Calling on any nation to repudiate its history is asking a lot. Asking this of the United States — a country that is animated, more than most, by its great national myths — may be asking the impossible.
This was the thought that stayed with me after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me earlier this year. Protests at Princeton last week demanding a new name for the Woodrow Wilson School turn on the same issue, as do similar recent controversies. The charge is that the United States is much farther than it thinks from coming to terms with its racist past.
According to Coates, slavery wasn't just a blemish on an otherwise grand and inspiring history. He argues that racism has been the organizing and enabling principle of the entire American project. Facing the truth about the past isn't just a matter of intellectual honesty, he says. There can be no hope of social justice now or in the future unless the essentially depraved character of the American enterprise is finally acknowledged. That's the claim: Denial of history perpetuates denial of justice.
Reverence for Woodrow Wilson, which demands willful blindness to his views on race, illustrates the issue. Typically seen as a visionary American progressive, champion of the League of Nations, intent on making the world safe for democracy, Wilson was also dedicated to racial segregation and wrote of Reconstruction: "The white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes."
It isn't hard to see why black Americans (and not just black Americans) might be offended by the thought of honoring such a man. You could argue that Wilson was many good and great things besides being a racist. But you could also say, that's beside the point — the United States can't transcend its racist history and become the post-racial society it thinks it wants to be, until it can face the ugly facts about its past as squarely as the facts it wants to celebrate.
There's something to this. What's striking about Wilson is not that his racism is excused too casually, but that it's barely even acknowledged. To be reminded of uncomfortable truths, or to be made to see them for the first time, is valuable. But once the facts have been faced, what then? Is it necessary to disavow the men who built America, or is it enough to understand them more fully? Jefferson owned slaves. Does social justice require the Jefferson Memorial to be dismantled? Washington owned slaves. Might it be necessary to rename the capital?
The uprooting of history is an especially difficult thing for the United States. Old countries, grounded for good or ill in ethnic and sectarian identity, are bound together whether they like it or not, while political dispensations come and go. Germans could wholly repudiate their Nazi history and still be Germans. The American project is self-consciously founded on a political commitment, a kind of invented, self-willed identity. If the country disowned that — a new Year Zero in America — what would be left?
For a country so strongly attached to its mythic origins and heroes, the United States has proved incredibly adept at reinvention. So I wonder if the black-justice advocates are too pessimistic. Despite the cognitive dissonance about U.S. history, despite the reluctance to face facts, there's been great progress.
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Yet Coates is unmoved. His hopelessness — in a letter to his son, no less — is implacable. Sometimes he almost suggests that the election of a black president added insult to injury. A structurally racist country shouldn't flatter itself: The idea that President Barack Obama makes up for all the rest is so offensive that it might have been better if he'd lost.
You could look at it differently. It took the United States a century to go from slavery to the Civil Rights Act, then two generations to elect its first black president. By most countries' standards, that's reinvention at breakneck speed. In just the past several years, the country's views on gay rights have been transformed. And the treatment of black men at the hands of police has advanced from non-issue to national debate, to calls for reform from the highest office, all in the space of a year. Advances in social justice don't require a country's history and culture, flawed as they may be, to be extirpated.
It's entirely possible that insisting too much on extirpation might slow things down. America is a country that believes in progress, one you can challenge to improve — but I doubt it will take readily to self-loathing. Recognize Wilson's errors and failings, and Jefferson's and Washington's, but celebrate their achievements too. America should own its history; it needn't disown it.
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