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A conversation with Eric Foner, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in History.
What will history make of the horror and disbelief experienced by the world on January 6, when the United States Capitol was violently broken into and vandalized by Trump supporters who attempted to stop the counting of the Electoral College votes legitimately won by President-elect Joe Biden?
The painful and unforgettable events that transpired that day, leaving five people dead, not only speak to the fragility of American democracy but also reveal deeply embedded realities about white supremacy and its current and historical efforts to undermine democratic institutions and ideals.
In this interview, Eric Foner, one of the U.S.’s most prominent historians, provides an important historical framework for understanding these recent tragic events. Foner argues that the Capitol mob reflects other moments in our racially fraught history, revealing a common thread: the “inability or unwillingness to accept African Americans as legitimate members of American society, and to accept African American votes as legitimate.”
Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University and the author of numerous books, including The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, which in 2011 won a Pulitzer Prize for History, and most recently, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.
George Yancy: Your range of work as an American historian is extraordinary. And after recent events regarding the insurrectionist efforts of the mob of white rioters who attacked the nation’s Capitol, I think we need your voice. So, what was your initial response as you watched or heard about what took place on January 6 as so many white people engaged in violence against democracy to stop the process of confirming that President-elect Joe Biden had won the election?
Eric Foner: The day before the attack on the capitol, I was on the phone with a former student of mine who works in Washington, D.C. I mentioned that it would be best to stay indoors tomorrow because all these people are coming in…. I literally said that I wouldn’t be surprised if they just try to storm the Capitol to try to stop the counting of the electoral votes. Now, I’m not a security expert. But I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually it comes out that some of the DC or the Capitol Hill police were in cahoots, or at least were sympathetic and didn’t really feel like doing anything to stop them. But be that as it may, I was appalled and shocked. This is the logical end of Trump’s presidency. He has been inciting hatred and violence for years and now it has come home to roost for all of us. As an historian, I was particularly shocked by seeing the Confederate flag displayed in the Capitol. I can’t think of another time in history where the Confederate flag was prominently on display. Maybe there was such a moment. I don’t know. But again, that’s Trump. He has, among many other things, closely identified himself with the Confederacy, with the Confederate flag, Confederate monuments, and all that. It is pretty clear what people who carry the Confederate flag around think it says. This is not just heritage, so to speak. It’s not just respect of history. This is a symbol of white supremacy. Everybody knows that. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in history to know that.
For sure. And seeing the Confederate flag in the capitol was the materialization of white supremacy within this building that theoretically symbolizes freedom.
Yes. Absolutely. I was in a good mood until this happened because that very morning the two victories of a Black man, Raphael Warnock, and a Jewish man, Jon Ossoff, elected to the Senate in Georgia, had been announced by the networks. But change can happen. That was a remarkable thing in and of itself. If one knows about the history of Georgia, one knows how remarkable it is. This is a state that was critical to the Confederacy. It is where there were many lynchings of Black people over the years, where a Jewish man, Leo Frank, was lynched in the early 20th century. Where the Atlanta Massacre took place in 1906. Where you had Herman Talmadge as governor on a strict white supremacist platform. But in terms of Warnock and Ossoff, change can happen. In other words, I don’t want to take the events in the Capitol as conclusive — that’s it. No, there are signs of hope, as well as signs of real outrage here. So, it was a mixed day in many ways; a very positive thing happened for Georgia and a horrific thing happened in Washington.
That’s a nice segue to what I see as a strange tension, the juxtaposition between the storming of the capitol and the election of Warnock, as Georgia’s first Black senator, and Ossoff, as Georgia’s first Jewish senator. And while you’ve spoken to this, I would like you to say more. How are those progressive victories to be squared with the attack on the capitol and by extension, an attack on democracy?
Those two victories are very important for those of us who would like to see a more progressive program here in the United States. They were the result of very hard work by a lot of people. You know, the Democratic Party, over the years, has, I think, fallen into the trap of demographic determinism. How many times have you heard people say, “Oh, in 2045 there’s going to be a nonwhite majority in the country?” Maybe that’s true, but that’s not political destiny, by any means. In fact, the most recent election in 2016 showed what happens if the democrats just take for granted the votes of African Americans and Hispanic Americans. A lot of them voted for Trump. So, it’s not guaranteed that a nonwhite majority necessarily means that you’ll end up with progressive politics. You have to go out and work hard in Georgia, like Stacey Abrams and others over the last several years have worked very hard to register people, to make sure they get out and vote, to tell them to get their friends and relatives out to vote. And it paid off in Georgia. It’s a lesson to everybody that change is possible, but it’s not easy and it’s not inevitable and it’s not just a kind of natural flow of events. You’ve got to get out there into the trenches. And they did that in Georgia and I commend them absolutely for turning that state around.
I agree. And I agree with your point about the myth of inevitable victory. People must make things happen in progressive ways. But, you know, there is a sense in which America is seen by many Americans as buttressed by a kind of theological destiny, where American “exceptionalism” speaks to a kind of unique mission and superiority that the U.S. has been bestowed. How do you think about the concept of “American exceptionalism” in relationship to the events on January 6?
You know, to my mind, as a historian, American exceptionalism is the great obstacle to understanding America. It’s built into our culture. It’s very hard for us, even for those who realize how ridiculous it is, to get away from it. But it is ingrained in our culture. And it has all sorts of deleterious effects. You can start at a very simple level and say, well, “American exceptionalism” means that American history is different from other histories of other countries. Well, but that’s obvious. Chinese history is not the same as French history which is not the same as Brazilian history. So to say that different countries have different histories isn’t saying very much. But, of course, if we move up the ladder a little, American exceptionalism says more than that. It says that we have nothing to learn from the rest of the world. There’s no point in knowing about the rest of the world because we are so exceptional that what applies to them doesn’t apply to us.
This struck me years ago when Obamacare was being debated in the Congress. We’re aware that every other country has some kind of health care system, but nobody said why don’t we see what these other countries are doing. What’s going on in Germany or France or England or in Canada? They’re not all the same. They all have distinctive systems, but maybe we can learn something from their experiences. Nobody thinks we can learn anything from other people. And that’s very different from the Progressive Era a century or so ago. Americans really wanted to learn from other places about the processes of urbanization, industrialization, class conflict, which were happening all throughout the industrialized world. And American reformers and social scientists went over to Europe to see what policies were being adopted there.
A very good historian, Daniel T. Rodgers, wrote a book entitled Atlantic Crossings, which has to do with the idea of going back and forth. Now they don’t go back and forth. America tells other people what to do. Sometimes we tell them verbally. Sometimes we tell them by force of arms. Think of Iraq, for example. If you don’t want to be like us, then we’re going to force you to be, whether you want it or not.
Interestingly, Abraham Lincoln, was an American exceptionalist. The Gettysburg Address says, look, we are the only democracy in the world and the Civil War is about whether democracy will survive in the world. But Lincoln did not believe that the United States should run around the world, telling everyone what to do. He opposed the Mexican War. He held that it was by example that we were going to have influence, not by force of arms. Unfortunately, the example we set on January 6 is not likely to persuade other countries that we are a model they want to emulate.
That’s right. We’re already being severely questioned by the international community. As you explained American exceptionalism, the hubris and procrustean sensibilities of America are so damagingly clear. Do you see white racism as tangential to this exceptionalism, or integral to it?
White nationalism, as they call it, is built into our history in numerous ways. It’s not the only thing, but the American nation, created by the revolution, was premised on westward expansion. Read James Madison at the Constitutional Convention where westward expansion is seen as the destiny of the American Republic. But that, of course, assumes just displacing all the Native Americans who were said not to count. And the economy that is going to fuel westward expansion is a slave economy. It’s the labor of African American slaves that’s going to produce the wealth that will enable this. So, it’s right there from the beginning. The first Naturalization Act, in 1790 — that’s at the very beginning — said that only white people can immigrate to the United States and become citizens. Blacks couldn’t; no Asians. This is a white country. That was their basic premise. Now, of course, the Declaration of Independence also says all men are created equal. And there’s your tension. Which part of the Declaration do you actually want to adhere to? That’s the contradiction we saw between the Georgia election and the riots in Washington.
I think here of Frederick Douglass who said, “The fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
Yes. Frederick Douglass embraced the promise of the Declaration, even while he condemned the United States as a land of hypocrisy, because people talk about freedom, but in fact they deprive millions of their freedom. So this tension existed. Unfortunately, the white nationalist element here has been reinforced greatly by President Trump during his four years in office. He’s not the only one, by any means, but he’s certainly very vocal about it. And we have to be very careful, because American exceptionalism assumes that by nature we possess a democratic culture, but this isn’t true as we witnessed on January 6. There are many other strands within our experience which are not democratic and are not exceptional. Trump doesn’t really think that we’re exceptional. He thinks that he is just another authoritarian ruler like his pals Tayyip Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, or others around the world. That’s not very exceptional. That’s a certain mode of governance that a lot of people in the United States seem to find attractive.
Although you have spoken about this before, it is so incredibly important that I think that it bears mentioning here. Compare January 6 to the event in 1873, in Colfax, Louisiana, where members of a Black militia were murdered by white people who were armed and who seized control of the local government from elected Black officials. And also the 1898 coup by armed white people in Wilmington, N.C. In this case, they rejected or ousted the elected biracial local government. What do you see as the common ideological thread running through these three horrific events?
I think the common thread is an inability or unwillingness to accept African Americans as legitimate members of American society, and to accept African American votes as legitimate. Remember that President Trump came into politics by way of the Birther Movement. President Obama just wasn’t an American, Trump said. For Trump, Obama simply had no right to be president. To those with a historical sensibility, this reminds us of the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which said no Black person could be a citizen. I’m sure Trump is not that familiar with the Dred Scott decision, but the idea that this is a white country is there; anyone else is an interloper, an alien. That’s what unites all these things, and the belief that white people have the authority to overturn the results of African American voting. It happened in Colfax, Louisiana, it happened in Wilmington, N.C., and it happened many times in Reconstruction with Black people trying to go to the polls. Black people gained enormous power in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. They gained the right to vote. Something like 2,000 Black people held public office from the U.S. Senate down to Justice of the Peace, and so on. This galvanized a tremendous violent white backlash of terrorism, which we saw a little bit of on January 6. The violence back then, of course, was much worse. The Klan killed hundreds of people. You had white leagues, Knights of the White Camelia, you had these white nationalist violent terrorist groups operating in many parts of the South aiming at overturning biracial Reconstruction. That sense that there’s something illegitimate about Black political power is deeply rooted in many sectors of our society.
It’s dialectical, isn’t it? Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, argues that “no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself.”
Yes. Around 1900, just as the South was fully imposing the Jim Crow system taking away the right to vote from African Americans, Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous poem about the white man’s burden. It was a message to the United States from England. Basically, the British Empire, even though it was at its height, was waning. He felt that the United States had to take up the burden. What was the burden? It was ruling over nonwhite people. That was the white man’s burden. It’s a hard thing to do. Nonwhite people may not want to be ruled over. But the white man, as the belief holds, has got to do it for civilization, for humanity. Kipling didn’t ask France. He didn’t ask Germany. He asked the United States, even though we didn’t really have a big empire. We had Puerto Rico, we had Hawaii, but we didn’t have a giant empire like the European countries. You know, the greatest example of the white man’s burden was in the South where white people had reestablished, after the Civil War Reconstruction, their ability to rule over nonwhites. At that time, there was a big sense that the United States was the rising power. And the old empires were waning or would wane. Remember that’s around the moment when Australia was putting into effect what they called the White Australia policy. This is happening around the world and that’s the moment when the Unites States becomes an imperial power along with the rest of them. It’s part of our history, but it isn’t the only part. I think that if we look at people like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, you’ll find a different strand, obviously, which survives to this day. There’s the conflict there, a different vision of what America ought to be in juxtaposition to imperial rule.
When Trump refers to making America great again, given this imperial history, one wonders what he can possibly mean.
Yes. When was America great? Trump never actually says when America was great. A lot of people say it was in the 1950s when there were good jobs available, good pay, manufacturing, stable communities. It didn’t include Black people. Black people still couldn’t vote in the South, segregation was still widely enforced. It’s a politics of resentment, which is Trump’s politics: When people, mostly white men, but not all, cannot come to terms with the changes in our society over the past 50 years, whether it’s the Civil Rights Revolution, the changing status of women, the impact of globalization, which has been very deleterious in a lot of communities, changing demographics with immigration, etc. People who don’t like all that think there was a time when America was great, when none of that happened, when people from India and China and all these places were not pouring into the country, when Black people “knew their place,” women “knew their place,” white men could get good solid jobs. Exactly when that was is hard to say, but, nonetheless, that’s what we’re going to restore according to Trump.
Let’s end with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., where he paraphrases abolitionist minister Theodore Parker. King says that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends. Taking a long view as a historian, would you say that American history demonstrates or contradicts that assumption?
King admired Parker a lot. This is ultimately a religious concept. I’m not much of a religious fellow so it’s not the way I think. It would be nice to believe it. Unfortunately, as I said at the end of my most recent book about the Reconstruction constitutional amendments and what happened to them later on, there is no guaranteed line of progress. Rights can be gained and rights can be taken away. King was obviously not quiescent. He wasn’t saying let’s just wait around until things get better. You’ve got to bend the arc yourself.
George Yancy is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Philosophy at Emory University and a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College. He is also the University of Pennsylvania’s inaugural fellow in the Provost’s Distinguished Faculty Fellowship Program (2019-2020 academic year). He is the author, editor and coeditor of over 20 books, including Black Bodies, White Gazes; Look, A White; Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America; and Across Black Spaces: Essays and Interviews from an American Philosopher published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020.
Copyright 2021 George Yancy. First published in Truthout. Included in Vox Populi by permission of George Yancy.