One reason we read history is that it brings order to the past. The best history reveals patterns, explains cause and effect, helps us to understand what has happened and why. Cool analysis requires distance, ours and the historian’s, from events.
The present, by contrast, can seem chaotic. We are often too close, and too emotionally invested, to see order in the world around us clearly.
In his new book, distinguished historian Peniel Joseph takes up the challenging task of writing history in the present tense, with enlightening results.
Joseph holds the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, and professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of several award-winning books on African American history, including “The Sword and the Shield” and “Stokely: A Life.”
His new book is “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-first Century.” In it, he uses the past as a lens to understand the present, to answer some of the questions that make us say, “How could that happen?”
Prominent among them is the question of how a nation that elected Barack Obama as president by a wide margin in 2008 turned around eight years later and elected, albeit by a narrow edge, Donald Trump. As Joseph notes, the flip from an administration that exemplified progress in racial attitudes to one that was overtly racist was disorienting, to say the least.
Joseph sees it, though, in the context of cycles in the history of race in America, cycles in which two groups alternately rise and fall in power. He takes his title from the first Reconstruction, the years right after the Civil War when Black people first gained political power — power that was emphatically wrested away by the rise of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the era of Jim Crow.
He posits that the second reconstruction was the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, when Black people once again organized for their citizenship and dignity. Joseph writes that, when he was a boy growing up in New York in the 1980s, his schools taught the history of the civil rights movement as a completed achievement — telling kids that America had reached racial justice.
But he saw too many news stories about Black people dying at the hands of police and experienced too much racism in his own life for him to believe that. The dismantling of the very real achievements of the civil rights movement was more subtle than Jim Crow but no less damaging.
The third reconstruction, the book’s main subject, is going on around us. It includes Obama’s presidency, the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and the defeat of Trump in the 2020 election.
“The deep roots of the present day extend into the nation’s past,” Joseph writes, “and this is a process that will continue: we are only at the beginning of the beginning of coming to terms with a new American founding in the aftermath of 2020′s racial and political reckoning.”
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The two groups Joseph sees as moving in and out of power are reconstructionists — people of every race who “fervently believed in a vision of multiracial democracy” — and redemptionists. Of them he writes, “Out of the blood and ruins of the Confederate rebellion came a vow among white supremacists to ‘redeem’ the South of ‘Negro domination’ or perish.”
The redemptionists’ ambitions now extend beyond the South to the entire nation; the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, Joseph writes, was a particularly stark example. He also writes about political efforts in several states (including this one) to compel schools to whitewash the history of race in America rather than telling children the truth.
But Joseph sees reasons for hope, among them the achievements of Black Lives Matter. “Flowering unexpectedly within America’s unforgiving racial climate, BLM sprang like a concrete rose from the yawning chasm between the bursting optimism of 2008 and the reality that killed Trayvon Martin in 2012.”
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, he writes, BLM marches moved through 2,000 cities and towns, with marchers of all races. More than 90% of those protests were peaceful.
Gracefully written, clearly argued and rich in research and detail, “The Third Reconstruction” gives us a path to understand the past and make sense of the present.
The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-first Century
By Peniel Joseph
Basic Books, 288 pages, $27