‘Sadly, This Is Not New’: UVA Professor Reflects on History of Racism in...

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‘Sadly, This Is Not New’: UVA Professor Reflects on History of Racism in America

By Jeffrey R. Young     Aug 15, 2017

‘Sadly, This Is Not New’: UVA Professor Reflects on History of Racism in America
Beta Bridge on University of Virginia campus, the day after a rally by white nationalists turned violent.

University of Virginia history professor Brian Balogh arrived at the university grounds on Saturday, ready to give a talk as part of a planned “reflective conversation” about race in America. It was part of a university event intended as counterprogramming against a rally by white nationalists, neo-Confederates, and alt-right groups happening a short distance away.

But the reflection never happened.

Violence erupted at the rally, and a suspect drove a car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19 others, leading the Virginia governor to declare a state of emergency. The university canceled its event (and all others that day).

As Balogh drove home, he passed the site of the rally and saw a scene he describes as chilling: “There were young, white men carrying automatic weapons with lots of signs and flags with all kinds of outright neo-Nazi and fascist iconography.” He said they were gathered in a park he knows well “because I have spent a lot of time with my kids there.”

Balogh is practiced at putting current events in historic context, both in his classroom and as the co-host of the popular history podcast, BackStory, which also airs on some NPR stations. But he’s not used to seeing such unrest up-close.

EdSurge talked with Balogh Monday about the unrest in Charlottesville, his advice for professors heading back to the classroom, and what he would have said during the university’s reflection.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

EdSurge: How do we understand the rallies and violence that happened in Charlottesville this weekend in terms of what’s come before?

Balogh: Sadly, it's not that different. Those of us who have grown up with relative economic prosperity after World War II and experienced the demise of Jim Crow laws came to believe that this is a nation where history moves in one direction—toward progress. But if you want to talk about the Ku Klux Klan—one of the groups represented this weekend—you can look at this as the third resurgence since it was born in the immediate wake of the Civil War. It renewed itself in the 1920s, continuing to single out race, but also with an anti-immigrant, antisemitic bent in light of the waves of immigration at the end of 19th century. And it renewed itself, or experienced a resurgence, in the 50’s and 60’s as an increasing number of Americans, particularly African Americans, began to explicitly protest Jim Crow segregation.

So, sadly this is not new. In that, there is a lesson for Americans—which is the need for constant vigilance, the need to not take things for granted, even when battles seem to be won against things like racism and white supremacy. That these are long-enduring strains in American history and they need to be guarded against constantly.

There’s been some discussion on Twitter, for example among the #educolor community, noting frustration that people are surprised by the racist attitudes at the rallies, and essentially questioning that longstanding narrative that we were heading towards progress and that things were getting better. As a historian, how do you wrestle with that?

Personally speaking, it’s been clear to me that throughout my lifetime there has been a significant strain of racism that has existed in American society. The conversation about that racism for the last couple of decades has been about subtle racism—structural racism or structures that maintain hierarchies of racism—as opposed to explicit avowals of white-supremacists thought. In many ways, the most that we can hope for in the near future is making the people who feel it’s okay to express racist ideology crawl back into their holes. I think that’s where leadership comes in.

I don’t know that you can blame a president for the existence of racism or expect any president to eradicate racism. But I think, starting at the top, leaders can send signals about what’s acceptable in public discourse and what is not. I think the Right is now 30 years into an attack on what they call political correctness, which is what I would call common civility and democratic discourse. That attack on so-called political correctness has really empowered some Americans who have always been racist to express their racism. Perhaps, even bring it into the White House itself when you’re talking about some of Donald Trump’s advisors.

One of your focus areas as a historian is the American presidency. How different is this from the past?

Observing just 20th century presidents leads a historian to conclude that in general, presidents haven’t been terribly courageous in addressing one of America’s longest-standing problems. So, if we’re looking to give shoutouts to presidents for courageous action on race, I think we’d have to give a nod to Harry Truman for desegregating the American military in 1948, and Truman is from Missouri. I don’t think anyone could call him a crusader for civil rights, but a combination of political factors and a growing constituency among northern African Americans in a democratic coalition led Truman to do something fairly courageous, which was to desegregate the military or at least pass the executive order.

I think we might hand out the brightest badge of honor to Lyndon Johnson, who understood very well that advocating for and passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would mean the end of the solid Democratic South as he had known his entire political career. To name two presidents for courageous action on the racial front across the entire 20th century, it’s not a winning record.

Do you have any advice for teachers and professors to teach about these issues?

I think we need to go out of our way to provide venues where students and colleagues and staff can ask questions. I do believe that we need, perhaps in artificial ways, to create venues that will encourage students to ask questions that they might not otherwise ask and engage them in conversation about how we got to where we are today. I think that’s very important.

I also think it’s very important to let people know that history is not an iron cage—that we’re not simply captives of history, and that rights have been taken away from people in the past. That’s something that I think most of us think is a bad thing. But rights have been restored, renewed and expanded as well. Not everything is up to whoever happens to be president or even the Congress in Washington D.C. A lot of the issues that we’re talking about here—voting rights for instance—have been forged at the local level.

I’m not saying the national government doesn’t matter, and I’m not saying that presidential leadership doesn’t matter, but when it comes to the way individuals can get involved, getting involved in their community, getting involved politically at the local level is really what has reshaped history more than anything else across the 20th century and the 21st century.

What’s the mood on UVa’s campus?

As you might imagine the mood is both somber and angry. But many of my colleagues, being the excellent teachers that they are, are energized to welcome students back to UVa and answer their questions about how we arrived at this moment in history.

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