“Our democracy’s ideals were false when they were written.”
I’ve been struggling with that sentence — the opening statement of the introductory essay to the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project on the legacy of slavery in America — for a few weeks now.
It’s a very strange formulation. How can an enduring “ideal” — like, say, freedom or equality — be “false” at one point in history and true in another? You could of course say that the ideals of universal equality and individual liberty in the Declaration of Independence were belied and contradicted in 1776 by the unconscionable fact of widespread slavery, but that’s very different than saying that the ideals themselves were false. (They were, in fact, the most revolutionary leap forward for human freedom in history.) You could say the ideals, though admirable and true, were not realized fully in fact at the time, and that it took centuries and an insanely bloody civil war to bring about their fruition. But that would be conventional wisdom — or simply the central theme of President Barack Obama’s vision of the arc of justice in the unfolding of the United States.