Does the United States become more equal, more equitable, and more just over time? Is it a forward progression that never turns back? Does it just happen? Or does it take work and struggle?
As a teacher of race and ethnicity, I find all the recent political talk about “playing the race card” suggestive of what we call a “teachable moment.” This concept which has so many meanings and uses (a floating signifier of sorts) is a rich example of many of our most significant gaps in understanding with respect to “race” in both our past and present social relations.
One of the things I find most interesting about its usage is the ways it is reflective of the fervent belief that “we” as a nation have become more racially tolerant and fair over time. “Playing the race card”—whether it means accusing whites of manipulating racial prejudice, securing support via white guilt, or any number of other actions—is seen transgressive. Doing so is seemingly suggestive of our collective racial past instead of our present. We become seemingly uncomfortable if the race of the candidate is even brought up, let alone if their race is somehow used in their campaign. Progress equals silencing of racial differences.
None of this meets my mind as progressive. In fact, I don’t see it as progress at all. Most of the racially-focused political dialogue I’ve heard in the past month leaves me thinking “we” haven’t moved all that much from the past.
Last week, while re-reading Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia—a classic in U.S. historical scholarship—I was struck by the historian’s analysis, first published in 1975. He wrote:
The men who came together to found the independent United States, dedicated to freedom and equality, either had slaves or were willing to join hands with those who did. None of them felt entirely comfortable about the fact, but neither did they feel responsible for it. Most of them had inherited both their slaves and their attachment to freedom from an earlier generation, and they knew that the two were not unconnected. The rise of liberty and equality in America had been accompanied by the rise of slavery.
That two such seemingly contradictory developments were taking place simultaneously over a long period of time, from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth, is the central paradox of American history. For the historian it poses a challenge to probe the connection: to explain how a people could have developed the dedication to human liberty and dignity exhibited by the leaders of the American Revolution and at the same time have developed and maintained a system of labor that denied human liberty and dignity every hour of the day…
To a large degree it may be said that Americans bought their independence with slave labor.
As I read these lines, I thought how they seemed radical not only for their time but for mine. If these words had been written in the 1990s, they would have been met by an organized movement of conservatives, criticizing this kind of analysis as “anti-American” or “revisionist.” This movement took shape after the time Morgan’s book was published. It helped elect Ronal Reagan and, in many ways, turned back the tide on civil rights. Yes, time does not always bring with it progress and betterment.
In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. responded to the suggestion that civil rights protests were unrealistic in their demand for immediate change, since justice is inevitable, in time. He wrote:
Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.
In practical terms, Morgan’s analysis isn’t precious. I mean, is far more radical things are published by mainstream academic presses every month. Yet it is hardly commonplace. To me, it served as a reminder of how social progress does not always unfold over time. That such a direct and provable assertion could still be seen as a radical revision of the traditional interpretation of the U.S. past is, in itself, sort of depressing.
Likewise, one of the sobering realities of our current political discourse is that we have failed terribly in our collective effort to learn from the struggles of the past. Acknowledgment of race was never the problem. The problem was how that acknowledgment served a system of white supremacy. Today, we can add to that the myriad ways our avoidance of acknowledging race serves that same system.
Quoted texts can be found in Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975), 4-5; and Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963. King’s letter was first published in the The Christian Century, June 12, 1963.