In August of 1619, a ship came to Point Comfort, in the English colony of Virginia. Over 20 enslaved African people, brought from what is now Angola, were on that ship. Once the ship landed, the colonists bought them as their property.

This sale ushered in an era of American slavery whose effects still endure today.

400 years later, the remnants of a once-formal system of racial hierarchy still play a defining role in the U.S.

The New York Times marked the anniversary of the beginning of slavery in America with a series of essays and poetry. These articles tackle music, health, professional sports, and the history of American democracy.

In one of those essays, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones makes the case that without black Americans fighting for equality, one of the founding premises of the United States — governing by the people, for the people — would be a lie.

Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.
The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.
Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all.

For another piece, Linda Villarosa examined why myths about racial differences in physiology and medicine persist to this day — and its impact on patients.

A 2016 survey of 222 white medical students and residents published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that half of them endorsed at least one myth about physiological differences between black people and white people, including that black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than white people’s. When asked to imagine how much pain white or black patients experienced in hypothetical situations, the medical students and residents insisted that black people felt less pain. This made the providers less likely to recommend appropriate treatment.

The centuries-old belief in racial differences in physiology has continued to mask the brutal effects of discrimination and structural inequities, instead placing blame on individuals and their communities for statistically poor health outcomes. Rather than conceptualizing race as a risk factor that predicts disease or disability because of a fixed susceptibility conceived on shaky grounds centuries ago, we would do better to understand race as a proxy for bias, disadvantage and ill treatment. The poor health outcomes of black people, the targets of discrimination over hundreds of years and numerous generations, may be a harbinger for the future health of an increasingly diverse and unequal America.

Critic Wesley Morris also reckons with the popularity and legacy of music with its roots in black culture. Morris starts at the origins of “yacht rock,” struggles with the top pop hits of 2013 and ends with the success of Lil Nas X.

The proliferation of black music across the planet — the proliferation, in so many senses, of being black — constitutes a magnificent joke on American racism. It also confirms the attraction that someone like Rice had to that black man grooming the horse. But something about that desire warps and perverts its source, lampoons and cheapens it even in adoration. Loving black culture has never meant loving black people, too. Loving black culture risks loving the life out of it.

We speak to Hannah-Jones, Morris and Villarosa about how this project was accomplished.

Guests

  • Nikole Hannah-Jones Correspondent, The New York Times Magazine; @nhannahjones
  • Linda Villarosa Contributing writer, The New York Times Magazine; journalism program director, The City College of New York; @lindavillarosa
  • Wesley Morris Critic-at-large, The New York Times; @Wesley_Morris

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