An interview with a Detroit autoworker on the New York Times’ “1619 Project”
1 February 2020
The World Socialist Web Site has spoken with autoworkers in the Detroit area about the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which represents a falsification of American history based on a racialist narrative, including a denial of the progressive role of the American Revolution and Civil War. We publish here an interview with a young worker, Mike, who was involved in the recent contract struggle at the Big Three auto companies and has begun to investigate the crucial historical and political issues raised by the Times project.
We asked Mike what he thought about the claim that race and racism are the central issues in American history. “That is just not true,” he said. “The American Revolution was the beginning of a historical process that led up to the Civil War, in which slavery became the decisive issue. A majority of people decided that slavery was not right, that it had to end, and they were willing to fight a war to end it.
“In the South, there were people, workers and small farmers, who were against slavery because of the conditions they were dealing with. The poor white farmers were not benefiting from slavery at all. They could not compete with slave labor.”
On the assertion of the “1619 Project” that the American Revolution was largely driven by the desire of Southern slaveowners to preserve slavery, the Mike commented: “The American Revolution is what set the building blocks of the country: all men are created equal. That signaled that slavery was going to come to an end, which was not the case at that moment, but there was widespread sentiment against it. It was not possible for all men to be equal when there were still slaves. Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln both opposed it.
“The Declaration of Independence gave people rights that could not be refuted: all men are created equal. And as other countries looked at it, they thought, ‘Why don’t we have this? Why shouldn’t everybody be equal as it says in the Declaration of Independence?’ Without that we don’t really have anything. If people are not equal, it is not a just country. Before that, slavery had been accepted for thousands of years.
“I don’t agree with the concept of ‘white privilege.’ Society is divided into classes. There are the wealthy, the middle class and the working class. Before the Civil War, the slave owners obviously benefited from racism, but other people really did not.
“Today the main issues are class-based: wages and health care, job security. We also have to address issues like police brutality and mass incarceration, but those are class issues as well. They take advantage of working class people when they are divided on certain issues, like on the basis of racism and nationalism—if they don’t see the class issues.
“There is nobody in the ruling class that has to deal with the issues that the working class confronts. If someone gets in trouble for a white collar crime, regardless of his race, he is going to get a slap on the wrist if he is upper-class. But if he is working class, for minor infractions he is going to jail with fines. No breaks.”
On the issue of historical falsification, he told the WSWS: “If you have a false view of history and you leave out the people who were fighting for the working class, you cannot build and move forward because you are not learning from history. You are just getting a false sense of it. You are doomed to repeat it.
“The movie The Free State of Jones describes a rebellion within the Confederacy by white deserters coming together with runaway slaves. That just shows there was support for abolishing slavery. They were both struggling to survive, and they saw that everything was going to the top.
“Even the more recent history, like the civil rights movement, there wasn’t just 100 percent black people for anti-segregation and white people saying, ‘No, we want that.’ There were people together protesting and getting arrested. You can’t just say it was one way or the other. You have to kind of get to the truth of it.
“I think the ‘1619 Project’ is trying to divide people by race. The New York Times is beholden to the ruling class, although it may want to seem like it represents the working class. It has an agenda. They are trying to divide the working class so they can exploit us. They are saying it’s blacks only, it’s whites only. It doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Whether it’s slavery, or segregation, or inequality—people are being exploited.
“According to them, everybody on the shop floor would be separated by race. But that is not the case. Everybody works together. We all deal with the same stuff, so we have that common interest between us. We know what we go through every day. We know what the job entails. That is what connects us. We stand up for each other.
“There are certain incentives financially for people to be divided, not organized among themselves. The ruling class would have an incentive to sow divisions. If we’re divided, we can’t demand higher wages, better living conditions, better health care. If we are divided, we will just walk over each other and accept lower everything—less rights, period.
“When we go on strike, everybody’s on the picket line together as workers. We are all trying to get a good contract. We are all talking about it: the wages we want and the benefits. We fight for every worker regardless of race. We want the younger workers to have a good wage, a good life and health care and everything else so everybody gets the same.
“From my experience, black union officials are no more likely to defend the workers, black or white, than white union officials. All of them are only concerned about how much money they are getting. They just try to get a contract through and then coast on the kickbacks. They are all together regardless of their race because they view themselves as upper class, better than ordinary workers.”
We asked Mike if he was familiar with the record of Henry Ford on these questions. He said, “Yes, he did the same thing as the ‘1619 Project.’ He tried to divide workers by race with his use of strike-breakers. He transported 10,000 black workers from the South in 1941. But they joined the workers who were on strike. They realized that it was the same fight that every worker has and they were both being exploited.
“They leave out of the history books the fact that Ford was anti-Semitic and supported Hitler. They talk about Henry Ford as being this great person for bringing all these jobs here and creating the assembly line.
“But they leave out the fact that he brought strike-breakers in and that he made all these anti-Semitic remarks and that Hitler praised him. It’s not talked about because he is ruling class. That is not the goal of ruling class history. That would bring working class people together if they knew about that.”
On the role of the Obama administration in bailing out General Motors and Chrysler, he said: “It benefited Wall Street. It benefited the banks. It benefited the automakers. It did not benefit the working class at all. We are seeing the lasting effects of it now, such as the two-tier system, temporary workers, getting rid of pensions. It changed everything in the interests of the ruling class.
“He got a lot of contributions from Citibank and the other banks. So that is who he helped when he got into office. We did not need to bail out the banks. They just gave all that money in bonuses to the executives, so obviously they did not really need it. He was campaigning for ‘hope and change,’ but that really did not happen.”
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