It is indeed possible that “the operation of established and respected forces in society” may yield unequal outcomes for different groups, but that fact does not tell us anything about the moral nature of those “forces.” A 100-meter race track and a random group of runners sprinting its length are quite likely to produce something other than total equality of outcome.
It would be concerning enough if the New York Times’ 1619 Project were simply an effort in the radical recasting of the formative years of the American colonies and the early republic. Many with deep expertise in that historical material have responded in pointedly critical terms as to the massive historical distortions and omissions required by such a warped project.
But the Project’s ambitions extend far beyond historical rewriting. It also aims to forward an analysis of contemporary social issues and problems informed by the same radical intellectual perspective that undergirds that distorted history.
That intellectual perspective has its own history. It began to develop in earnest about a half century ago, in the tumult and chaos of Black Power radicalism of the late 1960s. It is there, in the catastrophically wrong turn the civil rights movement took, that the warped worldview that would eventually come to dominate the study of race in the contemporary world of higher education and then filter out to become widespread throughout American political culture has its origins. Until the middle of the 1960s, the civil rights movement had been dominated by a very different set of perspectives. Figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, and James Farmer were vigorous opponents of the racial status quo of the times, but they built their analysis of its nature largely within the parameters of traditional American cultural frameworks. Constitutional Republicanism and Protestant Christianity were central cultural systems for these critics. In short, they believed that American culture and formative principles were sound and simply needed to be fully implemented to correct existing problems regarding race relations.
By the later 1960s, newer, younger, extremist voices had arisen in the black civil rights world. An essential early incarnation of this new radical voice can be found in the now largely forgotten book Black Power. This book, co-written by a young radical political scientist, Charles Hamilton, and one of the most controversial figures in the student organization SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee), Stokely Carmichael, created in its title the term that quickly came to represent the entirety of the radical racial identitarian movement that took off in the ‘60s and ’70s. In addition to presenting a new, revolutionary way of looking at civil rights politics, it basically invented the radically oriented set of ideological tools for talking about racial inequality in America that have in the half-century since the book’s publication been embraced by much of elite American culture.
The argument of this remarkable book, published in 1967, is that the situation for blacks as a whole had markedly deteriorated, and that prospects going forward would be dismal unless blacks as a group took up a revolutionary perspective. To repeat: this is in 1967. That is to say, it is after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; after the initiation under Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty of an unprecedented level of spending—much of it in the form of direct redistribution of resources—on urban social problems; after the first two thirds of the twentieth century’s “Great Migration” of blacks from the poor rural South to the materially more prosperous and politically free North. The positive benefits of this population shift can scarcely be overemphasized. By 1970, four in ten blacks lived in the North, and in the two decades between 1940 and 1960, the black middle class had grown enormously.
In this context, Carmichael and Hamilton claimed—against the evidence—that black circumstances were more dire than they had been since the Emancipation Proclamation. They went so far as to compare the black situation in 1967 to those of the “post-colonial” struggles in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere in the world. Blacks in the U.S. faced, in their view, a “unique case of colonialism.”
It is a well-established rule in the sociology of social movements that the possibility of radicalization is heightened in moments of the movement’s advance and success. More material resources and more freedom for expression, which become available precisely as social movements make notable gains, frequently translate into the rise of angrier, more insistent voices than had been in evidence previously. As objective deprivation decreases, relative deprivation—the distance between the objectively improving situation of blacks and the ideal of equality to which they aspire—sparks the intense emotional force that we saw take shape in the many violent urban disturbances of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
But once we understand in social science terms how such perspectives could arise, and why radicals shouting emotionally charged but impractical, incoherent slogans might have gotten traction on the street, how could such a patently counterfactual case as that of Black Power be argued in an intellectual setting? Not very convincingly, it turns out. In order to make even the beginnings of a case, Carmichael and Hamilton needed fresh theoretical tools, devised not with an eye to more accurately and objectively understanding social reality but instead with the intention to mask obvious progress as oppressive stasis and decay. By every measure, explicit, noticeable, and damaging episodes of racism and prejudice were shrinking in the country in the late 1960s. The clearest evidence of how much white opinion had moved on this was in the fact that still white-dominated media sources in the North almost uniformly presented images of Southern mobs chanting ugly slogans at black students integrating schools and colleges with evident disgust and dismay. All the opinion data show a similar situation. At the end of WWII, fewer than half of whites in the U.S. believed in equal opportunity for jobs among the races. By 1972, just a few decades later, nearly all whites (97 percent) believed it.
To counter these inconvenient facts, which could be multiplied here ad nauseam, Carmichael and Hamilton invented the notion—now nearly universally accepted as doxa in much of the academy—of institutional racism. This novel concept was defined as “acts by the total white community against the black community . . . less overt, far more subtle, less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts . . . [yet] no less destructive of human life . . . [and] originat[ing] in the operation of established and respected forces in the society.” Here is the beginning of the seemingly limitless intellectual deception on this matter that is now dominant in the social sciences and much of the humanities.
The examples Carmichael and Hamilton use to illustrate institutional racism are also among the favorites of contemporary partisans of this worldview. The black unemployment rate is higher than the white rate, we are told, and blacks have a more difficult time securing a mortgage. These statements were true in 1967 and remain so today. But only people who do not understand the basic logic of social science explanation could think that they are self-evidently “acts by the total white community against the black community” or that they unquestionably demonstrate the effects of unjust bias against blacks. The hard questions of explaining social outcomes are in this way not so nimbly leapt over. The reasons why people are employed or unemployed, offered mortgages or denied them, are numerous and complicated. Explicit prejudice might indeed play a role, but this has to be discovered empirically, not asserted as an a priori inevitability, especially when there is voluminous evidence, as there was in 1967, that American whites are rapidly becoming less prejudiced than they had been. What of the possible role of racial differences in educational training, testing performance, and evidence of income and savings, wealth, and accumulated debt, or of anecdotal or perhaps more systematic employer knowledge of differential job performance between groups, to name just a few other potentially relevant variables?
 Stokely Carmichael, Charles Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (Random House, 1967), 2-3.
 Krysan, M., & Moberg, S. (2016, August 25). Trends in racial attitudes. University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs. Retrieved from http://igpa.uillinois.edu/programs/racial-attitudes
 Carmichael and Hamilton, op. cit., 4.
 Ibid., 9, 22.