Last night I gave a talk at Boston University. Afterward I spent some time with a group that included two of my former history professors at Howard University, who are now working at BU. These were people who were instrumental in my development and left me with two lessons which inform much of my writing here at The Atlantic.
Lesson One: the rejection of the idea that history exists solely to bolster our self-esteem. Coming up, as I did, in a time when history was seen as the great weapon against racism, and in the shadow of a total denigration of black history, it was natural to try to erect a super-noble past. But at Howard I learned that this pose was ultimately reactionary, that no nobility was necessarily conveyed by having a boot on your neck, and that true humanism allowed all of history's actors the full range of features, both laudable and regrettable.
Lesson Two: never confuse a belief system with biology. My post-Revolutionary Europe professor used to begin the class not with the Robespierre and the guillotine, but with images of Africans before the slave trade and after. It became quite clear from these images that something specific had actually happened to alter the way "black Africans" (this is the only term I have available) were seen by "white Europeans" (another unhelpful term).
It was from there that I began to conceive of systemic racism as something different than mere prejudice, and as an actual process, perfected by actual choices, which were made in response to actual needs. Surely my moral hackles rise at times, but I have never conceived of, say, red-lining as a matter of "bad people" doing something to "good people." "
Toward the end of our meal we began discussing how one can look at racism in history and avoid falling into depression. My answer was two-fold. 1) I enjoy the history for its own sake. I love history whether it has a political lesson to teach, or not. And 2) the history of white racism and its attendent victims is horrifying, but it should be seen in scale.
A taste of what I mean:
The fugitives who fled from the south after Nordlingen died of plague, hunger and exhaustion in the refugee camp at Frankfort or the overcrowded hospitals of Saxony; seven thousand were expelled from the cantons of Zurich because there was neither food no room for them, at Hanau the gates were closed against them, at Strasbourg they lay thick in the streets through the frosts of winter, so that by day the citizens stepped over their bodies, and by night lay awake listening to the groans of the sick and starving until the magistrates forcibly drove them out, thirty thousand of them.
The Jesuits here and there fought manfully against the overwhelming distress; after the burning and desertion of Eichstatt they sought out the children who were hiding in the cellars, killing and eating rats, and carried them off to care for and educate them; at Hagenau they managed feed the poor out of their stores until the French troops raided their granary and took charge of the grain for the Army.
By the irony of fate the wine harvest of 1634, which should have been excellent, was trampled down by fugitives, and invaders after Nordlingen; that of 635 suffered a like fate, and in the winter, from Wuttemberg to Lorraine, there raged the worst famine of many years.
At Calw the pastor saw a woman gnawing on the raw flesh of a dead horse on which a hungry dog and some ravens were also feeding. In Alsace the bodies of criminals were torn from the gallows and devoured; in the whole Rhineland they watched the graveyards against marauders who sold the flesh of the newly buried for food; at Zweibrucken a woman confessed to having eater her child. Acorns, goats' skins, grass, were all cooked in Alsace; cats, dogs, and rats were sold in the market at Worms.
In Fulda and Coburg and near Frankfort and the great refugee camp, men went in terror of being killed and eaten by those maddened by hunger...
That is the great C.V. Wedgwood describing the last years of the Thirty Years War, in which eight million people died, and the population of "Germany" (to the extent it existed) was reduced by a third. One of my professors followed this up by noting that ten million Russians died in the first World War, and then 15 million more died in the second.
When you study racism, with all its attendent woes, there is something comforting about those kind of numbers. It tells you that whatever you are struggling with here is not a deviation from the human experience, but an expression of it. There is very little that "white people" have done to "black people" that I can't imagine them doing to each other. America's particular failings are remarkable because America is remarkable, but they are not particularly deviant or outstanding on the misery index. This is just sort of what we do. The question hanging over us though is this: Is this what we what we will always do?