As the celebration of the Civil Rights Movement turns to reflection on the rise of Black Power ideology in the late 1960s, I think it is important for intellectual historians to recognize where the field of American intellectual history is going. First, as we can see from the excellent program for this year’s Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians conference, the field itself is going in many fascinating directions. But, to bring it closer to my own interests for a moment, the intersection of race, liberalism, the creaky foundations of social democracy in American life are becoming more prominent within the field. Several recent releases, along with a few new works coming out this summer, are testament to that idea. It is clear that historians are wrestling with the limits of modern liberalism and race. The question becomes where it remains for historians to within this newly contested historiographic terrain.
My post today is sparked partially by Kurt Newman’s fantastic open thread about the relationship between Political Marxism and the History of Capitalism. The third question that Mr. Newman raised—about the relationship between Political Marxism, the History of Capitalism, and the study of the Reconstruction era—particularly caught my eye. Now I do not want to say much here about Reconstruction historiography and intellectual history. That I would like to save for a different post, but of course if people want to talk about that in the comments, they are all welcome to do so. Nonetheless, since I would argue that the Reconstruction period sets the stage for the later give and take we write about in American history, between the building of economic social democracy and achievement of equality regardless of race, then it is essential that we understand what historians are writing about in the here and now when it comes to liberalism and race.
It is difficult to imagine the historiographies of the New Deal or the Great Society (especially the Great Society) not dealing with race in some way. Before I continue, I do wish to explicitly mention that when discussing race in both eras, going beyond the traditional black-white binary is crucial. The S-USIH award winning book by Ruben Flores, Backroads Pragmatists, discusses the relationship between civil rights activists in the United States and intellectuals and activists in Mexico during and after the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. Already, it is clear thanks to Dr. Flores’ book that looking at complicated racial dynamics in places such as the American Southwest further enriches our overall understanding of race in an American, and indeed transnational, context. The recent roundtable on A World Not to Come also made a similar argument—that understanding race and intellectual history in North American history means reckoning with the Hispanic World—albeit in an earlier time period.
Already, historians and other scholars have begun to more closely examine liberalism and race during the 1960s and 1970s. In some ways it is a reversal of an earlier historiographic move, seen in books such as Allen Matusow’s The Unraveling of America, which argued for a “declension” narrative brought about by excesses allowed to grow and fester by modern American liberalism. However, current historians are far more interested, demonstrated by books such as The First Jim Crow, in arguing not for declension but, instead, that liberalism was already hemmed in by questions of race and economics. This isn’t new either—Ira Katznelson has argued persuasively in Fear Itself that New Deal liberalism was heavily dependent on the Jim Crow South for support in Congress.
What I think will be of special interest to the readers of this blog is a book coming out this fall titled The Black Silent Majority. Here political scientist Michael Fortner argues that African American leaders played a key role in the creation of War on Drugs programs and policies that led to skyrocketing incarceration rates. Capturing the importance of African American agency in the intellectual history of the War on Drugs is key, because (as I have argued before) seeing African American thought as a monolith is a major mistake. And while no serious historian would make that mistake, it is also incumbent for us to move beyond thinking about just the African American left, or radicalism, or even African American conservatives. The relationship between black policymakers and the American state after the Civil Rights Movement—and this means understanding the hope and the limits of Black Power ideology as a force in the African American community, for one—is a topic that political scientists have long written about. Historians will start to write about this more, but when considering the relationship between liberalism and race, we must understand that everyone, including African American politicians and policymakers, had difficult decisions to make.
The declension narrative is not entirely dead. But it has been replaced by a “flawed liberalism” argument, which speaks to current frustrations with both the Democratic Party at large and a new, critical appraisal of what the modern American state was capable of achieving in the twentieth century. Where that argument remains to go is of interest to many of us here at the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians.