Editor’s note: This interview was first published by Rick Hess on his blog with Education Week, Rick Hess Straight Up.
Rick Hess is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the director of the think tank’s Education Policy Studies.
Ian Rowe is a resident fellow at AEI. He previously spent a decade at the helm of Public Prep charter schools in the South Bronx, worked as deputy director of postsecondary success at the Gates Foundation, won two Public Service Emmy Awards as a senior VP at MTV, served as a director for USA Freedom Corps’ volunteerism effort in the aftermath of 9/11, and was the first Black editor-in-chief of the Harbus (the Harvard Business School newspaper). Ian is the author of the upcoming book Agency, out later this year through Templeton Press. He is a co-founder of Vertex Partnership Academies (a new network of character-based, IB high schools opening in the Bronx in 2022) and of the new initiative 1776 Unites. It’s the last of these roles that will be discussed here.
Rick: So, Ian, just what is 1776 Unites?
Ian: 1776 Unites is a Black-led, nonpartisan, and intellectually diverse alliance of writers, thinkers, and activists crafting solutions to our country’s greatest challenges in education, family, culture, and upward mobility. It was launched in February 2020 by civil rights movement veteran Robert Woodson of the Woodson Center with a website featuring essays by me, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Carol Swain, Clarence Page, Jon Ponder, Will Reilly, Coleman Hughes, and a number of Black leaders who acknowledge America’s history of racial discrimination yet recognize the pathways taken by millions of Black people past and present who are not bound by a defeatist ideology. The scholars and activists leading 1776 Unites are determined to spark a movement to liberate tens of millions of Americans to become agents of their own uplift and transformation by embracing the true founding values of our country.
Rick: What moved you to launch this project?
Ian: Before clandestinely attempting to erase many of its false historical claims, The New York Times’ 1619 Project declared that our country’s “founding ideals were false when they were written” and erroneously posited that America’s true founding was 1619, not 1776. The founders of 1776 Unites were deeply troubled by the 1619 Project’s effort to cherry-pick parts of American history and paint the United States as an irredeemably racist nation. We felt this perverse ideology would divide our people and, worst of all, instill a learned helplessness in a people who should find strength and resolve in a history of resilience and Black excellence, even in the face of unimaginable adversity. We, as Black leaders, formed 1776 Unites to dissent from this contemporary groupthink and reject The New York Times’ victimhood narrative that infantilizes our people and insults our proud heritage.
Rick: Can you say a few words about the values which motivated and have shaped 1776 Unites?
Ian: The values that shape the 1776 Unites alliance of leaders are really just the values Americans of all backgrounds have embodied for nearly 250 years. They are the same principles that defined my parents when they immigrated to this country from Jamaica, West Indies. Like 1776 Unites, they emphasized family, faith, education, and an entrepreneurial mindset as part of their reciprocal responsibility for what America would provide in return for opportunity.
Rick: How does 1776 Unites portray those values in its work?
Ian: We believe it is not enough just to make principled arguments against flawed endeavors like the 1619 Project. We must express values in action. So we showcase grassroots and grasstops leaders who move beyond rhetoric, putting themselves on the line for kids and for their communities. We showcase people whose deeds embody how embracing the principles of family, redemption, truth-telling, and hard work can make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable populations. Take, for example, Jon Ponder, a thrice-convicted felon who now runs Hope for Prisoners—an organization that helps formerly incarcerated individuals safely reintegrate into society. Or take Eli Steele, a filmmaker who just completed the “What Killed Michael Brown?” documentary that derails the false narrative of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” Or Sylvia Bennett-Stone, who soon will be launching a movement of mothers who have lost children to senseless violence and want to see more and better policing in violent neighborhoods. Like these leaders, 1776 Unites believes it is better to show pathways to liberation and not just tell.
Rick: How has your time at the helm of charter schools informed how you’re thinking about this project?
Ian: I ran charter schools in the heart of the South Bronx and Lower East Side of Manhattan for 10 years so that thousands of families in low-income communities could have what middle- and upper-class families take for granted: the power to choose a great school for their child. Many of our parents—primarily Black and Hispanic—faced racial discrimination and feared their kids would as well. But they did not believe that their children were doomed to be shackled by America’s legacy of slavery. That is why the schools I led and the 1776 Unites campaign will always stress as part of the larger American story the legacy of Black excellence and self-determination through strong families and a focus on education, even in the face of slavery and atrocious discrimination.
Rick: How does 1776 Unites fit in this moment of a national reckoning on race?
Ian: I just wrote an op-ed in USA Today warning that many K-12 schools are taking steps that actually reduce standards and perpetuate a modern-day “soft bigotry of low expectations,” all in the name of “equity” and “anti-racism.” To help counter this, 1776 Unites has launched its own free, philanthropically supported curriculum. The curriculum will offer life lessons from largely unknown, heroic African American figures—from people like Biddy Mason, a woman who was born a slave but died a millionaire and philanthropist, to Booker T. Washington, whose idea to cultivate an age of academic excellence among Black boys and girls resulted in more than 5,000 “Rosenwald Schools” to educate Black children in the segregated South. Looking forward, the curriculum will also include lessons that help the next generation understand the series of life decisions that will increase their likelihood of economic prosperity (i.e., the Success Sequence).
Rick: What’s most surprised you, for good or ill, about this effort thus far?
Ian: 1776 Unites scholars Glenn Loury and John McWhorter recently had a conversation that revealed one particularly concerning trend: In our country’s reckoning on race, there is a surprising tacit agreement among most not to talk about elements that implicate segments of the Black community in the challenges we face. In my own experience, I have witnessed a reluctance to discuss levels of criminal violence or the staggering numbers of nonmarital births in the Black community, for fear of being accused of blaming the victim. These are tough issues with multiple causes, and we must never lose our ability to empathize with the people for whom we are trying to make a difference. But these underlying behavioral issues are increasingly affecting people of all races. As Black leaders, we must have the moral courage to be brutally honest in understanding why the conditions we are fighting to eradicate exist. We must be brave in naming and confronting both structural barriers and individual choices so that tomorrow’s Americans of all races can be agents of their own prosperity.
Rick: OK, so what will it look like if the 1776 Project is successful?
Ian: Perhaps the best way to answer that question is to move beyond the argument over 1619 versus 1776 and instead focus on a year that lies ahead. Imagine it is 2076—more than a century after landmark civil rights laws were passed outlawing discrimination based on race and more than 50 years after the founding of 1776 Unites. What will our legacy be on the 300th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence? 1776 Unites scholar Shelby Steele has observed that sometimes the ancestors of a once oppressed people who don’t know how to handle their freedom will reinvent their oppression. Will that be America’s story 50 years from now: a nation gripped by grievance over progress? Or will we be in the midst of a sustained awakening in which people of all races have learned to embrace the ideals of family, faith, education, entrepreneurship, and hard work as the pathway to move from persecution to prosperity? It is our choice. If we join hands across race and work toward the latter, that will be the success of 1776 Unites.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.