Sandhya Dirks, NPR, September 4, 2022
When President Biden spoke on Sept. 1st, to tell the nation that democracy is in danger, his warnings echoed the words of many who have been paying attention. Especially those who study the past.
Not a month earlier, the president met with a group of handpicked historians who told him that democracy was teetering, hanging on by a thread.
After The Washington Post reported on the historians meeting, it didn’t take long for some to raise questions, not about the fact that democracy is in peril, but about the monochromatic makeup of those delivering that message.
It seemed the Biden administration had only invited white experts to advise the president — four historians and one journalist: Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, University of Virginia historian Allida Black, presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Jon Meacham, who is also an occasional speechwriter for Biden, and journalist and Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum.
But it wasn’t only the lack of diversity in that group, it was where that lack of diversity seemed to lead.
“They compared the threat facing America to the pre-Civil War era and to pro-fascist movements before World War II,” read the Post’s sub-headline.
Those comparisons leave out important parts of U.S. history that resonate today, says Kenneth Mack, a professor of law and history at Harvard.
“We don’t really have to look outside the United States, nor do we really have to look all the way back to the Civil War to think about things like voter suppression, demagoguery, and fascist tactics,” he says.
“We’ve had the death of democracy happen right here, in the United States,” says Mack. “African Americans experienced this directly.” He’s talking especially about the overthrow of Reconstruction, and all that followed, well up until the Civil Rights Movement.
Jelani Cobb, a New Yorker writer and the new dean of Columbia Journalism School, adds, “The formative experience around American authoritarianism has been the treatment of people of African descent and people of Indigenous descent.”
Cobb says the meeting missed the point.
If you don’t examine how democracy has died for people of color in this country, you might miss how freedom fades not in big bombastic moments, but in slow ongoing repression.
And if you exclude the voices of scholars and writers who understand an anti-democratic, fascist order as heritage, rather than an aberration, you might miss how democracy has before been pulled back from the brink.
“In having an all white room,” Cobb says. “you kind of replicate the kind of gaps in perspective that we’ve seen that have facilitated this problem in the first place.”
Reconstruction was a bold plan to repair the wounds of slavery, and build out of the ashes of civil war a multiracial democracy. Rather than accept equality, it was violently overturned by Southern whites.
“At the turn of the century we lost everything,” says University of Connecticut Professor Manisha Sinha.
Both Princeton Professor Sean Wilentz and Presidential historian Michael Beschloss confirmed and reiterated the Post’s reporting on the two key moments in American history they picked to focus on — the lead up to the Civil War and the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Beschloss talked to MSNBC’s Jonathan Capeheart. “If we were living in 1940,” he said to Capeheart, who it’s important to note, is a Black man, “you and I would’ve said there’s a serious danger that America will not be a democracy.”
The “we” is telling; America at that time was already not a democracy for most Black people.
Beschloss went on, saying, “There are people from within who wanna make this an authoritarian system.”
He didn’t mention that in the 1940’s many Black people already lived under authoritarian systems, like Jim Crow.
Beschloss pointed to a second reason that democracy felt perilous then, as it does now. “The Nazi Germans, the Italians, the Imperial Japanese — we’re living in a world where fascism is on the March,” he said.
But those rising fascist movements abroad borrowed heavily from America’s fascist tactics, from Jim Crow and America’s brutal treatment of Indigenous people. “A global thing,” says Manisha Sinha, “but homegrown in the United States.”
The August historians meeting was not the only time President Biden hosted experts to learn from the past. Earlier this year he met with another group that included Annette Gordon-Reed, a Black scholar who studies race, law and history at Harvard. In previous speeches, Biden has compared today’s threats to voting rights to Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction America.
But Jelani Cobb says it’s still concerning that this meeting of all white historians happened at all. Especially at the same time that there is a movement by Republican politicians to sensor and silence the histories of Black people and people of color across the United States.