I once went to hear a lecture from a renowned historian of race. A key point in his lecture was that we cannot expect historical figures to do better than their conditions would permit them to do.
On the one hand, I get it: This helps us remember not to be too rosy about the people of the past. Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, but he would just as rather have not, if he could have saved the union by preserving slavery. And he oversaw westward expansion in ways that were disastrous to Plains nations. Oh, and he supported the idea of shipping ex-slaves to British colonies in Guyana and Belize in order to get them away from white Americans. We don’t want to forget that even Lincoln was a man of his times, a leader whose thinking, even when it was shrewd, was shaped by the evils of white supremacy.
On the other hand, I don’t accept the idea that we should have such low expectations. When we dismiss bigoted behaviors as “the way things were back then,” we’re ignoring the fact that, even back then, lots of people were objecting to “the way things were.” For example, slaves and indigenous Americans. They were objecting, clearly and loudly and for hundreds of years. White leaders took their objections so seriously that they created systems of violent oppression to make sure that the objections would not gain traction. But by the time you need to create slave patrols and sponsor Indian Wars, you understand that there are, uh, critics of your line of thinking.
Above, The Righteous and the Wise, and their Works are in the Hand of God by Stephen Townes. If you think that there were not people in the past arguing against racism, you were not listening.
“It was a different time and place” isn’t a sufficient explanation for dressing in blackface, as I think Virginia’s Governor Northam is figuring out. When he posed in a photo that included a white man in blackface and another wearing a Klansman’s hood (Where did that Klan robe come from? The photo from his medical school yearbook isn’t just a snapshot of a costume party but a peek into his family or friendship history. Know who doesn’t have access to a Klan robe? Decent human beings.), it wouldn’t have mattered if it were the 1980s or the 1880s: in either century, white people wearing blackface was a form of mockery and white people wearing Klan robes was a sign of racial terrorism. There is no point in history when either of these were anything other than hateful; the point of them was to be hateful, always.
I understand the appeal of this excuse making. Blaming “the culture” is easier than recognizing our own agency in hurting others. And we must make space for people to change, of course, and encourage, recognize, and reward positive change. But we also have to admit that, all along the way, there have been critics of bigotry who we’ve actively tried to silence; we must elevate their stories.
If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.–Thomas Day, British abolitionist, making it very clear back in 1776 that there were white people who understood slavery to be wrong.
This is hard, hard work.
I hate the circular firing squad that the Democratic Party can often become. At the same time, I am grateful that it has been Democratic leaders who have been so forceful in calling for Northam’s resignation. Republicans should, too, but it’s just about impossible for me to believe that they all collectively care about race so much; indeed, we just have to look at their speed in condemning Steve King of Iowa to understand their opposition to racism.