Home News Center Anti-Racism Resource | Tips for Reading and Discussing The 1619 Project

Anti-Racism Resource | Tips for Reading and Discussing The 1619 Project

September 23, 2019
Courtney M. McSwain

On the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved African to reach the U.S. colonies, the New York Times Magazine published 
The 1619 Project to capture the impact of American Slavery on our country. The series of essays attempts to reset the typical conversation around the United States' founding, moving to ground the country's history in the establishment of slavery. The project provides a comprehensive treatment of slavery's lasting impact on every aspect of American life - in particular, the social, political and economic institutions we interact with daily.  

As NJJN moves along our journey towards anti-racist youth justice pursuit, we recommend taking the time to use “The 1619 Project as a resource for discussion within your organizations. It should be noted that members of your organization will likely experience heavy emotions as a result of reading and talking about these articles. Please take care to ensure that people have adequate space and resources necessary to process the pain of this history 

Here are three articles and discussion prompts from The 1619 Project to get you started.  


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: American capitalism is unique in its brutality and was made possible through the stolen labor of enslaved Africans. That's the argument made by Matthew Desmond as he details the rapid rise of the cotton industry in the 19th century and its lasting impact on American conceptualization of work, labor and profit. In Desmond's words, "Cotton was to the 19th century what oil was to the 20th: among the world's most widely traded commodities." America got rich off cotton, and the ability to accumulate the mass amounts of wealth was made possible only through the free labor the industry enjoyed on the backs of enslaved people. Moreover, as Desmond explains, the hunt to gain more and more money from the growth and sale of cotton led to the growth of financial and occupational management practices still used today, such as the use of mortgaging property (in this case human bodies) for business loans. The article firmly ties the birth and rise of American capitalism - and its wealth - to the institution of slavery. It further shows how capitalism today continues to trade on the same established principles related to labor and profit-seeking.  

Start the Discussion: Even as a nonprofit organization, there may be financial or occupational management practices that mimic those used in the rise of the cotton industry and the exploitation of enslaved people. Do any of these practices show up in how we operate? If so, how can we rethink our relationship to work and labor to reflect anti-racist values?  

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: Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, writes about two legacies of American slavery on the criminal justice system: 1) the fear of black people and 2) the propensity for violent punishment. After the institution of slavery was outlawed, the control of black work and the policing of black bodies and behaviors re-surfaced through the criminal justice system. "After emancipation, black people, once seen as less than fully human ‘slaves,' were seen as less than fully human ‘criminals,'" writes Stevenson. In place of slave laws, Black Codes became the primary strategy for racial control. The more that formerly enslaved black people tried to assert their independence or challenge racial hierarchy after emancipation, the stricter Black Codes became and the more violent punishment for breaches of these codes were unleashed. Things like vagrancy, loitering, being in a group of black people out after dark and seeking employment without a note from a former enslaver were imprisonable offenses. Fears of black uprisings and the need for racial control resulted in the lynching oblack people who asserted their humanity. Crime and punishment have continued to evolve into the 20th and 21st centuries based on the presumptive guilt, violence and threat of black and brown people.  

Start the Discussion: When discussing racial disparities within the youth justice system, how can we go a level deeper to examine the roots of racist oppression and the historical definitions of crime and punishment? How can we reflect this deeper examination in our work? 

"How False Beliefs in Physical Racial Differences Still Live in Medicine Today." By Linda Villarosa  

Quick PreviewTwo physiological myths used to justify slavery were: black people have 1) an ultra-high pain tolerance, and 2) weak lungs that need to be strengthened through hard work. Villarosa writes that these two common myths continue to permeate today's medical practice and affect health care. According to recent studies, many black adults and children receive insufficient pain treatment, and a significant number of medical school students believe that black people's nerve endings are less sensitive than whites. These realities illuminate how racist myths - once used to justify the brutal treatment of black bodies - continue to seep into the DNA of our institutions, however innocuous they may seem.  

Start the discussion: How do you think the two myths that: 1black people are impervious to pain and 2) black people have weaker lungs, which are strengthened by hard work, continue to show up in the tolerance our society has for violence, punishment and exploitation towards black people? What is our role as advocates to push back on these myths?    


Are you using this anti-racism resource and discussion guide to facilitate a discussion within your organization? Contact us and let us know!   
Visit our "Anti-Racism" page for more resources.   

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