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An Incomplete History

In the wake of the recent tragic events here in Charlottesville, we have asked some of our authors to share their thoughts on the numerous issues suddenly thrust to the fore. We begin with Paul D. Escott, author of Lincoln's Dilemma and "What Shall We Do with the Negro?" Escott explains that a complete understanding of history, not an idealized or incomplete conception of our past, is necessary for us to understand the events happening now before us.

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The shocking violence in Charlottesville has stunned the nation. Neo-Nazis and anti-semitic, white supremacist demonstrators chanting words of hate descended on “Mr. Jefferson’s university.” After two summers in which unarmed African Americans died at the hands of white police officers, the violence in Charlottesville confirms that our nation’s racial problems are deeply rooted and seem to be getting worse.  

Less than a decade ago, many Americans congratulated themselves on the election of Barack Obama, our nation’s first black president. Now some are probably asking, what happened? Why is there so much racial hatred and conflict? 
The answer involves a number of contemporary issues, but most of the explanation lies in our nation’s history. Many people are surprised and cannot see the reason due to the incomplete and distorted way we are accustomed to think about United States history. Americans typically praise and celebrate our national story. Focusing proudly on the progress made in our society, we usually remember the racial past in unrealistically positive terms. We ignore, and therefore can scarcely imagine, how deeply rooted and widespread racism has been. But progress requires that we face up to the dark side of our nation’s history. How can we address today’s racial problems without an accurate understanding of the past and the legacy it has left us?  

The best indicator of this problem is the popular image of Abraham Lincoln—a wholly positive image of the Great Emancipator, a humane man who was a champion of racial progress. Lincoln was a compassionate human being and a man who deserves credit for enormous progress.  But Lincoln’s own racial attitudes, policies, and priorities should remind us how enormous the problem was. He could not escape being a man of his time, and the realities of his time are sobering. What he did not achieve, what he did not even try to accomplish, is the measure of how profoundly racism has shaped our history.      

Despite the ennobling acts of Lincoln’s presidency, we forget many unpleasant facts that show the immense scope of white racism. How many of us remember that in his first Inaugural Address Lincoln supported a proposed constitutional amendment that would have protected slavery, forever, from federal interference? How many of us recall that his Emancipation Proclamation gave the rebellious South an opportunity to return to the Union and keep its slaves?  Who today knows that Lincoln repeatedly recommended colonization of black people outside the U.S. and showed interest in this idea even in 1864?  Who today is aware that in his final public statement he said his personal preference was to allow some black men to vote but also said that the defeated (but numerous and still uncooperative) Confederate states should be allowed to vote on the proposed 13th Amendment to abolish slavery?

As the historian George Fredrickson once put it, for Lincoln the Negro seemed to be “a man but not a brother.” Many whites did not even concede humanity to African Americans, and in such a racist society the interests of white people, even those who had rebelled, were more important than ideals of racial equality. In 1865 three of the victorious northern states considered giving the right to vote to black men, and all three defeated the proposal. Lincoln’s attitudes were far in advance of most of his fellow citizens, yet he was part of a deeply racist society and a racially oppressive time. History shows that racism has been fundamental to American society for almost all of our history. No wonder that it is still with us today and that so much work remains to be done. 


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