While I was away on a six-day trip, a controversy broke out over a monthly article by James Sweet, the current President of the American Historical Association. For reasons that I explained more than two decades ago in a published article, I have not belonged to the AHA for a long time, but a friend sent me an article about the controversy. Just today it made the op-ed page of the New York Times. It's a sad and revealing story.
James Sweet, a professor at the main campus of the University of Wisconsin, is an historian of the Atlantic slave trade. That probably accounts for his election as the association president, but it turns out that some of his views contradict the new orthodoxy. In his column, he criticized "presentism" in the historical profession--the increasing tendency to see the past through the lens of the present, and to mine the past, not always accurately, to score points in contemporary political debates. "This trend toward presentism," he wrote, "is not confined to historians of the recent past; the entire discipline is lurching in this direction, including a shrinking minority working in premodern fields. If we don’t read the past through the prism of contemporary social justice issues—race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism—are we doing history that matters? This new history often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines. The allure of political relevance, facilitated by social and other media, encourages a predictable sameness of the present in the past."
Continuing, Sweet told his readers that he is working on a contribution to a forthcoming forum in the American Historical Review about the 1619 project, which has drawn scathing criticism from certain older historians such as Sean Wilentz and James Oakes. While he did not in his post echo their specific criticisms, he pointed out that most of the contributors to the project were not historians--led by its leader, Nikole Hannah-Jones--and that the project is an explicitly political document making a case for reparations for today's black population. On a recent visit to Ghana, Sweet took a tour of Elmina Castle, a key stop in the slave pipeline, and was disturbed that the tour guide focused on the minority of the slaves who passed through it who went to North America. He also largely ignored the role of Ghana's tribes in the slave trade, and added that a forthcoming film about Dahomey, The Woman King, falsely portrays African leaders as fighting the European slave trade, while they actually participated in it.
Continuing in a bipartisan vein, Sweet took Justices Thomas and Alito to task for misusing history in their majority opinions in cases that overturned a century-old New York gun law (NYSRPA v. Bruen) and overturned Roe v. Wade (Dobbs vs. Jackson.) He is absolutely right about this, particularly with respect to Thomas's opinion, which managed to erase centuries of legitimate regulation of the carrying of firearms both in the US and in medieval and early modern England. "Doing history with integrity," he concluded, "requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors. Historical questions often emanate out of present concerns, but the past interrupts, challenges, and contradicts the present in unpredictable ways. History is not a heuristic tool for the articulation of an ideal imagined future. Rather, it is a way to study the messy, uneven process of change over time."
I'm sure I was not the only historian surprised and delighted by Sweet's timely post. It immediately set off a firestorm of bitter criticism on twitter--one which I cannot quote or even read because the association has now blocked its twitter account. The Wall Street Journal provided a summary of the reaction today, however, which I will excerpt.
“Gaslight. Gatekeep. Goatee,” said Laura Miller of Brandeis University, detecting patriarchal privilege written on Mr. Sweet’s chin. Benjamin Siegel of Boston University, who thinks his politically correct profession is “leveraged towards racist ideologies,” called the essay “malpractice.” Dan Royles of Florida International University accused Mr. Sweet of “logical incoherence,” which is academic-speak for “idiot.” Kathryn Wilson of Georgia State detected an even more heinous error, “misrepresentation of how contemporary social justice concerns inform theory and methodology.” Other users accused Mr. Sweet of using a rhetorical device called the “white we,” pitching for a guest slot on Tucker Carlson’s show, and writing “MAGA history.” Many called any questioning of the “1619 Project” racist. David Austin Walsh of the University of Virginia advised historians to support the project regardless of whether they thought it good history, because criticism would be “weaponized by the right.”
And then, after just a few days, Sweet wrote an abject apology, or should I say a letter of self-criticism. " I had hoped to open a conversation on how we “do” history in our current politically charged environment," he wrote. "Instead, I foreclosed this conversation for many members, causing harm to colleagues, the discipline, and the Association. . . .I sincerely regret the way I have alienated some of my Black colleagues and friends. I am deeply sorry. In my clumsy efforts to draw attention to methodological flaws in teleological presentism, I left the impression that questions posed from absence, grief, memory, and resilience somehow matter less than those posed from positions of power. This absolutely is not true. It wasn’t my intention to leave that impression, but my provocation completely missed the mark." Having begun by challenging the new orthodoxy, Sweet caved into it and left it more obviously supreme than ever.
The New York Times, which bears responsibility for the 1619 project and has explicitly refused to face much of the criticism that it aroused among professionals, weighed in on the controversy today in the person of Jay Caspian Kang, an opinion writer who does not seem to be a professional historian himself. After summarizing what Sweet said (far more quickly than I did,), Kang gets to his main point.
"I agree with Sweet on the fundamentals of what he said, but I also understand why minority scholars felt like the integrity of their work was being questioned. An uncharitable reader might accuse him of singling out scholars who write about identity (read: mostly nonwhite scholars) and making unfounded insinuations about the motivations behind their work. This would be more forgivable if Sweet were not the president of the American Historical Association, a position that presumably gives him some influence over where the discipline is headed. There have been times in my own career when someone high up in an institution assumes that because I am not white, my work must be driven by identity politics. It’s an enraging experience."
This is an amazing kind of doublethink that always pops up when postmodern scholars defend themselves. It is also inaccurate: the largest number of historians who write about identity are white women. Moreover, for many decades now, many (though by no means all) female and minority scholars have argued specifically that their identity gives them insights which white males could never have,. and have explicitly argued for the necessity of having more of them in history departments on that basis. Nor is that all. Postmodern historians accept the idea that language, not events, are the true reality, and that all writing, historical and other, is a struggle between hegemonic elements--that is, white males--and marginalized ones. Some also argue that hegemonic writing amounts to violence against the marginalized, which is why Sweet felt compelled to apologize for the emotional harm some minority scholars apparently accused him of inflicting upon them. To them a disagreement between a white and a nonwhite scholar is not an intellectual dispute, it's a naked white attempt to reassert political power over the marginalized. Obviously--as Sweet's apology proved--no free intellectual inquiry can take place in such an atmosphere.
Turning to Sweet's additional point that judges and journalists are continually using inaccurate history for political purposes, Kang leave no doubt where he stands. “'The Case for Reparations' by Ta-Nehisi Coates," he writes, "which detailed the practice of redlining, certainly wasn’t the first piece of journalism that brought in historical techniques, but it was, without question and for good reason, the most influential of its era. History like this — cleareyed, thorough and written toward an explicit political end — showed a generation of young journalists how they might be able to leverage their skills in a new way. I was a young magazine writer when that article came out, in 2014. I recall feeling impressed by the prose and the research while realizing that Coates had raised the stakes for what a magazine story could do. He had, in effect, written a work that felt much more like an object, something that wouldn’t immediately decompose once the next news cycle rolled in. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Coates inspired thousands of imitators and ushered in a new type of journalism in which historical research could take precedence over reportage."
The problem is that Coates's "case for reparations" wasn't part of the solution--it was part of the problem. He used anecdotal evidence from one city, Chicago, to argue that redlining--the designation from the 1930s into the 1960s of certain neighborhoods as unworthy of certain kinds of mortgage loans--had made it impossible for black Americans to acquire homes and wealth. Having looked into this myself I can tell you that it is not true. A detailed study of redlining found that initially, the redlined neighborhoods included far more white people than black people. More importantly--and this is what Coates left out--black income, homeownership, and therefore, wealth, increased very rapidly from the late 1940s until the 1980s. During that period, the percentage of white households owning their homes rose from about 43 percent to 75 percent. At the same time, the corresponding black rate rose from 21 percent to 56 percent. While many new housing developments were segregated, this did not prevent black Americans from making remarkable progress as property owners. Since 1980 the white rate has remained constant while the black rate has fallen about 4 percent. During the same period, black household income was rising from 50 percent of white household income, on the average, in 1946, to 68 percent in 1972. During that time the income of the bottom 90 percent of the population tripled, and black gains were larger than white ones. After 1980 the income of the lower half of the population stagnated, but black income still reached 75 percent of white income by 2014. Black and white people in the lower half of the income distribution made gains in the postwar decades because of our expanding, largely industrial economy, strong unions, and the very rapid construction of new affordable homes. When we abandoned those policies, those gains came to a stop--even as legal racism was abolished by federal law.
Kang is unfortunately correct: Coates has become a model for journalists and opinion writers who claim that black people have never been able to accumulate wealth, or that black veterans were completely excluded from the GI bill, or that Social Security was designed to exclude black people because it did not originally include farm laborers or domestics. As I discussed at a recent conference, none of this is true. Coates helped kick off a huge propaganda offensive based on false readings of history designed to make an overwhelming case for reparations for black Americans, one culminating in the 1619 Project, which our leading newspaper continues to promote. Professor Sweet initially decided that it was time for historians and other Americans to hear more of the truth. Then he caved in and agreed that the truth is too painful for various people to hear. Fear and groupthink now rule university life and the editorial boards of our leading newspapers.