Government & Politics

“White Americans Need to Understand That Their Interests Coincide with Black People’s Interests”

In this podcast episode, two historians discuss why our understanding of history continues to change and who decides what story gets told.

January 21, 2021

In a conversation with Professor Brian Lowery, Dr. Spencer Crew, professor of history and art history at George Mason University joins Dr. Clayborne Carson, professor emeritus of history at Stanford and the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, to discuss the role history plays in our identity as a country. Historical statues and monuments, the men say, tell very different narratives depending on who gets to tell the story.

“Many statues were created after the Civil War, at a time when Jim Crow was being implemented in the South,” says Carson. “Efforts to create these memorials were specifically designed to say, ‘You may think that things have changed since the Civil War, but we’re here to remind you that things haven’t changed.’”


Transcript edited for clarity by Julia Rose Segal

Brian Lowery: We just had the first African American woman elected into the vice-presidential office. As historians, what are your thoughts on that?

Spencer Crew: I’m optimistic and hopeful that this could mark a new way of seeing things in our country, but I tend to be careful about making pronouncements early on. We had a moment previously where we had an African-American president, and we thought that might portend something different, but it didn’t necessarily work out the way we expected.

Clayborne Carson: As a historian, I’m always skeptical about the future of American history; there’s a lot of pessimism that has built up from the past. I agree with Spencer that the optimism we sometimes have — like after Obama’s election — doesn’t match the realism. Seventy million people looked at the Trump administration and decided they wanted four more years of that, and I think that sends us a message that this divide is not over. Similarly, the Civil War did not mark the end of all racism in our country.

Brian Lowery: What do you think we should look for when we want to see if history is shifting?

Clayborne Carson: There’s a deep-seated racial divide in America, and we tend to think that one election can overturn it. But we should remember that, even after the Civil Rights Act of 1965, Black people didn’t have the right to vote in this country. Only white Americans could vote in our elections. And in every election, white America has always chosen the more conservative candidate. This meant that not to have 14 consecutive terms of conservative presidents, the other party had to make themselves more like the Republicans and adapt to the reality in front of them. The problem is that it doesn’t matter who the candidate is — there is a fundamental desire of white Americans to want more of the same, more of what they’re used to.

Spencer Crew: The other component I would add is that there has always been control and power in white people’s hands, and I think that, for the first time, we have begun to see it get wrestled away from them. The word “conservatism” means they want to conserve the way things were because the way things were favored them. Things won’t change until we can begin to shift that power equation, and I think that demographics is an essential pathway to that. I had hoped that would have more impact a lot sooner, and it hasn’t, so I think we’re going to have to watch how that demographic shift begins to affect policies and the balance of power in our country. Biden’s speech this past Saturday, where he recognized that African-Americans were the ones who got him to win the election, made me hopeful. But the key is — will he remember that? Will that be reflected in his policies?

Brian Lowery: You mentioned the voting habits of white people in this country and how, without a shift in demographics, we would still have conservative presidents all the way down. However, there has been a shift in white Americans’ attitudes and how they think about race. How do you reconcile the fact that white attitudes have seemed to shift more than actual white voting as historians?

Spencer Crew: For me, the question is whether this will be a sustained perspective or something else will come along that leads them to set this issue aside. I worry that this new way of thinking is the thing of the moment, and something new can come around any day now. One of my colleagues at the Smithsonian asked her staff to give a presentation to her board members about social justice, and the response she got was: “We’ve already done a lot of that. Can we think about something more pleasant?” That encapsulates what I’m worried about: There’s a sense that this is the right social thing to do at the moment, but have people truly internalized it?

Clayborne Carson: I think it’s much more basic than merely becoming aware of Black Americans’ problems. Ultimately, it comes down to what I believe is the essential issue: White Americans need to understand that their interests coincide with Black people’s interests. Yet, poor white Americans continuously vote against their self-interest. At the end of the “Selma to Montgomery” march, Martin Luther King, Jr., said that “poor whites in the South feed their hungry kids the stale bread of racism”; no matter how poor they are, they reject it in favor of racial privilege. They thought, “We might be poor, but we’re white.” As long as that suffices, we’ve got a problem in this country. When I look at the 70 million Americans who voted for Trump, I see a few people who might have believed Trump, even though he’s a pathological liar. But mostly, I just see people who think that he represents the interests of white people.

Brian Lowery: I think you’re both pointing to the importance of symbolism in terms of how people experience themselves and their position in the world, and how that is separate from their material condition. Stanford’s president recently decided to change Jordan Hall’s name and move Louis Agassiz’s statue. All over the country, people are doing the same things: moving Confederate monuments and renaming buildings. However, many people would say that these people and statues are part of our history, and that we shouldn’t be tearing them down. How do you think about that as historians?

Spencer Crew: History is vital to understand and remember, but the question is: How do you go about doing that? Do you take these statues and put them in very public places where people are forced to confront them? Or do you put them in specific spaces where you can create conversations and learning around them? I am bothered by statues in areas supported by public funds; I don’t want there to be a case where someone who has helped provide the resources for them is insulted by what they see. We shouldn’t have them in courthouses, and we shouldn’t have them on public lands. However, I think we should have them in parks, where we can tell that story differently and give people the option to engage with them. We need to find that balance. If we lose history, we may have problems later on, but we don’t want people to have to confront something painful for them in a public space.

Brian Lowery: Would you feel the same way about a statue of Dr. King? Should it not be in a public space?

Spencer Crew: Confederate statues honor people whose life’s mission was to denigrate others, and classify them as sub-human. On the other hand, King was trying to uplift humanity and our connections with one another. That story should be one that is maintained and taught. As one scholar said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” and I think it’s essential to keep that in mind.

Clayborne Carson: I don’t see protests out there to remove the Lincoln Memorial, despite his statement that he prioritized saving the Union over ending slavery. To me, that would be a misunderstanding of what is going on. Most people who favor removing statues are looking at the motivation that led to the statue in the first place. These Civil War statues were created at a time when Jim Crow was being implemented in the South, and these memorials were meant to say, “You may think that things have changed after the Civil War, but we’re here to remind you that things haven’t.” I remember taking my students to a cemetery in Selma to retrace the civil rights struggle recently. There, we saw an enormous memorial for Nathan Bedford Forrest surrounded by Confederate flags. My students were shocked to find out the statue was only built in 2001. Why did people in Selma want to create a memorial of a Confederate general among the founders of the Ku Klux Klan in 2001? What does that represent? What message is that sending to Selma’s citizens, and why didn’t they care about that? That’s the issue. It’s not the question of whether we have memorials; I love history, and I want to know the good and the bad of history. But you have to think about what the motivation is for having them. And that’s the central issue for museums as well — the reason museums came about was because the imperialist countries of Europe wanted to bring back their loot in order and show off the power over others they had. Considering the motivation for things is important.

Brian Lowery: You’re saying that the motivation for why something was installed should dictate how we respond to it. If I’m in Selma right now and they’re erecting this memorial, that’s a direct assault to me. But 100 years from now, they could erect this memorial for the same reason, and I would be more removed from it. I’m curious whether you separate the motivation behind the monument and its meaning in the current time.

Clayborne Carson: I think that the importance of looking at the motivation carries over into many things. For example, if we’re examining people who voted for Trump. On the one hand, I could say, “This is a democracy, people have the right to vote for whomever they want, and if they like Trump’s fiscal policy better than Biden’s fiscal policy, who am I to say they’re wrong?” But if they’re voting for him because he represents something that is threatening to me, then that is a matter of concern.

Spencer Crew: Part of the reason I have spoken for losing those statues forever but maintaining their history is that their motivation is an important marker. It helps to explain why people in a later time are still resonating with it to such a degree; they understand it represents something larger than just the statue itself. These statues are statements about a period in time and how people saw others in that period, and those who embrace the statues embrace the belief.

Brian Lowery: What would you tell people who feel that their history or culture is being taken away from them?

Clayborne Carson: I would say to look closely at it. I think all of us recognize that we’re the survivors of the past. I’m living in Palo Alto, and I understand that I’m probably living on the tops of the graves of Ohlone people who no longer exist. Because of that, I hope that I would be self-conscious of whether to name a dorm after one of the colonizers who wiped out the native people here. And I would expect that if one of the oppressors were a Black man, I would understand that conversation. We have not had many opportunities to be the oppressors in the world. Still, if one of those accidents of history did happen, I would hope that I would understand the sensitivities of the people who were hurt.

Spencer Crew: I think it’s also essential to have a full picture of a culture or person; often, we tend to highlight the heroic aspects of an individual and elevate them to a level of worship but neglect the full picture. We need to understand all the implications of a person instead of creating mythical stories about a person that ignore their shortcomings. If someone is talking about preserving someone’s history or culture, they should be thinking about the full array of things connected with them instead of only remembering slices of that person.

Brian Lowery: People often learn about artifacts without context. For example, one of my students told me that she learned some songs in school called “Song by Slaves” but wasn’t taught the context in which they were sung. As a result, they thought they were happy songs. Right now, it sounds like we’re talking a lot about artifacts, but it really seems like we’re talking about the narratives around those artifacts; what they mean, how we experience them, and what they tell us about ourselves. My question is not about the symbols, but who gets to create the narrative around the symbols. You are talking about an objective reality around what they mean, but I could argue that there is only the construction around what they mean. Who should get to decide what story gets told?

Spencer Crew: Should there be a single narrative? In my business at the museum, we always talk about what it is about every object that makes it important. And we always argue that it is important to specify the moment in time in the existence of that object we are highlighting. For example, there’s a rock in one of our exhibits celebrated for years because Andrew Jackson gave a speech standing on top of it. Later, we found out that the same rock was also used as a slave rock, and lots of families were broken apart and sold on top of it. What is its provenance; what is the history that we are highlighting with it? Or do we have to share the entire, complex story? As a society, we tend to avoid complexity; we try to simplify our sense of things. But it’s the complexity of them that is important for us to grapple with.

Clayborne Carson: I couldn’t agree more. The business of historians and people who work in museums is that of telling a story. One of the shifts that has taken place in our country is our understanding of American history. For example, Martin Luther King Day is a national holiday, and Columbus Day is gradually going away. No holiday has existed forever — it had to come into existence because people thought it was necessary. For example, May Day was once the workers’ holiday of the world, but once it became associated with socialist nations, it grew very unpopular. These things change over time, and our understanding of history has an impact on them. One of the reasons why many of us became historians is because we read history books and said, “That’s wrong!” It’s a continuous process, and we look at things through different lenses as time goes on.

Spencer Crew: Too often, people view facts as things that are fixed. But in our work, we understand that those things change. A natural part of the process is getting new information and new perspectives and allowing our history to continue to blossom and change. That keeps us historians excited and involved, but it’s something we have a harder time translating to the larger public. There are still many who believe that there is one set of facts, and those are the facts forever, and it is our task to help them understand that that’s not the case.

Brian Lowery: In some part, I give you responsibility for someone like Trump. There has indeed been a shift in how people have seen the past in this country, and you could argue that part of what’s happening with Trump is a counter-reaction to that. People were unhappy with the changing narrative about what this country is and should be, so they pushed back. How do you respond to that reactionary response? What do you do about it as historians?

Clayborne Carson: I would suggest that we try to understand the 70 million people who voted for Trump. I grew up in a small town in New Mexico, so I know life outside of Palo Alto. I understand that there are different perspectives about what this nation represents. To me, the central political question of our era is why people vote against their economic problems. What do they get in compensation for that? Anyone involved in progressive movements knows that you can present a rational argument about how someone would benefit from free health care, and the person would still disagree. And we have to drill down and say: “Well, what is it that’s more important to you than health care?” My guess is that it isn’t simply an economic ideology; it’s something more basic. And that comes back to what King was talking about: “The Wages of Whiteness.” What psychic benefits do these people get? And the answer is a sense of freedom, self-sufficiency, and values that are important to them. Until we understand why a president can essentially deliver for the super-rich and be seen as a populist, we’ll have more Trumps. I highly recommend that everyone reads a book called Looking Backwards, which was written in the 19th century and about a person who wakes up in the 21st century to find that the nation is socialist. It’s interesting to look at how that book led to the rise of the Jim Crow era. Why did we not have a strong labor union like the one in Europe, which led to universal medical care and many other reforms? At a certain point, it became easier for people to put their faith in policies and ignore poor white Americans’ problems. That period really set us on this present course. Why did the South resurrect the Jim Crow system, even though other options were open at the time? Until we can understand the missed possibilities of American history, we might miss this possibility.

Spencer Crew: I don’t believe history is cyclical, but I think there are ebbs and flows. The country we were in in the 1890s was different from in the 1930s, etc. It’s not a cataclysmic change, but you can see the shifting taking place. When King was out there marching, most of the country thought he was doing a terrible thing. But now, of course, he is seen in a very different light. People are having small revelations, but it’s always a back-and-forth, and we’re in a back-and-forth moment right now. I don’t think our immediate goal is to shift to a significant change in our country, but rather small changes that we hope will stick and will continue to move us forward.

Brian Lowery: Often, we think about history as a way to make sense of the past. But I’m going to argue that history is really a reading of ourselves; it’s a way to make sense of the world we live in. For example, looking at history can help me identify what it means for me to be a Black man in this country, and it helps me learn something about my own experience. However, if we try to get Trump voters to accept the history we’re presenting, how would they make sense of their place right now based on their history? What would it mean for them to have succeeded, or failed, in a world driven by white supremacy? Many white Americans would negatively react if you ask them how they understand their experience in this country as a white person because it doesn’t feel good. What would you tell those people?

Clayborne Carson: We are living in a precarious world, where things often go badly. The pandemic has reinforced that notion. And I think that that makes people concerned about their self-interest. When I look at the electoral map, it’s more than a map of simply who voted for which candidate: it’s a map of different kinds of life. We sometimes forget that the Biden voters are the winners, not the losers. Here in Palo Alto, we’re not worried about our next paycheck; we’re not concerned about health care. And we are protective of that privilege. But all you have to do is look at what happens when someone comes in with a policy to put low-income housing in the middle of a suburb, and you will find people saying, “I don’t want that in my neighborhood.” Those kinds of protective attitudes exist even among those who I would consider the “winners.” That should allow us to have some empathy for those 70 million who voted for Trump. It’s hard to have empathy for people who we think might vote for racist reasons, but I can kind of understand why they felt left out. If they turn on the television, Black people are Obama, LeBron James, entertainment celebrities, etc. That’s the image. And on the other side of that, there are the Black people who are looting stores, etc. I think that the notion of empathy works both ways — we have to have empathy for those who live precarious lives and why they want some security. And at the center of the Democratic Party, there is a notion that we want to offer them that; we want to take some of the precarious nature of their lives out.

Spencer Crew: I agree, and I think that’s what Biden is trying to speak to. The hope is that people will be willing to listen and see that even if you don’t agree on everything, there are places where you can connect with them and help make people feel that their issues are being thought about as policies are created. I’m hopeful that maybe that can happen.

Brian Lowery: Many Democrats are confused about what the 70 million who voted for Trump want. But maybe what they want is a narrative that allows them a sense of self-respect and self-worth, even if they have to pay for that economically. It’s hard for the winners to understand that because we already have that by virtue of being winners; we don’t have to make a trade-off between material things and a narrative of self-worth. If that’s true, what narrative would you give those voters so they can feel like they are a positive addition to this country?

Spencer Crew: People need to understand the commonality of their existence, and through that commonality, define places where working collaboratively can work to the benefit of all those involved. We need to show examples of when those collaborations happen and are successful — show that there can be a forward motion that benefits all. My narrative would be one of understanding that commonality and how those collaborations can allow a wider variety of people to feel valued and feel like they are part of this nation’s history and future.

Clayborne Carson: One thing I thought during the Obama era was that he should have traveled into middle America more. What if an American president were to show up at a county fair in Mississippi? Or just have a conversation at the local diner in a small town in Tennessee? I think that the symbolic effort to do that would be an essential step. There were places in middle America that did vote for Obama and voted him in for two terms. Yet that same electorate turned around and then voted for Donald Trump. I think that that could be attributed to a sense that, even during the Obama era, those parts of America were being ignored; Obama was a well-educated Black celebrity, but his experience growing up in Hawaii had nothing to do with American reality. And to some extent, they’re right: Obama is a product of a very distinct, exotic aspect of America. I think that somehow connecting him to the kind of place voting 80% Trump could have brought it down to 60% Trump. And for me, one of the most hopeful things about BLM was that it happened in small towns as well as cities. Some BLM protests barely had a Black man or woman there. Something is happening, and it’s not just limited to the big cities and coasts — it’s also happening in Trump America.

Brian Lowery: We have a lot of leaders in the business community on the line. What would you want to leave them with?

Spencer Crew: I want you all to think about this country’s growth, the changes we’ve seen, and the benefits they’ve provided to a broader expanse of people. I also want you to think about how important it is to embrace the diversity we stand for as a nation and see it as something that can benefit our nation internally and externally as we navigate the larger part of the world. Lastly, history has shown us that if we take advantage of the people resources we have, it will help us work in a much more efficient way and become even stronger as a nation.

Clayborne Carson: There is a certain amount of privilege you all have received by coming to Stanford. You will all be set on a course where you will not face the precarious nature of the world that most people do. I know that it’s very easy to get inside a bubble like this and forget about the rest of the world and about the people who are suffering. Making yourself aware and mindful of that is probably the hardest thing to learn at a place like Stanford. When I first came here, I thought this place was like a playground. But that’s not the real world. I had to work my way through school and never had any scholarships, so I was quite aware that my first responsibility was to pay my rent. And that’s the first responsibility of a good part of society. So don’t lose touch with that.

This is Leadership for Society: The Podcast, a series of conversations hosted by Brian Lowery, senior associate dean for academic affairs at Stanford GSB, that focuses on the most pressing issues of today. In this season of the podcast, Lowery explores the role of race in society, how race interacts with structures of power, and how systemic racism manifests itself in day-to-day business and policy decisions.

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