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Using History to Navigate Troubling Times

On Wednesday, October 18th, the history department held a public forum within the Student Community Center designed to provide historical context in the wake of white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter, who helped organize this event, was in attendance and gave the opening address. In it he acknowledged that the “underappreciation of history seems to be particularly acute in our country,” and that recent attempts to popularize revisionist history by the far right makes knowing and understanding history especially important.

The forum featured six professors from the history department: David Biale, Gregory Downs, John Smolenski, Susan Miller, Cecilia Tsu, Lorena Oropeza, and Justin LeRoy. Each gave a short lecture designed to address historical questions of contemporary significance.

David Biale, the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History, talked about white supremacist’s apparent co-opting of Nazi phrases and political perspectives. He asked rhetorically, “why would they do this if we defeated Nazi Germany in World War II?”

Biale cautioned that this question assumes the United States to have an inherent moral superiority over Nazi Germany, when the reality is more complicated. In fact, Hitler modeled his exclusionary policies after Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws in the United States. While we defeated one strain of fascism during World War II, we have yet to rid ourselves of the kind that has been with us since the late nineteenth century. And that, Biale reinforced, is important to remember when thinking about events like Charlottesville.

Professor Gregory Downs and Associate Professor John Smolenski both addressed the question of whether or not we should tear down Confederate statues. For them, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Downs sees the tearing down of statues as being less about “losing our past” and more about asking ourselves “in what context were these statues built in the first place.”

For instance, if a Confederate monument memorializes an event like the Colfax Massacre, where unarmed black and white politicians were brutally murdered by southerners in the “noble defense of white supremacy,” should we not question its contemporary relevance? If monuments and statues capture a distorted view of the past, isn’t it more damaging to our understanding of history to allow them to remain?

With regard to Confederate statues, Smolenski ended by saying that we should be less afraid about losing our history, and more afraid about ensuring that only one side of the story is memorialized. Indeed, history and memory are not the same thing, and by choosing to remember certain things over others (as with Confederate statues), we may be perpetuating a flawed interpretation of the past.

Professor Susan Miller discussed the similarities between historical anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the United States, arguing that President Trump’s rhetoric as well as U.S. domestic policy against Muslims are dangerously reminiscent of actions taken against Jews in the past.

Associate Professor Cecilia Tsu honed in on the current refugee crisis in the United States and asked whether a historical perspective could provide a solution. She emphasized that part of the problem is that, although the U.S. agreed to protect refugees seeking asylum in 1967, no protocol or mechanism was developed to adequately handle the processing of these refugees.

Historically, refugee status has been defined either by political affiliation or by human rights. For example, in the United States you used to be able to define yourself as a refugee if you were escaping a communist country. Today, you’re a refugee if you are escaping violence or war.

But because there is no set policy regarding the intake of refugees, these definitions can fluctuate. Taking refugees for political reasons can lead to favoritism, and taking refugees based on a vague desire to promote human rights may cause “compassion fatigue,” whereby refugees are stymied at the border because folks become unsympathetic to their plight.

Associate Professor Lorena Oropeza attacked President Trump’s infamous border wall, noting that this idea is not new and that, historically, barriers have done little to keep Mexicans out of the United States.

Indeed, the reality is that Mexican migration has changed little in the past century. What has changed is the introduction of more restrictive U.S. immigration policy. The turning point came in 1965, when the U.S. changed its policy to allowing only twenty thousands immigrants from Mexico per year.

But because the demand for Mexican labor did not decrease with these immigration quotas, the only visible change was that Mexican workers now became classified as “illegals.” Thus, in many ways, the United States’ immigration problem is more a problem of legislative definition than anything else.

Oropeza ended by describing the ironic nature of the border wall: it keeps people in as much as it keeps people out. That is to say, Mexicans, who would typically  come to the United States to work and then leave once finished, can no longer leave because it’s too difficult to make the return journey across the border. So, in that sense, reinforcing the Mexican border might only make the problem worse.

Assistant Professor Justin LeRoy gave the final lecture, disputing the commonly held belief that white supremacists deserve protection via the first amendment. He noted the inherent irony of white supremacists being allowed to say their piece, while, at the same time, most marginalized groups are told to wait their turn, usually by political moderates who tell them that, while “their goals are admirable, their tactics are invalid; they should use a different approach if they want me on their side.”

History, LeRoy argues, shows how marginalized people in the United States only make progress when they push for change via direct action. If marginalized groups maintain “civility,” they are bound to make little progress. Those who defend white supremacist’s right to free speech, while decrying anti-fascist protests, are in the end only strengthening the far right’s position.

LeRoy ended by emphasizing that “the danger communities face regarding limitations on free speech are unequal.” Shutting down white supremacist rallies probably wouldn’t do much to limit white privilege in the United States, while silencing anti-fascist protests would only further isolate marginalized communities. Free speech, it would seem, is more free for some than it is for others.

The forum ended with each of the speakers mingling with a crowd of mostly undergraduates, fielding their questions about history, contemporary issues, and how the two are related. Thanks to the popularity of the event, and the importance of using history to provide context to the modern era, Provost Hexter hopes to hold similar forums in the near future.


– Nicholas Garcia, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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