I took your history 176 class first semester and it honestly was one of the most thought provoking classes I’ve ever taken. Your class definitely opened me to many experiences and perspectives I had never seen before. I feel like you did a really good job allowing us as students to take the information Independently and form our own opinions. I definitely changed the opinions and perspectives of some things that I thought I was confident in.
I tend to think of myself as more conservative, but at the same time I am Jewish and I had a lot of family die or narrowly escape the holocaust so I feel like I have a different perspective than what the stereotypical conservative is portrayed as; I experienced very little discrimination based on my religion, but I feel somewhat better equipped to empathize/sympathize with minorities. All of that being said I was just wondering what you make of what has happened the past few days. As someone who has studied civil rights and what it is like being a person of color in America, do you think that what is going on will be helpful or ultimately harm the cause they are trying to fight for? All I see is people posting things on social media saying these are justified, but I want to know what someone whose career is focused on this would think.
I also want to add I hope I can take a class with you again you are genuinely one of the best teachers I have had and I hope our paths cross again soon.
Dear [removed] –
I hope this finds you and your loved ones well and safe. My family and I are fine. These are stressful and frightening times, and it often feels very odd to be living in peace, quiet, and plenty in my leafy neighborhood while so much struggle and heartbreak is taking place so nearby.
This is not the first time in my lifetime that there has been a violent civil confrontation in Madison. Protests turned into riots between students and police during the 1960s, primarily over the Vietnam War. In the 1990s, the Mifflin Street Block Party devolved into a battle between party-goers in a student neighborhood and police. But the recent history of protest here has been remarkably peaceful. The massive protests against Act 10 in 2011, which saw a hundred thousand or more people circling Capitol Square, produced fewer arrests than a football Saturday. The vigils and marches following the police killing of teenager Tony Robinson on Willy Street in 2015 were similarly peaceful.
All of which is to say that history informs how I think about what has happened over the past few days.
When we think about the role of protests in shaping American life, the place we naturally turn is the Civil Rights era—particularly the slice of it that you might call “Dr. King and the nonviolent movement for social change.” We have made this an official part of our national story, and we celebrate it the same we celebrate slave emancipation—as a sign of Americans’ commitment to progress. But there are a lot of problems with the way we tell this story. The black freedom struggle between WWII and the end of the 1960s contained multitudes, ranging from highly technical legal strategies to armed revolution. Dr. King, as important and effective a moral and political leader as he was, was only the most visible public representative of a diffuse and multi-faceted protest movement in which local activists, many of them women, were the essential players. And even our story of Dr. King focuses on a handful of utterances and public positions, chiefly the importance of non-violent moral witness and the achievement of his celebrated “dream” in the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act; our accounts generally leave to one side King’s focus on economic justice (the 1963 March on Washington was actually the March for Jobs and Freedom), his fierce opposition to the Vietnam War, his unsuccessful effort to bring the movement to the North, and the concerted efforts of the FBI and other government forces to bring him down.
Only occasionally do we hear what Dr. King said about riots—that they are “the language of the unheard.” I urge you to read what he told the American Psychological Association about “urban riots” in 1967, because those paragraphs ask us to turn our attention away from the two questions you ask—Will protest help? Is violence justified?—and instead situate actions we understand to be objectively dangerous and destructive in a fuller context. Dr. King’s point was not to excuse, justify, or celebrate; it was to help us think our way past simplistic explanations or simple moralizing (as various as “that’s just how they are”; “outside agitators!”; and “two wrongs don’t make a right”) to an analysis that might lead us to lasting solutions.
That’s my point as well. I was born in 1965 and, like you, grew up deeply aware of the Holocaust. Thinking and feeling my way through that history as a young person made me the historian I am today. I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, a prosperous Boston suburb that was fully 50% Jewish. No large community of Jews in the modern history of the world has been safer or more comfortable. And yet even in that context I grew up painfully, worriedly aware of how quickly a social order could turn against a racialized minority group, to shame, stigmatize, police, violate, and finally murder. The European Jewish experience and the African American experience represent radically different histories, but in a broad sense they share the experience of living in a subordinated status from literally the beginning of one’s existence as a people, with the larger society only occasionally mouthing the words “equality” in one’s direction.
In the class you took with me last fall we studied the two moments when U.S. society has tentatively embraced that word—equality—with respect to African Americans: Reconstruction, which left a lasting imprint on the Constitution and in African American institutional life, but which the majority society allowed to be overthrown and circumvented within a generation; and the Civil Rights movement, which transformed American legal and cultural life, making it possible to imagine and elect a president of African descent and to claim with a straight face that this was a civic nation rather than a white republic. We know the end of the first story; we don’t yet know the end of the second. But we do know that neither Reconstruction nor the Civil Rights movement fully removed the stigma and inequality fostered by two and half centuries of slavery and another century of malign neglect (for example: Jim Crow in public and private life, disenfranchisement, lynching, restrictive covenants, the white primary, pogroms against thriving black communities, such as Wilmington in 1898 and Tulsa in 1921, helplessness before the law, and the widely held assumption that aspirations to equality encouraged black men to rape white women). Consider the pervasiveness and durability of the transparent and malicious fabrication called “birtherism,” and the fact that its chief exponent was elected president. More importantly, and beyond all partisan questions, consider how throughout almost the entirety of the Civil Rights era in which we live, national policy—not just “racial attitudes”–has nurtured deep and continuing disparities in black and white education, health, wealth…
And justice. For this is the spark that has set off the fire this time.
The administration of justice in the U.S. has never been colorblind, in part because a nation committed to racial slavery did not desire that, and in part because the legacy of that deep, structural inequality has never been erased in law. Law by itself cannot, of course, undo inequality. But its administration has perpetuated and even worsened that. Even the administration of facially neutral laws has frequently been discriminatory—study after study of traffic stops, drug arrests, and sentencing shows that police, judges, juries, and parole boards exhibit conscious or unconscious bias against African Americans. So do we all. The result is that in the U.S., which incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation, African Americans are more than five times as likely as whites to be incarcerated—and to suffer, as a further consequence, the political and employment disabilities that follow incarceration. From this perspective, the United States treats African Americans as though they were the most dangerous, criminal people in the history of the world.
Since the era of slavery, and more or less consistently since, police, judges, juries, and white citizens generally have treated African Americans not as fellow citizens entitled to equal treatment, but as predisposed to crime and meriting continuous surveillance. In order to prevent a class of people considered inherently criminal from wreaking havoc, white society at large has accepted a high level of surveillance of and violence against black communities. Even when leaders acknowledge that this has sometimes “gone too far,” cases of prosecution of law enforcement for killing black civilians are extremely few and far between. Even video evidence is rarely enough, as (for example) in the case of Eric Garner. The officer who killed George Floyd had killed non-white civilians several times before in the line of duty, had more than a dozen excessive force complaints against him, and nonetheless continued to serve as a Minneapolis police officer. This is not an accident: even in “liberal” communities such as Madison and Minneapolis, it is nearly impossible to remove such officers from the force. Not only that: it is nearly impossible to persuade city governments to institute civilian review boards or other forums for accountability beyond the departments themselves.
I do not say this to blame the police. I say it to name a structure of government that allows this grossly unequal and racially discriminatory law enforcement, sentencing, and incarceration to continue. Because if this is a democratic society, we write the police’s job description. And if we know this is occurring, and we do nothing about it, we are acquiescing in it. We are saying “this is not important enough to do something about.” We are saying, in essence, “we can live with this.”
That’s why people are so angry.
That’s why Colin Kaepernick took the knee. And just consider the furious, enraged response to that. The president calling players who did it “sons of bitches.” The vice president ostentatiously left a game early when it happened. Schools have sanctioned players who do it. Why? Because somehow, naming this pervasive and destructive evil is worse than the evil itself.
So I imagine myself in the position of a person whose whole experience of American life is manifestly inferior to the white majority; whose community is policed with violence and with impunity; whose lifetime prospects—life expectancy; health; education; wealth; incarceration—are dramatically worse. I imagine what it feels like to see that video of Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. I imagine what it feels like after two months of watching the inequalities of American life play out amid this pandemic, in which one in 2,000 African Americans has already died (more than twice the rate among whites). And I feel sad, and sick.
And I feel enraged. I’m materially unaffected in my daily life by that violence, that poverty, that discrimination. And I feel enraged. What must those experiences foster among people living them in a daily way?
Sociologists tell us that riots are not fomented by community activists – that in fact the presence of those activists discourages violence. The destruction of property is largely the work of people who do not feel and have never felt that they have a means of protesting or changing their circumstances. To quote Dr. King again, it is the “language of the unheard.” There are countless other examples of activists and intellectuals trying to explain this, but the conversation in the media and among white people instead returns to the questions you began with: is it productive? Is it justified? With the implicit answers almost always being “probably not.”
From my point of view, the question is not whether violent protest will work, or whether it is justified. It is why it happens, and how to change the structures of violence and inequality that ensure that it happens again and again.
I don’t know what the answers are. I do know that soothing words from well-meaning officials—or threatening words from others—will do nothing. I do believe that we are facing a moment of reckoning, in which we must collectively decide whether we believe in democracy, and equal opportunity, and an honest accounting of our past and present failures to establish them, or whether we will double down on “law and order.” I can’t promise you that the first course will be easy, or even that it will quickly solve the problems we now face. They are centuries in the making. But I can promise you that the second course will lead only to more misery and disaster.
A half-century ago, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his nephew that was later published as The Fire Next Time, a book I earnestly recommend to you. In it, he wrote “This is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.” Baldwin’s faith in that possibility exceeds my own on many days, but I take hope and inspiration from his words. Especially from one of them: we.
I apologize for the length of this letter, but it reflects my gratitude to you. Your note caught me in a moment of great dread and despair, and figuring out how to answer you has helped me understand what I am thinking and feeling. I hope this finds you well, and that it is in some way helpful to you. And I too hope our paths cross again.
This article was authored and edited by Steve Kantrowitz, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor, History; Affiliate Faculty Member, Afro-American Studies; America Indian Studies Program, UW-Madison. Steve partnered in forming and lectures for the Justified Anger’s Black History for a New Day Course.