Liebling once put it, freedom of the press belongs to those who own one and the trust fund patrician certainly enjoys his power over the magazine. If the editor ever refused to publish Karp’s crap, he be out of a job instantly just like other editors who got on Rick’s wrong side.

In a remarkable apologia pro vita sua, Rick defended himself in a publisher’s note on July 14  that posed these questions. Are we allies of the neo-fascist right? Are we secretly Trumpists? Are we taking advantage of the white privilege that is so reviled by social-justice activists?

I would reassure the patrician trust fund magazine publisher that this is not the case. However, I do feel that the enormous pressure that white supremacy exerts in this country could make anybody wilt under such pressure and begin to accommodate to it.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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