Universities and Slavery | 1 of 5 | Keynote || Radcliffe Institute

Universities and Slavery | 1 of 5 | Keynote || Radcliffe Institute

November 7, 2019 0 By Kody Olson


[MUSIC PLAYING] – Good morning, everyone. I’m Liz Cohen, and I’m Dean
here at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and
I want to welcome you to today’s conference,
Universities and Slavery Bound by History We are very excited
that today actually happened, came. We’ve been planning
this for a long time. We’ve been proud to
plan this conference with the Office of Harvard
University’s President, Drew Gilpin Faust. And with Harvard faculty
members Professors Sven Beckert, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham,
and Dan Carpenter, who is also the Faculty
Director of the Social Sciences at the Radcliffe Institute. I thank them all, along with
Radcliffe staff members, Rebecca Wassarman, Jessica
Viklund, and Chandra Manning, and their very talented
teams for their hard work organizing today’s conference. As Harvard’s Institute
for Advanced Study, Radcliffe’s mission is to
foster interdisciplinary inquiry into important subjects. We regularly bring
leading thinkers together to investigate
profound questions like the ones we confront
today, how and why have institutions of
higher learning been deeply intertwined with the
institution of slavery Here at Harvard, across
the United States, and around the world? And what are the
implications of that history? No one academic field can answer
such complex and troubling questions. Which is why we felt that
the Radcliffe Institute would provide an ideal
venue for historians, civic leaders, artists,
and many others to delve together
into the fraught relationship between
universities and slavery. I am pleased to share this
day with so many of you here in Radcliffe Yard
whether you are a high school student or a scholar of
international acclaim, and with many more
of you online. A warm welcome to everyone. I hope you will take
advantage of the opportunity to visit a special exhibition
entitled Bound by History Harvard Slavery and Archives
at the Harvard University Archives, which is located
in Pusey Library in Harvard Yard adjacent to
Widener Library. Ordinarily, this exhibit
is open on weekdays, but it will also
be open tomorrow, Saturday, March 4 from 9:00
AM to 2:00 PM to allow as many of you as possible to view it. I would also be delighted
to welcome you back to attend one of the
many other public events that the Radcliffe Institute
hosts throughout the year. You can learn more about what’s
coming up from the calendar brochure at your seat and
on the Radcliffe website. But I want to take a moment to
mention our culminating event of this academic year– Radcliffe Day on Friday, May 26. This day is dedicated annually
to honoring excellence and inquiry, and
presenting the Radcliffe Medal to an individual who has
had a transformative impact on society. This year, we will make history
and present two Radcliffe Medals. One to Judy Woodruff
and the other, posthumously to Gwen Eiffel
for their many stellar years as co-anchors of
the PBS News Hour. The day will honor the
individual and joint accomplishments of
these two journalists and the crucial importance
of integrity in journalism. You can find more details
on the Institute’s website, and I hope that
you will join us. Today’s conference allows
us all to participate in an urgent conversation
about universities and slavery. Universities propel
our society forward through pioneering research
and the dissemination of new knowledge. But they are also shaped
by their past, both the praiseworthy aspects and
the elements we prefer to avoid, Including those closely
bound up with slavery. Discussions about
universities and slavery began on individual campuses. In 2003, Brown University
President Ruth Simmons appointed a steering committee
on slavery and justice. And in 2007, Brown committed
to taking concrete steps to address and memorialize the
role of slavery in its history. In that same year,
Professors Sven Beckert began teaching an undergraduate
research seminar on the history of slavery here at Harvard. Meanwhile, descendants
of James Rollins, known as the Father of the
University of Missouri, established the James S. Rollins
Slavery Atonement Endowment to support the University
of Missouri’s black studies program. As the realization
spread that institutions of higher learning and
the institution of slavery shared an
interconnected history, many more schools
began investigating how slaves and
slavery had helped construct, in all
senses of that word, their own hallowed
halls of learning. Soon, universities began looking
beyond their own campus gates to learn more about
the role of slavery in the development of higher
education more broadly. Collective efforts have
included a landmark conference hosted by Emory
University in 2011, and the University Studying
Slavery Initiative, which began among schools in Virginia
and is now spread across state lines to include institutions
throughout the eastern half of the United States. The number of
universities coming to terms with this unsettling
part of their histories continues to grow. Students in the United
States and around the world are asking their
schools and colleges to take down statues of
slave-owning or slave-trading founders, rename buildings, and
redesign university insignia. Many of you in this audience
come from campuses now taking seriously the
responsibility of learning what slavery has meant at
and for your own institution. Now it is time to make sure that
the larger public is included in this important conversation. So I am delighted at the
broad and diverse audience that we have
gathered here today. In order to move
forward, we must first reckon with a complicated past. Through the impressive efforts
of many dedicated researchers we’ve been learning a great
deal about how slavery benefited universities financially
and through the labor of enslaved individuals. But we shouldn’t
overlook how it also influence universities
intellectual development. Slavery shaped teaching methods,
curricula, and the evolution of entire disciplines. Today’s conference will take
us deep into the consideration of these multifaceted
relationships. Let’s begin by looking at
the cover of your conference program. So if you want to dig that out. The program cover
features a portrait of a man named Renty
who was born in Africa, kidnapped, and sold into
slavery in the United States in the first half
of the 19th century. This image was
taken in 1850, when Renty was a slave at Edgehill
Plantation near Columbia, South Carolina. Portraits were chiefly reserved
for the well-to-do in 1850. So who took this image, and why? It turns out, that
the portrait was taken for Louis Agassiz, a
Harvard professor and a world renowned scientist in his day. He was one of the inaugural
professors at the Lawrence Scientific School, the
precursor of today’s John A. Paulson School of
Engineering and Applied Sciences here at Harvard. Some of you, in
fact, are watching from Agassiz House, that’s
our overflow space, where we will all gather later
today for a reception after the conference. That building is named for
Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, herself a teacher, president
of Radcliffe College, and Louie’s wife. Louis Agassiz was a proponent
of a scientific theory that was regarded as one of
the most cutting edge ideas of his day, the
Theory of Polygenesis. That theory denied that all
humans shared common ancestry, and instead posited that
different races were actually distinct and unequal species. In 1850, Agassiz traveled to
a South Carolina plantation to gather evidence
for polygenesis. He observed enslaved workers
there and long after his return to Cambridge, he
studied portraits taken of five of the men
and two of the women. Agassiz classified and
cataloged those men and women by their physical
characteristics, in much the same way that he
had classified and cataloged species of animals
earlier in his career. The image of Renty that you see
on the cover of your program, and here on the screen,
is one of those images. To Agassiz, Renty was a specimen
to inform the Harvard teaching curriculum and to contribute
to the development of the academic disciplines
of comparative anatomy and anthropology. Renty’s cataloged
biological characteristics were what interested Agassiz. Today, it is Renty’s personal
story that interests us. So what do we know
about that story? The historical record
tells us that Renty was a member of the Congo Tribe. The historical record
tells us that he spent his days laboring. The historical record tells
us that he was a father. His daughter Delia also worked
on the Edgehill Plantation. Renty was surely much more
than either Agassiz’s list of characteristics
or the bare facts revealed in the conventional
written historical record. Much of his personal
story remains unknown, or pieced
together by conjecture because so much has been erased
from that written record. But that does not
mean that we should stop trying to know more. We have in fact hosted
two seminars here at Radcliffe on
the Agassiz images. One in 2012 and another
in 2015, and you can read more about one campaign
to elevate Renty, literally, in my note in your program. For many years
the Agassiz images remained hidden in an
attic here at Harvard until Peabody Museum staff
rediscovered them in 1976. Similarly, the historical
tie between universities and slavery has remained
buried for years. But that relationship
could never fully disappear, any more than Renty’s
photograph truly vanished– even when it was out of sight. Now we must comb
through the attics and open the disturbing drawers
of our universities past, no matter how difficult. As we do, I trust
that we will grow to appreciate more and more
how an image like Renty’s has significance far beyond
the Edgehill Plantation in Columbia, South Carolina,
where he was enslaved. Thanks to our
distinguished speakers assembled here today and
through all of our efforts. We will and we must
continue to unearth history today and commit
to ensuring that it informs our work going forward. It is now my great pleasure
to welcome to the podium distinguished historian
and Harvard University President, Drew Gilpin Faust. [APPLAUSE] – Thank you. Thank you. I want to express my deepest
appreciation to Dean Lizabeth Cohen and her
Radcliffe colleagues for taking on my
request to sponsor this conference with such
enthusiasm and dedication. We are all very
much in their debt. I want to give special thanks to
faculty conference organizers, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham,
Sven Beckert, and Dan Carpenter, for shaping such a rich program. And I also want to say
a special thank you to Megan Sniffin-Marinoff
and the staff of the Harvard University Archives for their
efforts to find our history. These are just in their early
stages, they will continue, but the exhibit that they
have already put together and the things they’ve
already uncovered are the beginning of a
very important trajectory of discovery that we
will be engaged in. Last April, members of
the Harvard community gathered together with
Congressman John Lewis to place a plaque at
Wadsworth House commemorating the lives of four
enslaved persons who had, during the 18th
century, worked there in the households of
two Harvard presidents. This effort was intended to
be one milestone in a broader exploration of an
aspect of Harvard’s past that has been rarely
acknowledged and poorly understood. Harvard was directly complicit
in slavery from the college’s earliest days in
the 17th century, until the system of bondage
ended in Massachusetts in 1783. Then, through financial and
other ties with the slave South, Harvard continued to
be involved with slavery up until the time of emancipation. This history and its legacy
have shaped our institution in ways we have yet
to fully understand. Today’s conference
is intended to help us explore parts of
the past that have remained all but invisible. To acknowledge those
realities is essential if we are to undermine the
legacies of race and slavery that continue to
divide our nation. And if we are to
commit ourselves to building a better future. Slavery of course, is part,
not just of Harvard’s history, but embedded in the past of
universities across the United States and in the world
beyond our national borders. Today we will also examine
this broader context, investigating historical
similarities and differences, as well as the range
of contemporary efforts to confront slavery’s
distressing legacies. So we look at both past and
present today in the firm belief that only by coming
to terms with history can we free ourselves to
create a more just world. Thank you for joining
us in that enterprise. As our keynote
speaker, we are honored to have the ideal person
to lead us in that work. His many honors
and accomplishments are detailed in your program. Please join me in
welcoming Ta-Nehisi Coates. [APPLAUSE] – I was– Whenever I, and I’ve been
blessed one or two times to do things with
President Faust, and I told her that I was
going to resist the temptation to gush over her
work as a historian. Before I knew President
Faust was President Faust, I knew her as Dr. Drew Gilpin
Faust through her work. And then I realized she was
actually president of Harvard. I say that not as– just as a mere note
of flattery, it is a tremendous, tremendous
honor to be here, and in many ways, to my mind,
it’s a little absurd to have me here as a keynote
speaker, because I learn so much from you guys. And I’m speaking
about the historians, and the sociologists, and
academics in the audience, and the political scientists. I’ve been blessed
with this opportunity. As a writer for the
Atlantic Magazine, which has this huge platform
and it’s huge megaphone, but sometimes people
make the mistake of thinking because it’s
the first time they’ve seen something that you’re
the originator of that work. And I want to do
right now what I try to do all the time and
disabuse people of that notion. My job, a big part of
my job is I see it, is to really just
use that megaphone to amplify some of the great
work that that’s happening. When I came to the
Atlantic, I think I had a basic,
what one might call a conventional, liberal
perspective on race and racism in this country. And I guess I would have
said race at that time. And the basic notion
was that black people were a class of people who,
for historical reasons, suffered a greater
percentage of poverty. And one of the ways
to deal with that was if you could direct
traditional programs that we use for folks that
are impoverished towards black folks then
everything would be OK. But again largely,
from the research of people who were
assembled in this room, I came two conclusions. The first was that black
people, in and of themselves, are class in America. And that goes across
the board for what we consider conventional
class that you can’t really talk about an upper middle
class, a black upper middle class, and a white
upper middle class as though they’re somehow equal. You can’t talk about a black
poverty and white poverty as those two things
are somehow equal. That the very ecology that black
folks exist in different places is very, very different. I grew up in West Baltimore. I had two parents in my house. I had parents who
valued education, both my parents eventually
became college graduates. Reading was very, very
much stress in my house. But I didn’t have a single
friend in my neighborhood who was like me. The vast majority of
my friends did not have fathers in their home. A significant number of them
didn’t even know their fathers and, at my class
at school, it was nothing– there were very few,
if any, families like the one I grew up in. My family was unique for other
reasons, which I’ve detailed, but just in that sort of
basic sense, what I’m saying is the basic ecology
was different. What that meant was the
neighborhood I was in, it wasn’t the same amount
of social capital assembled that might have
been true if you had taken that same
profile of a family and that family had been white. Robert Sampson who is– Rob, are you here? I got a note saying
you’re going to be here. I don’t know if Rob made it. Oh, there he is there. Hey, Rob, how are
you doing, man? I’m going to make
this very, very– So you know, Rob
has actually, he’s been a very, very significant. Bruce Weston, Devah Pager,
and Rob, these people have been very, very significant
to me understanding what I’m going to try to layout here. Rob, in his book, The Great
American City, Chicago, and the Enduring Neighborhood
Effect, has a chart and on one axis, you see
the incarceration rate from 1992 1995, when
on the other axis you see the incarceration
rate from 2000 to 2005. And the effect is that
the further up you go the axis you
can see people who are cross those two periods
have higher incarceration rates. And along the line
you have neighborhoods throughout Chicago bunched up
way at the top of this line. That is to say, the
neighborhoods that have had the highest
incarceration rates across this period
that Rob is studying, you see totally
black neighborhoods, There are no white neighborhoods
at the top of that line. And then at the bottom of that
line where you see the lowest amount of incarceration
rates across this period, it’s all white neighborhoods. It’s not even a bit
of overlap, there’s point in which
the two intersect. Indeed, as Rob points
out, the highest ranked black community
has an imprisonment rate over 40 times higher
than the highest ranked white community. It’s two different ecologies. It’s not the same thing. There is no black middle
class neighborhood, or black upper middle
class neighborhood in Chicago with the
effects somehow mirror– not even a black– not even a white
upper middle class, but a white poor
neighborhood, there just is no overlap at all. That was the sociology. And then what I got from the
history was the reasoning. That they said that something
had actually happened. And you know when I started
this period of study in my life I had a basic
understanding that, yeah slavery had happened in
this country, it was bad. There had been a civil war. Civil War might have had
something to do with it. I mean, I’m sort of
ashamed of myself. This was not this long ago. I mean this like 10 years ago. This was a very, very
recent development. And then what you come to
realize is that, no, no, no, slavery was big business. It actually was big,
big, like it was huge. I mean so huge
that it’s literally impossible to imagine the United
States of America without it. That sounds rhetorical
and people stand up and they make that sort of
bold claim all the time. [INAUDIBLE] if you talk about
the four million enslaved African-Americans in
this country in 1860, and again I feel a bit absurd
making this statement to this learned audience, but I’m aware
there are other people out there watching also– those four million
African-Americans collectively are worth $3 billion
in that period of time. What that means to
put that in context, and give you some
sense, just not to make it an abstract
number, if you took all of the productive
capacity of this country in 1860, if you
took all the banks, if you took all the
railroads, if you took all the nascent factories,
if you took everything that you might would
consider industry, and you put it in
one pile over here, and you put the
four million bodies of the enslaved
African-Americans in this country, black
people in this country, they were worth more than the
entire productive capacity in this country. It was by far the greatest
asset in this country. If you wanted to go and find
the largest concentration of millionaires and
multimillionaires in this country in 1860,
you wouldn’t go to New York, you wouldn’t go to Chicago,
you would not come up here to Boston or to Cambridge. You would go to the
Mississippi River Valley. And the reason for that
was obviously the business that was conducted there. The business being based on
the bodies of black people. I think as this
conference illustrates, and as President Faust
illustrated in her comment, this was not merely a southern
problem, 60% of our exports as a country were
cotton in 1860. We’re all tied to this. And when you begin
to understand it as business, when you begin to
be able to put numbers on it, when you begin to see
the huge enterprise, understand that the
United States of America was not a country with
a little bit of slavery, but it was actually
a slave society– when you start to wrap
your head around that and what that meant, that
begins to make connections to where you are now. Especially when you can analyze
all the attending effects. I tell people all the
time, we talk about enslavement as though we
were a bump in the road. And I tell people it’s the
road, it’s the actual road. It’s the actual– And I
know there’s like debate– this debate right now between
historians and economists about whether it could
have been another way? Could you have had America–
and maybe you could have, but this is the way it happened. This is the way it– If I coulda, woulda, shoulda. This is what happened though. This is the thing that
actually happened. I want to offer, during
my brief time here, I just want to offer
a few suggestions for universities who
are pursuing this study, and for anybody that’s really
interested, for all those who are here who are
interested in this study. I think the first thing
that’s important to do is not to limit the study of
enslavement to enslavement. And that is really,
really, really, really, really important. Enslavement is the
originating system of plunder, but it birthed all sorts
of other systems of plunder that haunt us up
until this very day. And I want to be really clear
about this, when we talk about, say the era of Jim Crow
segregation that obviously comes directly out
of enslavement. Often times, we find
ourselves appealing to very sentimental language. We picture enslavement,
excuse me not enslavement, segregation as simply the
right of white and black people not to sit next to each other
as they are in this room today. And the thing I always
try to remind people is that segregation is plunder. It’s taking from
somebody else to benefit another group of people. It is the act of
putting folks into a box so that you can better and
more efficiently rob them. If you are living in Mississippi
in 1940 and you’re being taxed, and there’s a public university
that you cannot attend, you are being plundered. If you are living in
Alabama, and you’re being taxed for a school system. And you don’t have the full
access to that school system that everyone else does,
you’re being plundered. If you are living
in Georgia in 1950, and you can’t go to the
public swimming pools, the way other citizens
can, and you’re being taxed– even if
you’re not being taxed, I would argue, by right
of social contract– you’re being plundered. Somebody is taking from you. And we can take this
out across the board. I did my own piece in “The
Case for Reparations,” looking at the housing
conditions in the North and rooting the case in that. But the point is to recognize
that the plunder of slavery, the plunder of enslavement
does not end with enslavement. And those of us who
are interested in that are charged with
looking past that. I keep using this word plunder. And I think my second
suggestion would be it’s very, very important
to talk about it in that way. Well, one of the things that
happened, and maybe not so much here, but definitely in
the grander conversation. Racism in this country is
seen as a misunderstanding. Or somehow just like bad
manners or something. One group of people was impolite
to another group of people. It wasn’t nice enough. We should have been nicer. We could have looked
into each other’s heart. We could have been nicer. From time to time
when I speak, I’ll have someone in the
audience, especially when I’m talking about
reparations, when I’m talking about the Civil War. And at times there
will be somebody with roots in the South or
from the South directly. And they’ll say my
great-great-great-grand such and such, you know,
was a Southerner. But they didn’t own any slaves. What does this
have to do with me? And I would tell them repeatedly
that that may be true. But I assure you your
great-great-grand such and such wanted to own slaves. And that’s because
enslavement was a system. It was a system. It wasn’t about being nice. It was about structures. It was about the way
things were set up to benefit one class of
people to the detriment of another class. And it’s very,
very, very important to understand the
intentionality of it. To not speak of it in such a
way as though it was outside of our hands, that it
was an actual done thing. The third thing
is pretty obvious. I think every single one
of these universities needs to make reparations. I think there’s just no way. [APPLAUSE] I don’t know
how you get around that. I just don’t. I don’t know how
you conduct research that shows that your
very existence is rooted in a great crime. And you just say, well, shrug. And maybe at best say, I’m
sorry, and you walk away. And I think you need to use
the language of reparation. I think it’s very,
very important to actually say that word. To acknowledge that
something was done. And these institutions, some
of the most elite institutions in our country, are taking
active or effective action to make good on that. I think it’s extremely,
extremely, extremely important to do. I don’t want to go so far
as to say the research is for naught if
that doesn’t happen. Listen, as a
country, we recognize that our history is important. And we recognize that our place
in the world and our place in history comes because of the
sacrifices and the great deeds of our forefathers. That’s why we have
a Presidents’ Day. That’s why we have
a 4th of July. We say thanks. We recognize the
importance of history. We’re big on taking a
moment to say thanks. I just think it works
the other way, also. I think when you stand on
the backs of other people who have been exploited, you
have to in a moral sense, as any sort of
institution that wants to teach young people
about morals and ethics, you have to do the
right thing and try to make some amends for that. I just don’t know how
you get around that. I don’t, in the
fourth suggestion, think it’s enough for
these universities actually to make
reparations themselves. I think they need to
urge other institutions throughout this country
also to make reparations. I think being here at
a place like Harvard, or being at a Yale or
being at a Princeton or being at a Georgetown, you’re
talking about institutions that effectively
birthed the leadership class in this country. I can remember a time when
words like reparations– and maybe even still
to an extent today, but I think less so today– was seen as like some sort of
cockamamie, crazy eyed thing, like you had just suggested
human sacrifice or something. That’s less so today. It’s still a little
bit, but it’s less so. And I think these institutions
have a responsibility to help make the
conversation respectable. Because it deserves
to be respectable. It deserves to be respectable. Reparations is not
even an alien concept. Once I was on the
radio with this guy who was objecting to this
language of reparations. And I asked him, I said do you
oppose the reparations that were signed by President Ronald
Reagan for the internment of Japanese-Americans? Do you really oppose that? No, no, no, I don’t oppose that. I said, how then
could you oppose reparations for the crimes of
Jim Crow housing segregation. That was more recent. How can you actively
oppose that? And what I got to was
the hard part about this is the idea of giving
black people things. We’re being seen as having
given– they’re really not giving anybody anything. For being seen as having
given black people things. That’s just a brief diversion. I’m sorry. This has taken a little
longer than I thought. I’m going to get out
of your way real quick. You know sometimes I get
in these conversations, and people say, well, why
can’t we see our past, and see our history in
the way that Germany has come to grips with its history. And if you go
throughout Germany, you can see that it’s this
very, very real reminder of everything that
happened there. And I tell them,
yeah, but see Germany killed the vast majority of
Jews who were living there. They’re not alive as an
active political force. The problem is black
people are still here. They’re an active force
who can actually do things. So I think if
anything that hampers the fight for reparations
as much as anything. Having said that, I
really, really believe it really is up
to the leadership gathered here today to help
the broader country come to understand the struggle,
and to force, if not force, can we say coerce, can we
say coax, other institutions throughout this country to
do this sort of research. And to try to think
about what they owe. The last thing I
would say is listen and don’t be
self-congratulatory, and don’t get too mad. Because people are
going to be mad at you. And I would submit, they will
be mad at you for good reason. Reparations is
not a new concept. It’s not even so much that
I, myself, in my writing didn’t come up with the concept. The folks in the ’80s and
’90s who were lobbying for it didn’t come up with the concept. In the ’60s, it doesn’t
have its origins there. This goes back to Belinda Royal. We’ve been fighting this
since the 18th century. And so there’s a lot
of pent up anger. A lot of that is going to
be directed at you guys. I’m sorry about that, but one
of the worst things you can do is just retreat into
yourself, into your shell. Doesn’t mean you have
to take every suggestion from every crazy person
that comes up to you. But you’ve got to listen. You’ve got to listen, and
you’ve got to hear that anger. It comes from a
deep, deep place. somewhere deep in our hearts,
even if we don’t always acknowledge it. All of us know on some emotional
level that we were robbed. And that we’ve been the victims
of generational robbery. Now we don’t always have
the intellectual tools that historians here, and the
academics, and the sociologists and the political
scientists have helped, and I give all praise
for this, to assemble. So that we can understand
specifically how that happened. But we know it in our heart. So when you interact
with people you might feel a little bit of that. OK, I’m going to give
up this microphone. Because I look very, very much
forward to talking to [? Joy ?] and having this conversation. Thank you so much guys. [APPLAUSE] – Thank you. – [INAUDIBLE] – [INAUDIBLE] Thank
you, Ta-Nehisi. – Thanks for having me. – It’s great to have you here. I would gush, but– – [LAUGHS] – at you, but I’ll refrain. But thank you for the kind
words about our scholarship collectively and
about the work that gets done that you have
put to such good use. Very challenging talk
with a kind of call to action for this group. And I wanted to start with
the history part of it. And I’ve always been
interested in how, really through the
notion of plunder, you situate your
analyses in history. But they really come right up
to the present, the reparations article with its discussion of
housing policy and so forth. So how do you see the
differential emphasis? I mean should we be
talking more about today? Or is it all of a piece? And how do we understand plunder
that people are experiencing at this very moment
through the growing inequality in our
society, so much of what the recent political
discourse has been focused on? And how much do we
focus on origins of it, or are they inseparable? And how do you think
about that when you’re doing your own writing
and your own inquiries? – So when I wrote “The
Case for Reparations,” there were a number of
people, Sandy Darity down at Duke, for
instance, who had done a pretty thorough
scholarship on the concept. And one of the most
interesting pieces– and I can’t even remember
where I read this and I came across it– the
notion that actually this does not, this conversation
does not in any way have to be confined
to enslavement. For instance,
housing segregation could be talked about. And that piqued me. But it piqued me, obviously,
as a piece of knowledge, but as a journalist. Because as a
journalist, I thought A, if I’m going to
convince my magazine to do something
like this and to put the weight and the resources
behind it to make the case, because if you’re going
to argue for reparations, you can’t do a 800
word column and say, I think this is a good idea. You know you have to have
the full weight of the thing that a magazine
like The Atlantic usually brings and
maybe a little bit more brought to bear. And so it was very, very
important for me to A, find somebody who was
alive, who I actually could make the case on their behalf. So that you could immediately
get past the notion, that sort of popular
idea, which I don’t even know if it’s sufficient,
but it’s always raised– that, oh, these
people have been long dead. But when I wrote
the piece I said, OK, we’re going to start here. But you do ultimately have
to go back to slavery, because you have to
understand how it happened. So I don’t think there’s a
way of getting around it. I do think though, that if
you remain too focused there, people just dismiss
it out of hand. They aren’t able to see how this
thing redounded across history. And you know for me, the
most disturbing part of it is every time you
don’t do something, every time you
don’t talk about it, it just burrows
further and further and further and further. And such to the point that
you’re at those incarceration numbers I cited. That very much is the
legacy of enslavement. People have remained within
a class across generations and subject to certain forces
across generations because of enslavement, because
the policies that came after enslavement, because
of policies that came after, after the enslavement. But it’s all linked. It’s like a chain in effect. And my great fear really is
that if this is not dealt with, this will mark us for
our whole history. It’s that deep. It’s that profound. It’s that threatening. – I sometimes am
struck by a sense of history’s importance because
of the desire to avoid it. I think about the
brouhaha that erupted when Michelle Obama
said my children grew up in the White House, which
was built by slaves. And that was not
allowed to mention, that there was so much push
back about that comment. And so it’s as if
people who may not know any history, affirmatively
don’t want to know history because they’re afraid of it. So how do we deal with
that, the resistance to teaching slavery
in the schools because it’s awkward to talk
about, the resistance when the National Park Service
started bringing slavery into the interpretation
of sites, civil war sites and other sites. Is it through things
like The Atlantic? Is it academics? What breaks down
that resistance? – I think the first thing
you have to recognize– you’re not going
to get everybody. As you said, there are people
who are affirmatively ignorant. You know, it’s not merely
that I don’t want to know. It’s like my whole identity
is staked on me not knowing. And I don’t know that you
can– that’s beyond you. That’s for that person to
decide what they’re going to do. But in the middle
of that, again, I considered myself circa 2008
a reasonably well-read person. I had at that point been a
journalist for about 12 years. I had written quite
a bit about race. But the amount that– I’m kind of ashamed,
to be honest. And so I think actually there
are many, many more people who are gettable. Again, when I published
“The Case for Reparations,” I can’t tell you how many
people came up to me and said, I had never heard of redline. I mean white people saying,
I didn’t know this happened. I mean this is a policy I’ve
seen in every major city. You can literally go on
Google right now and find it. It’s not a matter of information
being hard to access. It’s clear. It’s not buried
away in archives. It’s actually very,
very easily accessible. But folks just didn’t know. I do think that we may be at
somewhat of an advantage right now. Because in the era of the
internet, and I know internet has all sorts of problems. Social media has all
sorts of problems. But the swiftness with which
you can access information, and just say here it is. Here it is. You don’t have to
wait on this monograph to arrive in two weeks. It’s right here. We have the map right there. That’s what it says right there. So I think what’s
important is to get a critical mass of people. I think it’s also important
to think long term, to think about
fights that may not be solved in our lifetime,
that may not be solved in our children’s lifetime. There may well be a sense
giving the current politics of this country to move away
from fights because they barely looked like they were
realizable during the previous administration. They certainly don’t look
like they are realizable now. But I think you have to realize
this is a long, long fight. Like I said it’s been going
on since Belinda Royal. Who are you to drop your
weapons right now and say, OK, I can’t deal. So I think it’s important
to keep those ideas alive. – You know I think
about the phrase you used a few minutes
ago, when you said it isn’t a bump in the
road, it’s the road. I think that’s part of the
effort to deny this history, is to say, oh, that’s
just a bump in the road. So to establish the
roadness of this history is, it seems to me, an
important step that has to be taken in order to
have the necessity, urgency of this understanding. Otherwise, you can just
say, oh, that was just something we should
teach about, something we don’t need to think about. – I agree. I agree. And again, I mean
the scope of it– I don’t think people
realize, for instance, that in 1860, most of
the people living in say, South Carolina or Mississippi,
were literally property. That was the most of the people. That you can’t really talk
about any sort of democracy at all in that
sort of situation. That half the people, in
say a place like Georgia. I don’t think people–
like the scope of it. And then they don’t quite get
how much money [INAUDIBLE] actually was even though
[? there were all sorts of ?] [? commerce ?] actually
making off of it. And I think also part of
this, and honestly I’m just dipping my toe in this
myself to understand this, they don’t understand how
much, like how the entire West, modern West is not really
understandable without it. They just don’t. And like in a global
sense, it’s very hard. And one of the things
it brings to me is a more philosophical
question of is it possible for human
societies, for states, to acknowledge these
sorts of things? Is the blindness– I’m going out there right now–
but is the blindness actually kind of necessary? Because I don’t
think human societies have ever been particularly good
at documenting their crimes. And when you’re talking about
a crime that wasn’t just, again, a bump on the
road, but something that made you possible. That’s tough. But then again, we say
we’re exceptional, so– – As you say that,
how do you think about efforts that might be
seen as analogous to the one you’re asking for. Do you think Germany
has faced its past– [INTERPOSING VOICES] – Again, if you
destroy the people or the majority of the people,
the vast majority of people. And then you say, I’m sorry. But the people aren’t there as
an active political presence, you know? And we should be really, really
clear about we’re asking for. To acknowledge this, I mean
it puts tremendous weight on institutions. If you understand that
the White House was built by enslaved
people, if you understand that the Mall was built
by enslaved people, you take a different
view, for instance, of statehood for Washington, DC. Those sorts of things,
like it throws a light. It makes that very,
very, very uncomfortable. And you start to understand,
is it a mere coincidence that this majority
black capital city has no representation in Congress? Is that a coincidence? Or is something going on? So it disturbs like all sorts
of other attendant myths and realities in a
way that, if you’ve murdered the vast majority of
that populace, it does not. What can we do now? Washington, DC is no
longer majority black, oh, well, sorry about that. I think the difference
is that you have to act– and I suspect it was the
same for– to a lesser, in a different way, but
for the reparations that was made on behalf of
Japanese-Americans. It wasn’t the sheer numbers. This is a country that
had a black president. You know largely,
well, not entirely, through the voting
strength of black people. So African-Americans, and we
sometimes don’t quite grasp it, but they’re a very
potent political force in this country. Not omnipotent, but a
very, very potent force. And so the notion that
you would hand over more power to that force, I
think is very, very disturbing to people. – So that is not
an [? analogy. ?] I think the notion of
system is so important here. When I used to teach a
course on the Old South, I always talked about
how it was a system. So you had to understand white
family relations, policing, everything based on the
presence of substantial 4 million numbers of unfree
people in that society. So to understand those
connections does seem to me critical, because
it does define. It does enable you
to ask questions about what else, what else– – And I think like
part of it is like– I think maybe our artists
bear some responsibility here. We’re getting better about this. But I think depictions
of the South, obviously. I mean, this is
obvious to you guys. But depictions of the
South, the antebellum South are part of why
people don’t know. Is Gone with the Wind the
second most popular book after The Bible? I think it’s some crazy– and that’s not a mistake. You know, it’s not a mistake. You think about film history
and Gone with the Wind being such a revolutionary film
and the most revolutionary film being Birth of a Nation. I mean, this is not a mistake. It’s not a mistake. And so doing the work
of altering that. Altering how people see
themselves in the past through the arts, I
think is actually also really, really important. – I think another important
development in history over the past couple of
decades has been the growing acknowledgement in research
that is the foundation for that of the systematic presence
of slavery in the North. Because it was always the
great alibi for the North. As Robert Penn Warren put it,
oh, you were the bad ones, and we were free. And we’re exempt, therefore the
nation in some sense is exempt. Because it was only that
little bump in the road. – It was sectional. – Yeah, it was sectional. So I think that’s made
a real change, too. – Yeah, no, I agree. – Let me ask about the
concept of reparations and how you think about it. You have the article “The
Case for Reparations.” Then you have another
article called “The Case for the
Consideration of Reparations.” – I do? I don’t even remember that. I’m sure it exists. – I’ll be the great expert
on Ta-Nehisi Coates. [LAUGHTER] – And his oeuvre. But in that little
piece, it’s much shorter than the other one, in case you
forgot, since you’ve forgot. But in it, you talk about the
importance of the discussion, as well as whatever outcome. And you shy away a
little bit from being specific about an outcome. So the word reparations, to
repair is the origin of it. How do we get to repair– to the place where
it is repaired? And is it the process
that gets us there? And you’ve been resistant
to say it should be x or y or this payment. – Yeah, yeah, and I have
because I think what people do is, in order to scuttle the
conversation, they say, well, how would it work? And then they want to have an
argument about how it works. And if you can’t demonstrate
a full plan, then they say, well, we shouldn’t even
have the conversation. But I think, and
I’m not speaking for actual academic
audiences or classrooms here, I think actually that is a
way to cover for the fact that people don’t actually
want to talk about it. And the talk, I
think the barrier to reparations in
this country is not that there is not a
workable way to do it. And I really,
really believe this. The barrier is that
people don’t want to pay. And they don’t think
they should have to. So when I wrote “The
Case for Reparations,” and in much of my work
since then, for me, the most important
thing is to make people first of all aware of the debt. People don’t accept the debt. And so it’s like let’s
move to this conversation about financing. But you don’t even accept
that you owe anybody anything. You know, which for me,
seems a little backwards. And at the same
time, again, I know that there are many, many
economists who’ve actually done that sort of
work and say, here’s a scheme for how it could work. Here are certain things. Let me be very clear
about something. I do think it involves
a payment of money. I just want to be
really clear about that. I don’t think you
can separate it. And you can have all
sort of debates about– does that mean, for
instance, in neighborhoods that were redlined on
the West Side of Chicago, there should be some
sort of targeted funding for those specific blocks? Maybe it means that. Does it mean that somebody
like the lead person I write about in my article, Clyde
Ross, who was repeatedly robbed, should get an actual check. Maybe it means that. Does it mean that people who
can prove– and I’m again, I’m confining this
because this is where I did my primary
amount of research– does it mean that people who
can necessarily prove that they went to try to use the
GI Bill to do x, y, and z and were denied
should get a check? Maybe it does. Maybe it does. But the first thing
you’ve got to do is acknowledge that
there was an actual crime before you move to sentencing. You have to get people
to be able to do that. And my sense is that the vast
majority of the times people say, oh, it’s unworkable. My questions is
wait, wait, wait, wait– but do you think
it’s actually owed though? Are you actually
convinced of that? Because oftentimes, you
can say to somebody. I have done something to you. I can never completely
make it right. But here’s what I can do. And if you can even
get there, I mean obviously you can’t
completely make this right. But if you could even get there,
it would even be something. I mean this is why– maybe
I got a little over the top. But I was very, very excited
to see Georgetown actually do something, anything. I mean I was excited
to see something. Does that make it right? Does that make up for
everything that happened? for Georgetown’s
involvement in slavery? No. It doesn’t. But it’s at least the
admission and the attempt to start to do something. It also doesn’t mean that
people shouldn’t continue to pressure Georgetown. It doesn’t mean that
people should just walk away from that. But at least it’s an attempt. I just find it hard when
what people are trying to do is scuttle the
entire conversation. – You use the word
plunder a lot, which is a very powerful word. And as I was listening
to you just now, I was thinking we need to
have historians of plunder. And really define what the
nature of those extortions has been. And trace them in a way that
makes the power of obligation seem tangible in a sense. – I totally, I totally agree. I mean what is the price,
because there surely has to be one, if you
are again, living in– I think Mississippi was majority
black until maybe 1930 or so. If you’re living in that
state, and you effectively don’t have the ability
to vote, which is to say you have no say over how the
government uses tax dollars. I mean these are the
kind of economic costs. I know for Clyde
Ross what it meant was that folks could come
onto his family’s property and just basically
steal the property and everything that they owned. And they had no ability
to appeal to anyone. There must be a way of putting
that in economic terms. I think that’s really important. For activist reasons,
and I understand this, I think segregation
is often spoken about in a way that’s meant to
appeal to people’s morality. It’s not fair that you and I
can’t sit next to each other and have a conversation. There’s something inherently
unjust about that. But I think at this
point in history, there probably needs to be a
more hard headed conversation about what segregation–
and there might already be one taking place– about
what segregation actually is, about again, what it meant. Like what James Meredith
was actually doing– and I regret this as a
young person thinking about, I could never understand
the fight for integration. I could never understand like– if you sit next to white people,
you’re going to get smart? But what is going on here. And that’s because
they didn’t teach the economic element of it. They didn’t talk about what sort
of shape these schools were in. They didn’t talk about
specifically why. The [? folks, ?] what
they wanted was access. Equal? I mean there was no
separate but equal. It didn’t actually
work that way. And so if you were
laboring across generations with unequal enforcement of
the social contract, what did that cost you? And I just think that’s a
really, really important question that has–
you got to get beyond these sort of moral
and sentimentalist appeals, I think. – So Ta-Nehisi, something
strikes me here as a bit contradictory. Which is we’ve been
talking about system, and what you’ve said just
now is that the feeling good about being able
to sit next to someone is not meaningful if there’s
a whole system that surrounds it that’s exploiting people. But as you talk
about reparations, it seemed to me more directed
at individuals or particulars rather than systematic overhaul. And in a sense, isn’t
the real reparation to break down the
systems that plunder and that otherwise,
it’s just a stopgap and plunder will continue. You know, I’ve been
thinking a lot this morning about someone I admire
enormously Bryan Stevenson. And what he’s showing
about incarceration and the kind of modern
day slavery as he sees it. So if there is a way that
some sort of reparation to the person who is
redlined is offered. And we still have that system
of incarcerating black people at such an incredible rate, then
we won’t have repaired things. So how do we think reparations
have to be systematic in some sense to undermine the
foundations of this plunder that you describe. – I think in this
particular case, history does give us a guide. If you look across the
board, after World War II there were manifold
reparations made to victims of the Holocaust. It wasn’t merely, for
instance, just one. We did this, x, y, z. There were a series of
cases across the board made. Again, I’m focusing or
in that last comment I focused on
housing because that was the one that I
focused on, that was the one I had researched. But I would not say that to the
exclusion of all other cases for reparations to be made. And I think if you can
get, and forgive me if this sounds pie in
the sky, but if you can get a critical
mass of Americans to understand that this was an
across the board phenomenon. Again, I thought about
housing because housing is not just a place where
you can make the case, where people are alive today. It’s a place where it is the
source of most Americans’ wealth. It’s how you assemble
wealth in this country. And if you can’t
do that, if you’re prevented from doing that, while
other people are allowed to do it, it’s obviously a problem. But I think if you can get
the notion across the board that this was robbery
in every phase– in education, in
criminal justice, in housing, during the period
of enslavement, in voting. If you can get that
kind of manifold idea, then you can have several
cases for reparations. And probably what you
need is several things. You almost need a spirit of it. You need the country
to acknowledge this is part of
our history, and we have a responsibility across
the board to repair this. Again, it might be
individual people. That’s probably
not the end of it. And I suspect if we started
doing this research, we could see it. You could see how
possible it is. Again, I think I really believe
it’s the work of generations. – So we’re talking today about
universities in particular. And when you think
about that, you defined a special role,
which is our teaching role, our leadership role,
our nurturing of leaders role. But there are many
other institutions in our society as
well that have had pasts that are embedded with
slavery in one way or another. Do you see other
institutions that have particular
obligations in this space? – Yeah, certainly so. And I think they
might have begun to do something about this. But I mean certainly
if you think about what happened in
Virginia with mass resistance. Wherein you had
people responding to Brown versus the Board
by effectively shutting down the public school system. Certainly that
injured some folks. When you think about– and
I’m talking about micro cases, micro quote here. When you think about, I believe
it’s North Carolina, where they were sterilizing folks. And I think they recently
were very, very successful with that. When you think about
Jon Burge in Chicago, where he was spent years
just torturing people. And they made a
successful reparations claim against the
crimes of Jon Burge. But you look at Chicago,
and you see that– and this is what happened. You look at what happened
with something like what Laquan McDonald, and you see
the tape of him being shot down. And you know that the officers
who were there covered that up. And you know that the person who
was chief of police at the time covered that up. And you know the cover up
extended all the way up to the mayor’s office. That folks knew. Is there something
systemic going on with the police department? I mean that’s an
institution I really think that you could probably
go across the board and study. I’m putting particular
pressure on the institutions because you guys know– you guys know, you
have a knowledge that maybe the Chicago Police
Department does not have– yet. You know so I think it’s
just incumbent on you to act. And to convince
places like that. And to convince
leaders, who will go off to be like mayors of Chicago,
and corporate leaders in big cities, that this is
a real thing not just here. But that it’s systemic. It’s across the board. And they really should have
a responsibility to address. I think it would make
governance for people who are fair-minded and
good, and just don’t really have an understanding
of history a little bit more manageable to understand
where this stuff comes from. – I think it’s a
challenge for universities because we’re more likely
to have open discussions. We are more likely
to have scholars who want to do research and
dig into these questions and debate them. And so thinking about how we
can influence institutions that are less likely to
do that and don’t see it as part of their mission will
be an interesting challenge that you put before us. – I mean I think, like I
said, the easiest place to start with is the students. I mean obviously
there should be more. But I think that’s– I was talking to
Craig Wilder who’s over here earlier about
his book Ebony and Ivy. And he was saying
they had taken it up, and it was a class at Columbia
now, on Columbia and slavery. And I asked him do
they mandate reading the book in the freshman class? I’m not a university president. I’m just talking here. But I kind of think,
I kind of think if you’re going to come
to an Ivy League school, and you’re going to profit
from that education, and you have not read
that book, you have done yourself a disservice. So if I were president for
the day or for the year, I might mandate that every
freshman class read that book. Or if not that book,
something like that. There’s no way that I would
want to be graduating people from an institution that was
literally made possible by– slavery was the road– and have them graduate
like, I didn’t know that. Now listen if they
want to be, ultimately if they want to be aggressively
ignorant or just affirmatively ignorant, there’s not too
much you can do about that. But I wouldn’t want the
institution to be able to say, we did not make a
sincere effort to expose every student who came to
our doors to this history. It shouldn’t be optional. It shouldn’t be optional. [APPLAUSE] – So African slavery
was the road, as you’ve said so eloquently. But there’s a lot of other
plunder in the history of the United States as well. What’s the role of
other forms of plunder, and what are the
responsibilities that we have to those
and to other groups that have been either systematically
or intermittently– – Possibly reparations, very
possibly reparations, you know. I’m hesitant to speak there,
because again, my research and my reporting and my
reading was very, very focused. But I don’t believe
that understanding– like I don’t
believe this concept should be limited
to black people. And so I would often after
I published “The Case,” I would get with people,
they would say, well, what about the Native Americans? And I would say, I would
love to read that piece. There should be a
piece like that. I would love to see it. My suspicion is that
anytime you have a hierarchical
relationship, you’re probably taking something
from somebody else. That it’s not incidental. It’s not just a mistake. That’s what I think. That does not rise to the
level of a publishable piece or something like that. But I certainly don’t
think the concept should be limited to black people at all. Nor should it be,
by the way, I just want to be really
clear about this because I know this
is going to come up. Nor should it be limited
to African-Americans. Again, my research was
very, very specific. I wanted to make the most direct
and specific case I should. But I do think it’s
worth asking a question about the Western
world as a whole. I think that’s a fruitful and
an important line of research. – So Ta-Nehisi, what’s next? Here we are in this
unexpected world after the election where, as
you said a few moments ago, this case may be even
more difficult to make in the context in which
we now find ourselves. How do you see your
writing and your mission in a sense in the
months to come? Is it to continue to make
the case for reparations specifically? Is it to branch out from that? – Probably not. Probably not. I’m a little confused right. I’m just being honest with you. I’m a little confused right
now, not by your question or anything. But just– you’re going to have
to bear with me through this. I didn’t expect any of this. I certainly didn’t
expect all of this. It’s certainly an
honor to be here. I really appreciate being here. I started this as a really,
relatively, at the time, obscure blog, in an attempt
to understand the Civil War. It was my attempt. It was just for me. There was no bigger thing
that was coming out of that. And as I read and the
thing spooled out, I came to understand
more and more things, and even up to the
point when I wrote “The Case for Reparations,”
it wasn’t clear to me that it would have an effect. You understand? Because reparations was and
does at this very moment exist on a particular place
way beyond over the window. And so the notion that it would
be read and taken seriously and become as successful and
some of the things I write would end up where they
were, was not something that I foresaw. I always tell
people writers have to prepare themselves and
academics, too, not to be read, not to be read. So I was a little
ill-prepared for this moment. And I think if there’s anything,
I’m struggling to get back, and I don’t want anybody
to take this the wrong way, I didn’t begin this to
advocate for reparations. And that’s not really
how writers work. I began with my own
native curiosity. And I’m trying to
get back to that. I think it’s really, really
important that I do that. I think I’m not an activist. I’m not an advocate. Doesn’t mean I’m not in sympathy
with activists and advocates. But I think my work
is at its best when I am answering a
question that is really, really burning inside of me. The question of
reparations isn’t too much. I think the answer is
pretty clear actually. – And you wrote this
extraordinary piece about President Obama and
were given unparalleled access to him. You had several long
interviews with him. Would you reflect on that
piece just for a moment and how you see it
in the trajectory of your understanding
of race in America, as you think about the meaning
of that first black presidency? – It was important. And just to direct it to
why are we here today, I got to ask him
about reparations. I mean and he talked about it. We talked about it– if that interview went on
for an hour and a half, we probably talked
about reparations for 30 or 45 minutes. Although, as you
know, Sandy says, [INAUDIBLE] Sandy Darity says,
his answer was not to my mind sufficient, he did say, listen,
you can make a case for it. That you’re not crazy for saying
something actually was taken, and something– to hear
an American president actually say that
was tremendous to me. It was huge. Again I got to be
really clear about this. When I say that it was
tremendous, when I say it, it does not mean that you
don’t critique people. It does not mean
that you back off. But I think you also need to
acknowledge the steps forward that you actually make. Doesn’t mean you
don’t need more steps, but I think you
need to make those. At the same time, in the
spirit of what I just said, I felt like he didn’t– how do I explain this– he had what I would say
is the conventional, and I think this is across the
board from the Bernie Sanders folks, all we owe to
Obama, to Hillary, all across the basic liberal
understanding of race, is that the way you address
it is by addressing poverty. And it’s hard to get
people to understand. When I did “The Case
for Reparations,” it is very important for me
to focus on black middle class families. And that wasn’t to the
exclusion of black poor people. It was to say, OK,
the dynamic here, the conversation here says, if
these people play by the rules, everything will be OK. OK, let’s go examine some people
who played by the rules then. Let’s see how it ended up. Let me define this–
they got robbed. They acted like it was not
that the country wanted them to be successful. The country actually
resented their success. And that’s all, I mean that’s
the voice in reconstruction. It’s the same thing. It’s a resentment
of your success. It is not that, hey, you know
if you would just marry and get a job, everything will be OK. No, you marry, get a
job, save your money, and you will be robbed. It sets you up to be punished. It was very, very important. Because it cuts against
the dominant liberal theory that there is nothing specific
about black people as a class of people in this country. That it is not a specific thing
that needs to be addressed. And to his mind, he
thought basically if you would construct
a decent social safety net, a more liberal, more
European social safety net, if you could very,
very directly enforce anti-discrimination laws,
I’m for all of them, for both of those things. And here’s where the
magic happens, then through the individual
work of black people you can close the [INAUDIBLE]. And I think I said this. I was definitely thinking this. We’ve been working
for a long time, man. I mean the work
ethic is not lacking. That’s not the missing
component here. That’s not the missing thing. And that was hard to get across. I was very, very grateful
for the exchange, but at the same time
it, to me, points out how far we have to go. I engaged Senator Sanders
on this during the election, because if you have a
candidate on the left, on the radical left who can’t
even see this, long way to go, a long way to go. – I’m struck as you’re
speaking, that in a way, Obama’s presidency is another
embodiment of your argument. He played by the rules. – He did. – He thought he could preside
over a post-racial moment. Remember all the
discussion about we’re in a post-racial moment? And so what rules did he
get to take advantage of? Well, he didn’t get his Supreme
Court nominee, because somebody said we’re not
playing by the rules, and the whole birther stuff. So in a sense, the
argument you have, or the disagreement
you had with him, I think you won based on his
own, the nature of his own– – Yeah, he would
disagree with you. Yeah, and I thought
so, too, by the way. And I raised that. I raised all of these incidents. And I very much said, listen. And his argument, and maybe to
be a politician you ultimately have to believe this,
and I don’t mean that in any sort of derogatory
way when I say politician. But if you’re about the
business of convincing people, you have to believe that, not
just the majority of people are decent and non-racist, but
that not even an actionable or significant minority are. And so if you talk to
him, he would say, well, the problem was Fox News. You know I agree that
was part of the problem. But I think I asked
him, but yeah, why are they watching Fox News? There’s a ready audience
for this kind of argument. It came up again in the
election with Hillary Clinton and the whole deplorables. And it’s like wait– we
have numbers on this. We have actual data. When you have 40%
of your voters who believe black people
are more criminal, that’s kind of deplorable, man. You know, when the majority
of the coalition believes, against all evidence, that the
President of the United States is a Muslim. And by Muslim, they
don’t simply mean thinks the Koran
is very important, but means something else. That’s kind of deplorable. But we can’t get
ourselves there. You know what I mean? We just can’t. And I think what it is is maybe
if we acknowledged all of it– like we would go crazy. Maybe we just would cease
to be able to function. Like it’s just too– is it really, really that bad? Was it really, really? Yes, it was really,
really that bad. Because I have to think
from some perspective, obviously I’m arguing
for reparations, but I don’t think
it’s sufficient to say you’re ignorant. You don’t know. But why? Why? Like if I’m in that position,
why would I not want to know? What kind of pressures,
what kind of stress does it bring upon
the belief system that one functions in to actually
acknowledge the debt, to say nothing of
actually doing something? What does it actually do? – So we are almost at
the end of our time, and I just wanted to know
whether you come to all this at this moment with a sense
of optimism and dynamism about where it can go? Or if you feel burdened
by it in the way you– if you knew too much,
it would be unbearable. – Well, I don’t feel burdened. I mean I’d rather
know than not know. I’m one of those people. But I just have to
say, it’s extremely ironic for any historian to
ask me if I feel optimistic. [LAUGHTER] I’m sorry. You can’t go out and talk,
right, and people say, why you don’t have any hope? Have you spent any time
around any historians at all? Like you’re talking about me? Do you read this stuff that
these people are writing? I mean Jesus. No, I’m not optimistic. I mean, how could you? I mean I’m not pessimistic. I mean it almost feels
like a question of optimism or pessimism. And like it’s almost
beside the point. It is what it is, and
people need to act, whether I think they’re
likely to act or not. And when I say this, and
I’ve said this before, I root myself in the
very, very real tradition of enslaved black
people in this country. 1619, folks are enslaved. I’m pretty sure they know it’s
wrong from the moment they’re enslaved. And they say it all through– listen. 250 Years is a long time. That’s a lot of generations. And you can be at certain
points and look to the past, and see that all of your
ancestors as far back as you can see are enslaved. And all your children
and grandchildren, descendants as far forward as
you can see, will be enslaved. And in the midst of
that, people acted. They did things. You know, when
Frederick Douglass, you know abolitionists stand
up, and they say this is wrong. They’re not the first
people to do that. Now we focus on them because
it actually turned out to be successful
at the end of day. So it’s easy to focus
on the successes. But I’m much more
interested in the failures. You know, I think about Ida B.
Wells, who with so much courage argued and pushed and tried
to coax the American Congress to do this anti-lynching bill. Which it did not
do in her lifetime and didn’t even apologize
until like 2004 or something, long after Ida B. Wells. Does that mean that her
actions were worthless? Does it mean it was meaningless? Certainly in hindsight,
you could say, well, one should have been pessimistic
about those [? processes. ?] That’s beside the point. You have a moral
responsibility to act, to do, to think, to know. – What a great way to stop. Thank you so much. – Thank you.