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When President Biden addressed the nation on Sept. 1, his warning echoed those of many who have been heeding to tell the nation that democracy is in danger. Especially those who study the past.
Less than a month later, the president met with a handpicked group of historians who said democracy was teetering and hanging on a string.
After The Washington Post reported on the conference of historians, it didn’t take long for it to raise questions not so much about the fact that democracy is in danger, but about the monochromatic makeup of those who carry that message. .
The Biden administration appeared to have invited only white experts to advise the president: four historians and one journalist — journalist and Atlantic Staff writer Ann Applebaum.
But it wasn’t just the group’s lack of diversity, it was also where that lack of diversity seemed to lead.
“They compared the threats facing America to the pre-Civil War era and the pre-World War II pro-fascist movement,” read a subheading of the post.
These comparisons leave out important pieces of U.S. history that resonate today, says Kenneth Mack, a professor of law and history at Harvard University.
“You don’t have to look outside the United States, or go all the way back to the Civil War to think about voter suppression, demagogues, fascist tactics, and so on,” he says.
“We have seen the death of democracy here in America,” Mack says. “African Americans have experienced this first hand.”
Jelani Cobb, New Yorker author and new dean of the Columbia Journalism School, adds, “A formative experience of American authoritarianism was its treatment of people of African and Indigenous descent.”
Cobb says the meeting missed the point.
If we don’t examine how democracy has been lost for people of color in this country, we may miss how liberty is lost, not in a moment of magnanimity, but in the slow, ongoing oppression.
And if we exclude the voices of scholars and writers who understand the anti-democratic and fascist order as a legacy rather than a deviation, we may miss how democracy has been pulled back from the brink thus far.
“By having an all-white room,” says Cobb. “You’re reproducing the sort of perspective gap we saw that fueled this issue in the first place.”
that’s exactly what’s happening right now
Reconstruction was a bold plan to mend the wounds of slavery and build a multiracial democracy from the ashes of civil war. Far from embracing equality, it was violently overruled by Southern whites.
“At the turn of the century, we lost everything,” says Professor Manisha Sinha of the University of Connecticut.
“All wasted because of the highly reactionary Supreme Court and state and local laws that overthrow elections and prevent people from voting.”
“Familiar isn’t it?” she asks.
There was white supremacist domestic terrorism, lynchings, Ku Klux Klan rule, and what Sinha describes as “racist authoritarianism.”
In many ways, she says, “That’s exactly what’s happening right now.”
Both Sinha and Mack state that the past cannot be directly transplanted into the present. But it’s important to understand that racism and white supremacy have always been at the center of the threat to our democracy.
“Talking to a racist gives you that perspective,” Mack says.
“The group Biden was in was a very prominent group,” he says.
“But the real question is, will anyone else add to that discussion, enrich it, bring something that the people invited didn’t bring?
Erica Loewe, the White House Director of African-American Media, told NPR in a statement: We have taken action to ensure that personnel and policy decisions reflect the diversity of this country. ”
Whose history is central?
We will never know exactly what historians said to President Biden, about rebuilding and the death of democracy.
However, two historians appeared in a TV afterword to talk about the meeting.
Princeton University professor Sean Wilentz and presidential historian Michael Beschloss confirm coverage leading up to two key moments in American history that the Washington Post focused on: the Civil War and the 1930s and 1940s. and repeated.
Beschloss spoke with MSNBC’s Jonathan Capeheart. “If only we had lived in 1940,” he said to Capehart, who is black.
“We” are speaking. America at that time was no longer a democracy for most black people.
“There are people inside who want this to be an authoritarian system,” Beschloss continued.
He did not mention that many blacks were already living under authoritarian regimes, like Jim Crow in the 1940s.
Beschloss pointed to a second reason why he felt democracy was, and still is, dangerous. “Nazi Germans, Italians, Imperial Japan, we live in a world where fascism is marching,” he said.
But the rising fascist movement abroad has borrowed heavily from American fascist tactics, Jim Crow and America’s brutal treatment of indigenous peoples.
Wilentz didn’t even mention race or American history in his interview with CNN. What he said was that all moments when democracy is in danger have one thing in common: a crisis of legitimacy.
“The key to all of this is when the country’s fundamental institutions are being called out. The legitimacy of these institutions is being seriously questioned,” he told CNN’s Michael Smarkonish.
“It certainly happened before the Civil War and led to secession. .”
It was a moment when white Southerners rejected and questioned the legitimacy of the federal government. I came.
Is it the distrust and rejection of American institutions that Wilentz puts at the center of the story?
Jelani Cobb says Wilentz has a history of misinterpreting race and racism. He points to Wilentz’s infamous 2008 article, “Race Man.”
In an essay, Wilentz described Obama’s campaign as “the most outrageous racial political development since Willie Horton’s 1988 campaign ad, in which Ronald Reagan celebrated state rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1980. It’s the most cunning since we started the campaign with That announcement, just miles from where three of his civil rights activists were murdered by the KKK, was seen by Reagan as an implicit nod to white supremacists.
“Here’s this crisis that’s broken through by the racial component, and that’s who’s in the room,” Cobb says. “Yeah. That’s the problem.”
in the room where it happens
Scott Crisage, executive director of the American Research Association, said that to truly understand its role in the past and present, we must look to historians who study more than just those in power. I’m here. There’s value in a presidential historian reading every piece of paper a president writes, he says. “But unless it’s paired with someone who’s analyzed the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the black freedom movement, and the Japanese American relief movement against internment,” you don’t have the full story.
It is not enough to understand that democracy is in danger. We must learn from those who bore the brunt of that loss and are still bearing it.
“Those who have studied exclusion, those who have studied the struggle for civil rights and democracy for the oppressed have the deepest insight into how fragile democracy is,” he said. increase. They also have insight into “what it takes to build a movement — what struggles, what sacrifices, what courage and determination it takes to win and maintain democracy.” I’m here.
Because if there are enough examples of the death of democracy in our historical DNA, we also have a blueprint for the protection and rebirth of democracy. There were abolitionists who fought the horrors of slavery in America. Then, after a failed rebuild and the imposition of Jim Crow’s brutal system, a long battle for civil rights began.
Historian Kenneth Mack said, “It took a lot of people and activists on the ground every day to reintroduce democracy to the democratic areas of America.” . “And it was reintroduced during my lifetime.”
The struggle for equal rights in the 1960s was a large-scale movement led by blacks and people of color. The people stubbornly believed in America’s promises and pushed forward with his second attempt at rebuilding.
“I think it’s very important for us to remember that even ordinary American citizens can actually swing the pendulum of history,” said historian Manisha Sinha.
People must push, says Sinha, but those in power must act. “American democracy was only preserved when the federal government responded in a strong way,” she says.
August’s conference of historians wasn’t the only time President Biden invited experts to learn from the past. Earlier this year, he met another group, including his lead, Annette Gordon, a black academic who studies race, law, and history at Harvard University. In previous speeches, Biden likened today’s threat to Reconstruction and the right to vote in post-Reconstruction America.
But Jelani Cobb says it’s still worrying that this meeting of all-white historians actually happened. at the same time that there is a movement to silence
The campaign to outlaw the teachings of America’s racist and anti-democratic past is no accident, says Cobb. The same politicians pushing history in the shadows are pushing and promoting voter suppression laws drawn directly from its past. “What they’re doing is effectively turning off the light switch,” Cobb says.
After all, history reads like a map.
“There are maps that help us understand the moment we are in, and in that moment we find ourselves in complete darkness.”