Scott D. Pierce: Utah politicians ought to watch ‘The 1619 Project’ on Hulu — like it or not

It would do a lot of Utahns — in particular, a lot of Utah elected officials — a lot of good to watch “The 1619 Project” on Hulu. Because there has been massive misunderstanding and misrepresentation about the project and critical race theory.Some Utah legislators have proposed banning the teaching of CRT in schools. Gov. Spencer Cox came out against teaching CRT. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, went so far as to call the project and CRT “reformulated Marxism.”And Utah State Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden — the chair of the Senate Education Committee — produced a “documentary” titled “Identity Marxism: The Rise of Critical Race Theory,” a screed against CRT.There’s been an outcry among some parents and action has been taken by school boards. And yet there is considerable confusion about what critical race theory is, because it’s clear few people actually read the series of essays comprising the 1619 Project. Maybe watching a TV series about it will be easier.(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, comments on a bill in the Senate, on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (Rick Egan/)The year 1619 was when slaves were first brought to what is now the United States — a year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. And the project argues that, to understand both American history and America today, you have to look through the lens of slavery.(The first two episodes of the six-part series start streaming on Thursday on Hulu. Episodes 3-4 will debut on Thursday, Feb. 2; followed by Episodes 5-6 on Thursday, Feb. 9.)“Well, this is the story of America,” said Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who began the project and hosts the series. “Our argument is that you can’t understand the story of America without understanding the story of slavery and Black Americans. … This is not a documentary series about Black people, it’s a documentary series about America. And all of us Americans should come away with a better understanding of the country that we live in.”Many of the 1619 Project’s critics — including Stewart — argue that the history it presents is at odds with the history almost every American learned in school. But what we learned in school was a sanitized version of history, which you’d expect most adults who have done any amount of reading would have long since realized.“There are certain Americans who think, ‘If this were true, certainly I would have heard about it before,’” Hannah-Jones said. “And so I think there is a backlash that comes from the skepticism or being kind of thrown off kilter by learning a history that you hadn’t been taught.“And then, of course, there’s the backlash that is strictly political. … This project exposes power, exposes hierarchy, exposes that we were founded on lofty ideals of democracy and freedom and also the practice of slavery. And what does that mean for the country that we live in today?”She said she sees the backlash against the project and CRT as “a sign of the success of the project. That if there weren’t lots of Americans who were ready and willing to have a different understanding of our country, you wouldn’t see such intensity against the project.”That’s an optimistic view that I don’t entirely share.One of the major criticisms of the 1619 Project is that it paints all white Americans as racist. With a few notable exceptions, nobody likes to be called a racist, and that has proven to be effective misinformation about CRT. Not that the truth is a whole lot easier to take.“The entire project is arguing about the systemic nature” of racism in the United States, Hannah-Jones said. “That that foundation of slavery means that it is in the very structure of our politics, our economic system, our medical systems. That it is ingrained.” It’s not about “individual prejudice,” which she sees as a “convenient” way to think about racism — that’s it’s “a few bad apples” who have a “personal animus” against Black people.“But these systems, because they were built into the foundation of our country, they replicate on their own, whether or not you are personally racist.” So white vigilantes or white police officers who kill unarmed Black men come in the wake of “centuries of history” and “all of the structures that led to that moment in the first place. And that’s what this project is trying to get us to think about and grapple with.”It’s unsettling. It’s disturbing. It runs counter to how most of us want to think about our country and ourselves.But those who are so challenged by these facts and opinions that they want to ignore them — or, worse yet, bury them — are essentially admitting they are valid.You don’t have to agree with everything in “The 1619 Project” to learn from it. It’s not easy viewing for anyone. And maybe the toughest part of it is the argument that the only way to make things right in America is to pay reparations to Black people.“If you watch the series from beginning to end and if you watch it with an open mind, it’s clear that there is a debt that is owed,” Hannah-Jones said. “So we wanted to make sure that we left you not with a feeling of helplessness ... but to let you know that there’s a solution. It’s just one we refuse to do.”Again, it would be great if all the politicians opposed to critical race theory sat down and watched “The 1619 Project.” But I’m extraordinarily skeptical that will happen, and more skeptical still that many of them will do so with an open mind.Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.