What’s the Deal with Tom Cotton?

On the Arkansas senator’s comments about slavery and the “1619 Project.”

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton (R) referred to slavery as a “necessary evil” in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sunday, while arguing that the New York Times’ 1619 Project should not be taught in schools.

This comment comes just one week after Cotton introduced a bill—the Saving American History Act of 2020—to prohibit federal funds from being used to teach the 1619 Project in schools.

Published in August 2019, the project—a collection of articles and essays—seeks to reframe slavery’s place in American history while also highlighting the many contributions of African Americans and their struggles and efforts to make the US a more fair and democratic nation.

Explaining his reasoning for the bill, Cotton told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that he rejects the project’s premise that racism is at the foundation and core of America, ever since the first enslaved people were brought to the colonies in 1619.

“We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can’t understand our country,” Cotton said in the interview.

“As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”

What Cotton seems to fail to understand, however, is that the history of slavery and the perseverance of Black Americans is American history. The 1619 Project does not rewrite history.

It tells the full, all-encompassing story of America’s founding and how its most prominent institutions were subsequently established and created, keeping Black Americans at the forefront, rather than as an afterthought.

Cotton’s assertion that slavery was necessary in order for the US to economically thrive is also incredibly flawed. Slavery is no longer present in the US today and yet we have somehow managed to stay afloat.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist who spearheaded the 1619 Project at the Times, weighed in on Cotton’s ludicrous claim via Twitter on Sunday.

“If chattel slavery — heritable, generational, permanent, race-based slavery where it was legal to rape, torture, and sell human beings for profit — were a ‘necessary evil’ as Tom Cotton says, it’s hard to imagine what cannot be justified if it is a means to an end,” Hannah-Jones tweeted.

“Imagine thinking a non-divisive curriculum is one that tells black children the buying and selling of their ancestors, the rape, torture, and forced labor of their ancestors for PROFIT, was just a ‘necessary evil’ for the creation of the ‘noblest’ country the world has ever seen,” she said.

The next day, however, Cotton took a page out of President Trump’s playbook and proceeded to deny everything he had just said.

Appearing on Fox & Friends on Monday, Cotton told anchor Brian Kilmeade that his comments in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette were “fake news.”

“That is not what I said,” he said. “What I said is that many Founders believed that only with the Union and the Constitution could we put slavery on the path to its ultimate distinction.”

Of course, this is not what Cotton said in his initial interview. He said that the Founding Fathers believed that slavery was a “necessary evil” upon which the country was built. And no, he didn’t provide any insight into what document or text he was referring to that laid out that this is what the Founding Fathers believed.

“Of course slavery is an evil institution in all its forms, at all times, in America’s past or around the world today,” he continued.

“But the fundamental moral principle of America is right there in the Declaration: ‘All men are created equal.’ And the history of America is the long and sometimes difficult struggle to live up to that principle.”

While “all men are created equal” is a nice sentiment, it has always been more of a concept than a reality. This founding principle did not apply to white women or Black people at the time, so the idea that this notion has invariably range true under both the law and the Constitution throughout American history is a fallacy.

Still not willing to back down from the root of his initial argument, Cotton went on to attempt to disparage and discredit the 1619 Project once again, falsely claiming that the project seeks to teach children to hate America.

Cotton told Fox & Friends that the 1619 Project wants to indoctrinate kids across the US to “believe that America was founded not on human freedom, but on racism. To think that slavery was not an aberration, but the true heart of America.”

But if slavery was “the necessary evil upon which the union was built,” is that not true?

Like Cotton, there are a not insignificant amount of white people who are all too adamant to downplay or deny the very real and historic oppression of Black people in this country. And to what end?

Perhaps it is to keep up the illusion of American exceptionalism, of equality, and liberty and justice for all.

Perhaps it is because, if forced to face the facts, they would have to admit that the oppression of some has resulted in the privilege of others, and to accept that they have personally benefitted from a society which has long upheld what is essentially a racial caste system might also mean that their success has been contingent upon the systemic failure of others.

Or maybe they’re just racist.

Freelance writer covering culture, politics, and LGBTQ+ rights. catherineann.caruso@gmail.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store