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History’s Double Edged Sword
Are We Doing Enough?
Not Angry Anymore.
With the recent acquittal of someone who shot three men, killing two and wounding one, everyone is ready with their take for the internet. As usual, the perspective that bothers me the most is the most common one. In fact, it’s a framing that doesn’t just bother me, it scares me. And like so many #takes out there, it’s informed by history (or at least a certain framing of a certain history).
“Why are you surprised?” “Of course he was acquitted.” “The system has always worked in favor of the powerful in this way.” Each of these statements have more than a kernel of truth when thinking about this acquittal. There are hundreds of cases of vigilantes across American history being acquitted and even championed for their violent acts. Especially in cases of anti-Black violence. American history is littered with cases of white Americans “getting off easy” in plain cases of unjust and racist violence. Multiple historians have examined the “amazingly effective system of social control” that slaveholders in the South created before the Civil War. Countless histories have documented the discrimination and violence Black Americans, Indigenous peoples, and immigrants have faced within the confines of the state and outside it. But, should this be the only framing we historians allow the public to accept after reading a history of slavery, white supremacy, anti-Black violence, or discrimination? Historians have shown people, “Yes, everything has a history. Almost nothing has been unprecedented. This is why this discrimination, this imbalance of power, this injustice has existed for so long. This all started a long time ago.” But is that enough? Yes, vigilante violence, racism, and white supremacy, were built into American society long before the signing of the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Yes, the impacts of slavery, Jim Crow, the KKK and other white supremacist groups carry on to today. But are we sure that telling everyone “how we got to where we are today?” is the end of the historian’s job?
Over two years ago, the publication of the 1619 Project by the New York Times magazine lit up a fire in a debate which I would have thought anyone could have ended with one quick read of Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution. But it seemed that the existence of the 3/5ths clause and the fugitive slave clause in the Constitution was not enough to convince many Americans that slavery instrumentally shaped America’s politics, society, and economy as soon as the first enslaved Africans were forcibly brought over to North America in 1619. Regardless of the brilliant essays that make up the 1619 Project, one would think that lifting the words from our Constitution, or Southern states secessionist literature, or the surfeit of court cases since 1787 that formally and legally suppressed Black voices, their educational and economic futures, and their lives, would be enough to suggest that white supremacy is probably a big deal.
Instead we saw scholars frustrated with the “cynicism” of the project, but not arguing against the general thrust of the argument that slavery evidently has shaped our laws, economy, and society. Then we saw extreme right-wing voices use this quibble to try to argue against the evident facts of the case. Among scholars, teachers, and others who didn’t subscribe to the extreme views of some thinkers, the core issue came out: whether the reverence for America’s founding, the civic religion we’d built up for decades, needed to come crumbling down. Like the most annoying version of the chicken or egg question ever posed, some said: ‘Even if slavery came before America’s existence, that doesn’t mean we get to say America’s “founding ideals were false.”
Perhaps both the scholarly critique of the initial 1619 Project and the project itself are incomplete? Especially if we decide to consider what history’s job or utility should be in public life. I argue that it isn’t enough, anymore, to write our histories of injustice, violence, or white supremacy, telling readers how we got where we are, and leave a public to stew in a pot of cynicism and despair. It isn’t enough, and has never been enough, to write histories of a country’s founding values or its fights against injustice, and leave readers to wonder how and if they were implemented, what the larger context was, or what the actual reception and reactions were.
Recently there’s been a new backlash against teaching racism in the classroom, specifically using “critical race theory.” If you know what CRT is already, skip my explanation, but if you don’t, it’s amazingly simple for an academic concept that’s over forty years in the making. The crux of the theory is that race is a construct by society, that racism wasn’t just produced by individuals in society, but it embedded itself into legal, political, and economy systems. For an example, think of Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law which examines the government’s role in housing segregation and discrimination. Michelle Alexander’s popular work, The New Jim Crow argues that there was a single dominant social formation responsible for the emergence of the modern carceral state: racism. Alexander’s work can be considered polemical. But the argument that after the Civil Rights Era there were “proponents of racial hierarchy” who “found they could install a new racial caste system without violating the law or the new limits of acceptable political discourse, by demanding [that there be] ‘law and order’ rather than ‘segregation forever’” is more than sound. Americans in the 1970s were introduced to the war on drugs, which drove a massive “state-sponsored stratification.”
Or one can look at Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness which looks at the relationship between race and crime throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Muhammad examines the use of social science, specifically how Progressive reformers used its understanding of crime in order to shape public policy. Blackness became the mark of oppression. Prior to abolition, slavery was the solution to restraining black people – after 1865, all that had to change. As immigration increased and the cities industrialized, Progressive Era reformers and policy makers decided to categorize the new migrants and insisted on condemning African Americans as inherently criminal and relegating them into ghettos. The main characters in the history are intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois, Walter White, Mary White Ovington, and others, as well as social reformers like Jane Addams. These white and Black reformers and scholars attempted to confront the structural inequality as a result of urbanization, but they ultimately failed. The constructed discourse actually rationalized the continuation of racial disparities which encouraged the departure of jobs and money from urban areas. Muhammad’s work shows us the continuities between slavery and the post-Civil War criminal justice system, how notions of Black criminality were constructed and then embedded into the legal system. Black criminality became the crux for de jure and de facto discrimination in the United States, as well as cementing ideas of racial otherness into our society.
Fundamentally, it isn’t CRT that’s being attacked in bills across the country, but the very idea that race, racism, and its enduring power should be discussed or studied in schools at all. CRT isn’t taught in your third grader’s classroom, it’s an academic theory that’s mainly reserved for law students. It’s a way for historians and legal scholars to reveal the lack of neutrality in our legal system, and on top of that the way law has been a tool to maintain white supremacy.
I’m writing about this because with this backlash we’ve seen another round of handwringing from historians and scholars. ‘Isn’t this a futile battle?’ ‘If we defend CRT aren’t we just proving the extreme right-wing’s worst fears?’ But yet again, as if it’s Beetlejuice, history can tell us this backlash is nothing new. After America’s (failed) attempt at Reconstruction, the rise of the KKK and Jim Crow laws made it virtually impossible for many Black Americans in the south to grow economically or even live and breathe as citizens, let alone participate in electoral politics. After massive immigration from new areas of the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a wash of anti-immigrant legislation and violence plagued the country. While in the past, the backlash was fueled by a fear of Black Americans or immigrants gaining equal status to whites, today it’s fueled by that same fear and the bad-faith argument that teaching the history of racism in schools is equivalent to blaming white people.
I’m writing this not because just because I’m angry and scared over the acquittal. But because something else started nagging me. Despite all this rich research on discrimination, violence, and white supremacy, it is seemingly filtered into the general public into a single message of, “it’s been this way for a long time.” Somehow, us historians revealing the deep and long history of racism and injustice has had the unintended effect of complacency. Now, I’m not going to get into whether historians need to be advocates or not here, but it seems like we have a chance to nip this ‘license to be unfazed’ in the bud.
History students are told over and over again, to the point of possible migraines, that ‘history isn’t some crystal ball.’ But as we know, that doesn’t mean it’s a waste. Reading history does not just tell us what happened when, it tells us the answer to two key questions: how did things change over time, and why does it matter that it did?
But should it end there?
In 1986, Ernest May and Richard Neustadt published Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers and argued that historical analysis could be an effective tool for policymakers, but to be wary of history’s ability to misinform our understanding of current events. They claimed that policymakers either knew nothing of history or used it to make wildly inappropriate analogies. This book didn’t completely focus on foreign policy and international relations, but it’s curious that the idea of “applied history” is more popular with those who focus on diplomacy or international relations. For example, Harvard’s Applied History Project is focused on “promoting the production and use of historical reasoning to clarify public and private challenges and choices” but most (not all) of the scholars and fellows are specialists in topics relating to international relations or global topics. This is immensely admirable, and perhaps it’s something that historians of domestic politics and culture are lacking?
I don’t think it’s the fault of those promoting applied history, or historians of race and discrimination that haven’t dipped their toes into policy. It might be the differences in the almost innate questions that various subfields ask in their research. Historians of foreign relations (or diplomatic historians if you’re old school) seem to build similar questions into wherever their research takes them. The typical questions we see in foreign relations histories: Why did an actor or group of actors choose this policy; how was this policy enacted; what was the impact of this two-state relationship or breakdown? Between the lines or right on the page we usually see questions like: where were the mistakes or missed opportunities; what were the successes; can this be replicated and should it be. Generally, I think, despite the cultural turn in the past decade, there’s a general assumption that since diplomatic history at its core, looks at power, usually the power of the state, understanding that power should require questioning it.
Despite the flourishing of scholarship in foreign relations history that focuses on non-state actors, race, and cultural connections, the interest in understanding how the state can and does wield power is critical. I think the notion that foreign policy history can answer questions about current power relations is always in the back of the mind foreign relations scholars, regardless of whether or not they’d consider themselves ‘applied historians.’ If one looks through the current issue of Diplomatic History there isn’t a single research article that doesn’t reveal the possibility of answering the question: what can we do with this history today? Though it may seem to some historians in other subfields that foreign relations history has become outdated, or that it’s clinging to the state as a major agent is a mistake, I argue that this core focus on who wields power and how is what makes it easier for scholars and readers of foreign relations history to keep the importance of contingency at the forefront. Meaning that the debilitating “why are we surprised?” is a pretty rare occurrence.
The goal of historical scholarship is to explain why and how change happens over time. But ‘knowing’ that everything has a history, a precedent, shouldn’t give historians or readers a license to be unfazed. Being able to see the continuities from the past to the present day should enrage us. Recognizing the contingent events and actions that engendered white vigilante violence to embed itself so firmly in American society shouldn’t make anyone say, “I guess we saw this coming,” in reaction to current events. Instead, since knowing the history of white supremacy has almost become a currency required to speak about current inequities, we should be able to encourage scholars and readers to ask specific questions of the past that might inspire different ways to think about the present. What engendered and empowered this violence in our systems in the past? What about today? What solutions did or didn’t work in the past? Why? Who in the past considered solutions to these problems? Why can or can’t we listen to them? Why do we need a new explanation?
Fundamentally, historians like me shouldn’t let our knowledge and research of the past become a crutch for others to say, “I’m not surprised.” The facts of the past don’t give us a reason to be unsurprised. Instead, they actually tell us why we should be angry. But perhaps we need a clearer framing of histories of racist violence and discrimination in order to avoid the conclusion, ‘we shouldn’t be surprised’ when confronting the present day. Since scholars of every subfield in history have benefitted from incorporating diverse perspectives in their works, then we might also be able to think about how a diverse and growing audience is interpreting this work. If this interpretation is engendering complacency in unequal systems, it might be time for a clearer reframing. If some believe our history of racism might underscore for some that unjust systems are too inflexible, we might need to reveal an alternative way of thinking about these histories. Especially because historians know all too well that these systems aren’t actually as inflexible as some may think, just because racist violence has been “happening for so damn long.” If a history of the Vietnam War can help Americans question current foreign policy decisions, if an environmental history of the Columbia River makes us question our current manipulations of the environment, then perhaps we can expect the same from our histories of race and discrimination. History is a powerful double-edged sword. Histories of slavery, economic depressions, or immigration can inspire change today, it just as easily can engender apathy.
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 Keri Leigh Merritt, ed., “Race, Republicans, and Vigilante Violence,” in Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, Cambridge Studies on the American South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 251–85.
 No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.
 Read: Richard Delgado, Jean Stefancic, and Angela Harris, Critical Race Theory, 3rd edition, (New York: NYU Press, 2017); Kimberlé Crenshaw, eds., Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, (The New Press, 1996).
 Michelle Alexander and Cornel West, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012).
 Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, With a New Preface, 2nd edition (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2019).