U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Charlottesville and Our Current Intellectual Moment

I had something else written and ready to go for today’s blog post. However, after watching the news yesterday—and, more painful still, keeping up with events as they happened thanks to Twitter—I realized I needed to write something else. I am, for the most part, at a loss for words to describe what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia over the last two days. I want to use this essay to offer something to think about as the nation moves forward.

We should, to start, dispense with the notion that this kind of action is not who we are as a nation. I regret to inform you that white supremacist violence is part of the core of our nation’s being. It always has been. And while I refuse to assume that it always will be, I am sadly confident in also saying it will be with us for a long time to come. But that is what makes the United States of America a complicated place to live in. It is also what makes the United States a complicated place to study. Ibram X. Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning chronicles this history of racism in America. But his book is also a chronicle of anti-racism in American history. We would do well, then, to remember that at our core is a nation still struggling to find out what, exactly, is its true self. For every John C. Calhoun, we can find a Frederick Douglass. For every “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, we shall also find a Modjeska Simkins. For every theoretician of “race science” or proponent of “separate but equal,” Americans will continue to find men and women dedicated to living out, to the fullest, the idea of “all men are created equal.”

This is a central tension in the intellectual history of the United States. Trying to create a “more perfect union” means debating ideas—and, at the same time, it has meant a civil war and hundreds of race riots. We can take some solace in the fact that, in 2017, most politicians have felt it important to condemn the actions of the neo-Nazis, alt-Rightists, and white supremacists who gathered at the University of Virginia. But every American of goodwill needs to steel himself or herself for a long struggle ahead. Remember that it was only in 2015 when someone—Dylan Roof—killed nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. In thinking about the history of the “alt-right,” or the resurgence of white supremacist ideology, it would be foolish to forget the actions of just two years ago.

In the past we’ve had other moments of white racist violence spike. I have written before about the period from roughly 1979 to 1981, when the American left expressed fears of a resurgent Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis. The parallels are worth investigating further here. The 1978 Bakke decision had weakened affirmative action. Incidents such as the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, in which five anti-racist demonstrators were shot and killed by neo-Nazis in Greensboro, North Carolina—a crime for which no one was convicted—led people to think the nation was headed into a dark direction. “Dark days,” James Baldwin wrote for Esquire in 1980, “for we know how much there is to be done and how unlikely it is that we will live another sixty years.”[1]

Check any period of American history where there is a modicum of racial progress, and you will find backlash. Whether it’s the early Republic, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the rise and fall of the Populists, the World Wars, or the Civil Rights Movement, white backlash against Americans gaining their equal rights is nothing new. And I would be wrong to limit it to just race (although I think it the starkest example in American history): progress for women, the LGBTQ community, and many others are also moments of backlash blues.

As a historian, I hesitate to say where the nation is headed. As both a historian and a citizen, I hope things get better. As a man who happens to be black…my optimism is tempered.

Alas, we press forward.

Notes

[1] James Baldwin, “Dark Days,” Esquire, October 1980, reprinted in The Collected Works of James Baldwin. New York: Literary Classics of America, 1998. P. 796.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thank you Robert, I think we can safely forget about American innocence and the idea that Americans are exceptional. Not that many historians would still claim any of these ideas in print but it’s still the subtext of much. Unless we are ruthlessly honest about we have here we can not move forward as a society.

  2. Eloquently put. Thank you.

    Conditioning and perhaps fueling this kind of racist violence — which as you point out is a constant in U.S. history — is now the demographic fact that whites will cease to be the majority of the U.S. population in a few decades (if I recall the projections correctly). I imagine neo-Nazis and other racists are quite exercised about this; indeed it would be surprising if they were not.

    “Few democracies have survived transitions in which historically dominant ethnic groups lose their majority status,” three political scientists wrote in Foreign Affairs recently. That doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. will follow that pattern and there are at least some reasons to think it will not, but still it’s a warning that should be taken seriously.

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