Questions about Teaching the History of Race to White Students

At Temple University, one of the standard questions on student feedback forms is how the professor handled diversity in the classroom. In all my years at Temple, as far as I can recall, I’ve received one negative comment on this question. A student wrote that I did not challenge anti-white statements in the classroom. That was news to me! But it did cause me to reflect on my teaching.

On another occasion, during a discussion of US atrocities in the Philippines and American attitudes toward Filipinos a white student raised his hand and said, “But they didn’t do these horrible things because they were white.” This statement managed to be true, false, and missing the point all at the same time. How could I explain that in the moment, especially given the manifestly personal place from which the statement came?

On still another occasion, a white student wrote that systemic racism doesn’t exist and though the US had a problem with racism a long time ago, the problem has been resolved and is no longer an issue.

Another time a white student said it seems like it’s seen as acceptable to make fun of white people but you can’t say similar things about any other group, especially on social media.

If there is a problem here, it might be easy to locate it in the students themselves. Look at those reactionary white kids! This would be a grave mistake. To do so absolves me of needing to reflect on my teaching practices. It also forecloses the opportunity these exchanges give me to dialogue about how race might be changing now and how young white people are experiencing it.

The youngest generation is in some ways the most diverse in American history. More young white people are growing up feeling like they’re just one group among many rather than the dominant norm. I think most young white people experience this as a positive, but some struggle with it. In any case, it would be foolish to suppose that this context won’t affect how our white students experience the history of race in the classroom.

For those of us who are steeped in the history of racism and are constantly seeing connections between past and present (gee the appeal of the white Christian nationalism of the 1920s Klan seems awfully similar to the appeal of Trumpism a hundred years later) it can take a leap of imagination to remember that some of our white students may see the history of white racism as deeply disconnected from their own experience. Superficial narratives of innocence and progress may seem naive to us, but they make sense of the world as many white students understand it.

What are white students supposed to do? It doesn’t make sense to take pride in whiteness, because it was literally created as a technology of domination. Yet if a student disassociates from whiteness (I’m Italian; my ancestors didn’t own slaves; and so on) it is widely understood as a dodge. I think we ought to understand that our students may find it genuinely confusing to be identified as white in 2020. What does it mean? Does it really matter? What responsibilities does it entail? Am I allowed to be proud of it? Should I feel guilty? I think our students are wrestling with these questions.

I need to ask myself if my teaching is unwittingly abetting the white racism and racial grievance so evident in the politics of Trumpism today. This point requires some careful elaboration. My goal should never be the comfort, as such, of white students. Nor should I hesitate to explain why statements like “There’s no systemic racism” are false. But I am responsible if my own teaching failures, my own lack of clarity and precision, contribute to white students’ defensiveness, confusion, or anger.

Yet it would be profoundly unethical (racist actually!) for me to elevate the unique confusions of white students above the learning needs of other students in the classroom. (Yes I see the meta-irony here as this is a post about white students). The good news is that there is a win-win.

Showing students that race is constructed inside history, that it is contingent and arbitrary, is not just good history. Analytical clarity on this point, delivered through clear and specific historical examples, is vital if I am to have any hope of creating an anti-racist classroom. And it comes as a relief to students of all backgrounds. It is the foundation for understanding why whiteness and blackness are different, why we can critique race as a system of power without condemning the individuals in that system, why students can have confidence in their ability to shape the future, why identity is not destiny, and so on.

Truly understanding the history of race frees white students to divest from whiteness as core identity, while accepting their social location and the responsibilities it brings. It frees them to celebrate their Italianness, or whatever, in ways that do not protect investments in whiteness. If I just catalogue a long history of racial oppression and resistance without carefully denaturalizing race, students of all backgrounds can find it deeply uncomfortable. Careful teaching drives home that we are learning history. It shapes our present but it need not be our future.

Teaching the History of Race on Zoom

Today I taught my last class of the semester in Temple’s GenEd Representing Race course. What did I learn from teaching this course?

–My view of race became more nuanced and global, though it still has a long way to go. Because of my training and interests, the African American experience is like a force-field shaping how and what I think about “race.” But this is distorting. We need to talk about race as a global phenomenon. In this class we discussed ideas of difference in the ancient world, medieval anti-semitism, whiteness in Barbados, European humanitarianism and genocide in Africa, global anti-immigrant policies in settler states, indigenous child removal in Australia, Nazism, decolonization, apartheid South Africa, and the Rwandan genocide. And yet, for all that, the course was still too American-focused. That’s just a reflection of my limitations at the moment.

–My view of what race is became clearer. I think I’ve known this for a long time, but having to do a whole semester on the history of racial representations compelled me to gain more theoretical and practical clarity on what this nebulous thing is. Suffice it to say, telling your students that race is “socially constructed” is basically pointless. I needed to show them race changing, not just tell them that it does. I hope this point came through to them (maybe I’ll find out when they hand in their finals!).

–My sense of how racial progress occurs became more concrete. This sensibility is reflected in this recent think piece. I think we focus too much on consciousness and not enough on material power. That said, I’m still an intellectual historian at heart so I think ideas are really really important!

–I also learned that the chat window in zoom is a wonderful feature that drastically lowers the barrier to entry for students to participate in whole-class discussion. I want to somehow replicate it when we’re finally back in physical classrooms.

What did my students learn? Here are some of their responses from today’s discussion (another benefit of zoom–these are actual quotes):

–“I learned that there’s so much that I don’t know.” (This is the best thing to learn).

–Another student agreed: “I was just thinking how much I actually don’t know about history itself when I thought when I was in high school I knew a decent amount history.”

–“I’m able to connect past events to current laws, regulations, or viewpoints….Instead of being like…’oh yeah, the past affects today’ versus being able to point out and make those connections. That definitely changed with this class for me.”

–“I remember you’re always talking about how things aren’t exactly inevitable…things have to happen for other things to happen…I was always thinking about that and it just kind of helped me immensely….contemplate kind of everything…A million things that have to happen for other things to happen and it’s just everything so intertwined and messy. And I feel like that’s why there’s also so many different perspectives within history and why, like the things we’re learning in high school and middle school and stuff kind of don’t exactly measure the world we learned here. I felt like I was in this one viewpoint. And now, like, my mind is kind of opened up to this whole other thing.”

–Another student said analyzing the movies we watched increased his enjoyment of movies in general. Shocking!

At the end of class one of my students (a senior!) said “this class probably was one of the better classes I’ve ever taken.” And in an online semester! Every teacher knows how good that feels.

A Reading List for My Next Class

I’ll be teaching a 6-week online class late in the spring. The course will cover U.S. history from 1945-2020. I decided to organize it around ordinary things beyond the newspaper headlines. The themes for the six weeks are: eating, loving, growing, working, playing, and belonging. The students will be reading excerpts from this (provisional) list of books. I’m excited about it. I still need to choose a couple more.

Notes from the Classroom: First Day

Well, that’s a wrap for day one of The Historian’s Craft at Temple University.

I’ve tried more ambitious first day’s in the past and perhaps will again in the future, but today I had just two main goals: get students talking to each other and get them oriented to the class.

I admit it: for an ice-breaker I had them travel to the spring of 1889, to a certain town on the Austrian-German border, to a certain house in which resided a couple by the names of Klara and Alois. This couple trustingly asked them to babysit their infant son Adolphus.

What would you do with baby Hitler? (This thought experiment was an unnecessary risk for opening day, potentially offensive on a number of levels, and I don’t recommend it!)

Some students indeed wanted to kill baby Hitler. Some wanted to kidnap him and take him as far from Germany as possible. Some decided to babysit him like any other baby and dutifully return him to his parents. Some wanted to surround him with good art and art instruction.

Seriously, though, some students framed their answers from the get-go in terms of real historical questions of contingency and causation. Some believed killing Hitler wouldn’t make a difference, which suggests a certain perspective on the relationship between the individual and larger forces. Those who wanted to expose Hitler to a lot of art seem to have confidence in the pliability of human personality. And so on.

Really, it was just a chance for them to talk to each other. But we could claim some historical thinking took place as well.

The more substantive exercise concerned how they have learned history. What has influenced their view of the past? Here are their responses (lots of these were cited by more than one person):

Independent research



Magic Tree House


Historical fiction


Music (Billy Joel – we didn’t start the fire)

Video games (Call of duty)

Family (history phd in the family!)

Oral history

Listening to others

History channel

Weather channel


Social media


Pop culture (comics)


Word of mouth

Talking with family; family stories

Dad [interesting to note that some people nearly always say Dad but rarely say Mom]



High school teacher

American girl doll

Colonial Williamsburg

Museums and monuments


History textbooks

Historic sites (one room school house)


Quaker meeting houses


Traveling and seeing other country’s point of view

I asked them what we might infer from this list. They said things like:

–History is all around us.

–We learn it in popular forms.

–It’s hard to know where the information is coming from or whether it’s reliable.

Most academic historians are likely to immediately note that nearly all the items on this list are “public history” or not even a direct form of history at all. Not surprisingly, not a single student said that academic monographs were important to how they have learned history. This need not be depressing to us, but it’s definitely important!

My example of how I learned history was church attendance as a child. There I received very powerful (though often implicit) lessons about what history was and what it meant.

My takeaway was that we are all engaging with the past constantly, and often unconsciously. Part of the point of this semester is to become conscious. If we are fated to remember, why not endeavor to do so consciously, and do it well?

American History is the Story of ______?

columbian exposition
Columbia Exposition of 1893, Chicago.

In a recent exam in my U.S. survey course, I asked my students this question:

“American history between 1876 and 1976 is the story of _________?”

I gave them the question in advance because I don’t think surprising them and trying to get them to think historically in a few pressure-packed minutes in the classroom is a very useful exercise. Instead, I wanted to give them plenty of time to chew over the question and think about creating a historical narrative.

As I glance over their responses, what I like about the question is that it really helped them to develop a historical argument and construct a narrative around it. Most students had a sentence in their first paragraphs that literally just filled in the blank. This might seem rudimentary, but it gave a focus and coherence to their essays that they may otherwise have lacked. In the future, students may be able to construct arguments with less scaffolding.

So, here are their responses:

American history between 1876 and 1976 is the story of…

Diminishing provincialism

An empire being built on the backs of the poor

Hardship and struggle



Defining freedom

National hypocrisy (2)

The battle to achieve the American Dream

Technological advancement

Equality, freedom, and protest movements

Constant conflict from within and the outside

Oppression (2)

An evolving nation

White supremacy (4)

Establishing the American identity

Inclusion and exclusion

Terrorism hidden by good desires and good outcomes

A century that constantly challenged the values held in the Constitution

Supremacy of white heterosexual males

Continual remaking and reestablishment of white supremacy

Struggle and progress

Progress through failure

Growth and progression


Pride, courage, and progress

Growth (2)

Americans realizing the power they have


Hardships many endured but no one talks about


The fight for freedom


Growth and demise

Deception and disillusionment

Expansion and change


Containment and independence

Some of these are head-scratchers, to be sure, and some may be too vague to do much good. But I was pleased with the variety of responses and I thought some of them were quite insightful.

Maybe another step to this exercise is to think about and discuss the difference between historical narratives and making stuff up. After all, these are very different stories the students are telling. How do we know which ones are good? Are they all true? What is the difference between a historical argument and a conspiracy theory? I don’t think we should assume students know the difference.

The Vietnam War was a War of American Aggression

Vietnamese propaganda, 1965: “Only by fighting the invading Americans will our country be truly independent and free”

Historian Christian G. Appy has a great article in the New York Times this week on the Vietnam War. (I also recommend his recent book on the war and American identity.) After all these years, Americans are still reluctant to take a clear-eyed look at that war. What was the nature of the conflict? What was the United States doing? Appy writes:

Was America’s war in Vietnam a noble struggle against Communist aggression, a tragic intervention in a civil conflict, or an imperialist counterrevolution to crush a movement of national liberation? Those competing interpretations ignited fiery debates in the 1960s and remain unresolved today. How we name and define this most controversial of American wars is not a narrow scholarly exercise, but profoundly shapes public memory of its meaning and ongoing significance to American national identity and foreign policy…

In the decades since 1975, all three major interpretations have persisted. Some writers and historians have embraced President Ronald Reagan’s view that the war was a “noble cause” that might have been won. That position has failed to persuade most specialists in the field, in large part because it greatly exaggerates the military and political virtues and success of the United States and the government of South Vietnam. It also falls short because it depends on counterfactual claims that victory would have been achieved if only the United States had extended its support for Diem (instead of greenlighting his overthrow), or tried a different military strategy, or done a better job winning hearts and minds. However, the war as it was actually conducted by the United States and its allies was a disaster by every measure.

In recent decades, a number of historians — particularly younger scholars trained in Vietnamese and other languages — have developed various versions of the civil war interpretation. Some of them view the period after the French defeat in 1954 as “post-colonial,” a time in which long-brewing internal conflicts between competing versions of Vietnamese nationalism came to a head. As the historian Jessica Chapman of Williams College puts it, “The Vietnam War was, at its core, a civil war greatly exacerbated by foreign intervention.” Others have described it as a civil war that became “internationalized.”

While these scholars have greatly enhanced our knowledge of the complexity and conflict in Vietnamese history, politics and culture, they don’t, in my view, assign enough responsibility to the United States for causing and expanding the war as a neocolonial power.

Let’s try a thought experiment. What if our own Civil War bore some resemblance to the Vietnamese “civil war”? For starters, we would have to imagine that in 1860 a global superpower — say Britain — had strongly promoted Southern secession, provided virtually all of the funding for the ensuing war and dedicated its vast military to the battle. We must also imagine that in every Southern state, local, pro-Union forces took up arms against the Confederacy. Despite enormous British support, Union forces prevailed. What would Americans call such a war? Most, I think, would remember it as the Second War of Independence. Perhaps African-Americans would call it the First War of Liberation. Only former Confederates and the British might recall it as a “civil war.”

I would reverse Chapman’s formula and say that the Vietnam War was, at its core, an American war that exacerbated Vietnamese divisions and internationalized the conflict. It is true, of course, that many Vietnamese opposed the Communist path to national liberation, but no other nationalist party or faction proved capable of gaining enough support to hold power. Without American intervention, it is hard to imagine that South Vietnam would have come into being or, if it did, that it would have endured for long.

Read the whole thing for Appy’s thoughts on why this matters today.

I recently taught the Vietnam War to my U.S. survey class. I emphasized a few points that I think are fundamental to understanding what actually happened in Vietnam:

1) The United States opposed democracy in Vietnam.

The 1954 Geneva accords established a temporary division between north and south. A 1956 nationwide election was to unify the country. The United States did not want that election to happen because American policymakers assumed, correctly, that Ho Chi Minh and the communists would have won. As elsewhere around the world during the Cold War, defending democracy or human rights was not an American priority.

2) Nationalism was a more potent force in the conflict than communism.

As the propaganda at the top of this post illustrates, the Americans had it exactly backward when they described Vietnamese communists as communists first and foremost. From the Vietnamese perspective, the more salient fact was that they were nationalists fighting against generations of foreign rule.

3) The United States was not defending the nation of South Vietnam; it was trying to create the nation of South Vietnam.

The military escalation of 1964 and beyond was the result of political failure. The United States tried and failed to create an artificial nation out of the temporary Geneva settlement. In the absence of popular legitimacy and shared national purpose for the South Vietnamese government, the United States propped it up through brutal military force.

4) In the United States, the human cost was overshadowed by the psychic toll on the American identity and social fabric.

U.S. actions led directly to millions of deaths in southeast Asia in a worse than useless conflict. But Americans tended to focus on their own wounds. After My Lai, the murderers became heroes. Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter urged citizens to “honor the flag as [Lt. Calley] had done.” A popular song put these words in Calley’s mouth:

While we’re fighting in the jungles they were marching in the street; While we’re dying in the rice fields they were helping our defeat; While we’re facing V.C. bullets they were sounding a retreat.

The United States wasn’t defeated in Vietnam, many Americans believed. It was stabbed in the back by its own citizens. Appy’s book has a lot of insightful discussion of these attitudes. I was especially struck by this excerpt:

american reckoning

On the other hand, some parents made no excuses for what their children did in Vietnam:

One of the American soldiers at My Lai was Private Paul Meadlo. While guarding a group of about sixty Vietnamese who had been rounded up and made to squat down, Lieutenant Calley approached and ordered Meadlo to “take care of them.” At first, Meadlo did not understand. “Come on,” Calley barked, “We’ll kill them. Fire when I say ‘Fire.'” Meadlo obeyed. The villagers were about ten feet away when the two men began firing their M-16 rifles on automatic. After killing many of the Vietnamese, Meadlo stopped. With tears streaming down his face, he turned to a buddy, shoved the M-16 toward him, and said, “You shoot them.”

Two days after the massacre, Calley ordered his platoon to walk through a known minefield that had recently caused American casualties. Most of the men ignored the order, so Calley took only a small squad. Paul Meadlo was ordered to walk point carrying a mine detector. Calley grew impatient with Meadlo’s careful movements and ordered him to stop sweeping and pick up the pace. A few seconds later, Meadlo stepped on a mine. His left foot was blown off. When an evacuation helicopter arrived, he seemed to be thinking more about My Lai than his missing foot. He screamed at Calley: “Why did you do it? Why did you do it? This is God’s punishment to me, Calley, but you’ll get yours! God will punish you, Calley!”

Twenty months later, journalists tracked down Meadlo in his hometown of Goshen, Indiana. They found that most townspeople supported the young veteran and what he had done at My Lai. “He had to do what his officer told him,” said the owner of a pool hall. “Things like that happen in war. They always have and they always will,” said a veteran of World War II and Korea.

Meadlo’s parents, however, did not agree. His father, a retired coal miner, said: “If it had been me out there I would have swung my rifle around and shot Calley instead–right between the God-damned eyes. Meadlo’s mother said this: “I raised him up to be a good boy and did everything I could. They come along and took him to the service. He fought for his country and look what they done to him–made him a murderer.”

Notes from the Classroom: Teaching the History of the Present

Bill Clinton, a leading villain of the history of the present

I’ve structured my U.S. history survey course to go right up to the present day. The last lecture of the semester is title “The Radicalization of American Politics, 1994-2018.” I do so with some trepidation, but I have several compelling (I think) reasons for it.

1) Over half of the class is made up of journalism majors. They will spend their careers in the world of 24 hour news cycles, and they will be much better at their jobs if they can put the news in historical perspective.

2) Communicating the inherent difficulty of thinking through the noise of the present to discern what is historically significant is part of the teaching objective. In the last week of the semester, I will be explicit about the speculative nature of this project. Thinking about our knowledge and perceptions as provisional is inherently humbling and can lead to better thinking.

3) It allows me to teach about the Trump era without letting Trump intrude on the whole semester. I’ve been very deliberate about avoiding Trump in my teaching this semester. If connections between the Trump Era and the Gilded Age suggest themselves to students, fine. But I’ve been determined not to recast the American story on the basis of the fleeting events of the past two years. Precisely because we don’t yet know how historically consequential this moment is, or its denouement, I’ve tried hard to let the significance of other eras stand on their own terms.

This restraint is easier for me when I know I’ve got that last lecture at the end of the course. Talking about the past with reference to Trump all semester would be inimical to historical thinking. But it would also be strange to go through a whole survey of modern U.S. history without communicating to students the unique features of the present moment of crisis. By the way, I’m eager for any suggestions about how best to do that.

One simple rule of thumb is to think about how Trump is different from past Republican presidents. That way you’re removing some of the partisan emotion from it while encouraging students to understand how and why we ended up with a president who rejects the post-Watergate norms of the presidency, 70 years of bipartisan American foreign policy, and matters of the rule of law and the constitution previously thought to be settled.

4) I’m trying to model thinking historically about the present as I prepare students for their final assignment, a “time capsule” project. I’ve never done anything like this before and I don’t know if it will work, but it goes like this:

The premise is that you are creating a “time capsule” that you imagine historians will open 100 years from now. What will be important for them to study?

You will identify a contemporary (in this century) event, process, person, movement, cultural change, technology, or other phenomenon that you believe is of historic significance. You will briefly describe its history and context and make an argument that justifies the historic significance of your choice. Your objective is to cut through the noise of the present and think in a longer time-frame than we’re used to thinking. In hindsight, what will people think was unique or important about the early twenty-first century?

Having made your choice and argued for its historic significance, you will select three primary sources that are essential to understanding it. You will offer a brief analysis of each source and explain why it will be useful for historians to study it a century from now.

I’ve cut out the details, but this is the conceptual gist of the assignment. It is still over a month away so if anyone has words of caution or ideas to make it better, there’s still time for me to change it! In my ideal world, students come away from this assignment having exercised intellectual muscles they didn’t know they had, and might even be interested in using them in the future.

Why Isn’t There Conservatism in the United States?

William F. Buckley

In 1984, Eric Foner wrote an article asking, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” In that spirit, I present this deliberately provocative and messy think piece. I’ll be giving a lecture on the rise of modern American conservatism after World War Two to my U.S. history survey class later this month. If I framed the lecture in the terms below, would it work? Does this argument hold up at all? What is it missing? What are the most obvious counterarguments? I threw this together without looking at any primary or secondary sources so I cringe at all that I’m surely glossing over here. Is there something to be said for this?

My key argument today is that modern American conservatism arose as an insurgency from both the intellectual margins and the populist grassroots. During the dominance of the New Deal coalition from the 1930s to the mid-1960s, conservatism seemed to be pushed to the margins in American politics and elite culture. Now, to be sure, you might look at the 1950s and say, gosh, wasn’t the whole American mainstream conservative? But this question fails to understand how American politics and culture looked from the perspective of the conservative insurgents.

They sought a radical conservatism (and I use this seemingly paradoxical phrase deliberately) that would upend the moderate consensus in American life and usher in their vision of a society of localism, laissez faire economics, and social order. Thinking about the New Right as an insurgent and radical force helps us to think about how and why American conservatism became so distinctive. Often when we talk about conservatism in a broader global context, we might think of the conservatism of landed elites stretching back into a feudal past, the conservatism of certain European Catholic parties, the conservatism of a very class conscious British society.

The United States, for all sorts of reasons, did not have those conditions. So, just as historians have asked, why didn’t socialism ever take root in the U.S? We might dare to ask the question, why isn’t there conservatism in the United States? This is a deliberately provocative and simplified question, but it helps us to think about the paradox of radical conservatism, a “conservatism” that sought to not conserve and preserve as much as transform.

Because the New Right found itself blocked out of the mainstream of both major parties, it assumed the posture of political insurgency from a very early date. The nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 was not a case of a conservative party choosing a conservative nominee. It was a shocking takeover of a moderate party by the insurgents. Modern American conservatism never lost that insurgent and radical quality, even after gaining power, and that has had profound consequences for American life.

The lecture would go on to discuss both populist conservative forces (especially women mobilizing at the grassroots) as well as intellectuals like Buckley and Hayek (yes, I know he wasn’t American!). One of the things I want to avoid is the conflation of conservatism with backlash and reaction. The New Right had goals it was fighting for, not just changes it was reacting against. I also think the framing of “radical conservatism” and “insurgency” could be helpful for setting up the very end of the semester when we talk about the contemporary radicalization of American politics and conservatism’s inability to govern. 

Are College Students Being Brainwashed?

A typical liberal professor caught in the act of indoctrination.

Conservative activists often claim that college classrooms are places of indoctrination. But a new survey finds that college increases students’ appreciation of views across the political spectrum:

college political attitudes

I hope this is true! The survey seems quite robust but I’ll leave that to the statisticians to sort out. In my classroom, I’m much more interested in provoking new questions and ways of thinking in students than in moving them toward a particular political posture. I hope that the vast majority of my colleagues feel the same.

In the field of history, to paraphrase one of my colleagues, we’re trying to get students to “give a crap” about people who are different from them. That means suspending judgment long enough to try to really understand people who are unfamiliar or even repulsive to you. We’re working on the level of imagination and empathy. These are the habits of mind and character required to engage seriously with the past.

If we’re doing our job well, it would make sense that students would have more nuanced views of the political other. It is not so easy to caricature people after you’ve stepped into their shoes. But before I get carried away with the grand effects of historical teaching, the authors of the study argue that what we’re doing in the classroom probably isn’t driving this phenomenon:

our best guess is this finding might ultimately have little to do with faculty directly and instead relate to the climate that campuses strive to create for the expression of diverse viewpoints, political and otherwise. While students may come to college never having met someone on the political “other side,” it is hard to avoid doing so in college. One central aim of higher education is to encourage contact, debate, discussion and exposure to persuasion from different kinds of people.

After a year of college, in other words, it might be more challenging for students to brand all liberals or conservatives as wrongheaded when they are studying, eating and learning alongside them. These experiences might even help students appreciate others as people with diverse histories and shared interests in working toward common goals.

One takeaway is clear: It appears as though the first year of college is doing what it should, exposing students to experiences that teach them how to think rather than what to think.

It’s worth thinking about this in relation to the widely-publicized (alleged) free speech crisis on American campuses. There is plenty of anecdote in that hysterical genre, but perhaps the data indicate our college environments are healthier than many people suppose.

The Moral Stakes of Contingency

North Carolina Congressman George H. White, elected during the Republican-populist alliance of the 1890s.

Historians are almost allergic to the word inevitable. We talk about contingency, about the what ifs, about the choices people make and how they matter. As we look at the past and see how complex and interconnected everything is, we ponder how history-making events might have turned out very differently but for seeming coincidences, unpredicted variables and—the greatest variable of all—human behavior that defies expectations.

Last week students in my U.S. survey class read an astonishing document from Frederick Douglass. In 1869, Douglass bluntly defended a vision of American society built on diversity and universal equality. At a time when most Americans saw diversity as a problem to be solved, Douglass declared there was nothing wrong with diversity that equal rights wouldn’t solve. In many ways, the document feels incredibly contemporary. Students were naturally sympathetic to it, in contrast to the other materials we read promoting human inequality.

But their sympathy only got them so far. When asked if Douglass’s vision was actually possible to implement in the 1860s and 1870s, the students said it was not possible. The implication—though they didn’t say it in so many words—is that the revival of white supremacy after the civil war and reconstruction was inevitable.

Today, I presented a lecture designed to challenge the assumption of inevitability. Though the end of reconstruction is traditionally dated to 1877, we talked about key moments in the struggle for interracial democracy in the twenty years after the final withdrawal of federal troops from the South.

I emphasized that much of what we imagine would be required to implement Douglass’s vision was actually put in place during his lifetime. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 did much of what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would later do, only to be struck down by the Supreme Court in 1883. The Lodge Force Bill of 1890 would have established federal oversight of elections not so different from the system later created by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After passing the House it fell to a Senate filibuster.

For decades after the withdrawal of federal occupation, black southerners continued to vote in large numbers and wield political power. In fact, they forged interracial coalitions with white populists and, in the case of North Carolina, took over the entire state government. After winning big in the election of 1894, the fusion party promptly enacted a reform agenda to relieve poor farmers, invest in public education, and expand access to the voting booth. So popular was this agenda that in the election of 1896 the interracial alliance actually extended its gains. Democrats were almost completely wiped out of the state house and senate.

White supremacists won the election of 1898 not with better or more popular ideas but with more violence. Amid a campaign of relentless demagoguery encouraging poor whites to think about their racial status rather than their class interests, Democrats used violence and intimidation to keep people from the voting booth. In Wilmington, having failed to win the local elections even with such tactics, white militias simply attacked and overthrew the government by force.

Faced with interracial political alliances between poor whites and poor blacks, white elites in the South made the writing of new constitutions a major priority. These constitutions drastically restricted the right to vote using poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. Provisions that were colorblind on their face, they were designed to completely eliminate black voting. They also disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of poor whites.

It took white southern elites the better part of four decades to establish a new system of white supremacy on the ashes of the old. In that time of flux, the forces of democracy might have won. What if the federal government had ensured free elections? What if the Lodge Bill had passed? In the end, after much struggle and violence, the terrorists won. But they almost didn’t.

Having placed the new system of segregation on solid legal and electoral ground, white supremacists in the South promptly began to spin myths about it. Suddenly this new system was not new at all, but a natural state of relations between white and black, a tradition, an inevitability. Tell that to the 1,000 black government officials in 1890s North Carolina.

In the Jim Crow south, inevitability was the ideology of the oppressor and the complacent. Contingency was the resistor’s hope.

This was why it was important for Martin Luther King to write from a jail cell in Birmingham in 1963 that progress was not inevitable, that time would not heal wounds. Civil rights for all was not an idea whose time had finally come. It was an old idea—known and tried and fought for generations before—and now the civil rights movement was trying to rebuild what had been so tragically lost.

Maybe if enough people were willing to make themselves, in King’s words, “coworkers with God,” the passage of time would indeed bring progress. But maybe, had the dice landed slightly differently a century before, had a few more people been willing to act, Dr. King wouldn’t have been in Birmingham at all.