Saturday, February 28, 2009

Race and History: Bill Fletcher Jr.

Race, History and Eric Holder's Remarks

Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Last week's comments by Attorney General Eric Holder to
the effect that when it comes to race, the USA is a
nation of cowards brought forth immediate condemnation
by right-wing talk radio. This was to be expected.

The more mainstream media also reacted, albeit more
mildly. Nevertheless, they have tended to focus on
Holder's wording, suggesting that he would be more
likely to be heard if he used other language, such as
that the people of the USA need to be more sensitive to

The problem that Holder encountered was not simply the
attitude of the people of the USA toward race, but more
fundamentally, the prevailing attitude toward history.
The USA has the distinction of being one of the few
countries on the planet that has little interest in
history as such, and when it is forced to address
history, it tends to view history in terms of myth(s).
As such, there are few useful lessons, often making
history a boring subject in school, not to mention
something that is ignored when it is time to develop

Let's take the example of the American Revolution. Most
of what passes for the history of the War of
Independence either falls into the realm of myth or the
selective use of facts. Rarely are we presented with
the significant fact that the colonies probably would
not have won had it not been for the intervention of
the French and Spanish (not to mention Haitian
volunteers who are often completely overlooked).
Ignoring these facts, except perhaps to acknowledge the
Marquis de Lafayette, gives one a completely inaccurate
sense of what it took to win independence from Britain,
not to mention the impact the American Revolution had
on bringing a revolution to France.

We also fail to acknowledge in most histories of the
Revolution the mighty contradiction in the middle of
the entire process: all men are created equal. vs.

In the USA, the prevailing approach toward history,
then, is to set it aside and assume that we can march
forward, ignoring the past and any lessons it has to
offer. In a recent speech, I suggested that in other
spheres, such an approach would be ridiculed. Consider
the horrible bridge collapse in Minneapolis last year.
Could anyone ever imagine the Minneapolis-St. Paul
authorities proposing to ignore the causes of the
collapse; failing to investigate anyone or anything
responsible, and not taking appropriate action PRIOR to
building a new bridge? Such an approach would defy

Holder's comments were attempting to highlight just
that point, specifically in the realm of history and
race relations. With all the excitement in connection
with the election of the first African American
president, there have been too many mainstream white
Americans who believe that we have now entered a post-
racial era where we can all march forward, hand in
hand, with the past behind us.

Holder's comments, much more than Obama's March 2008
speech on race, acknowledge that race and racism
remains a problems deeply embedded in the fabric of the
USA, a problem that must be understood in order for it
to be fully eradicated. Although Holder did not
indicate specifically how this should happen, he should
be loudly applauded for calling the attention of the
USA to the necessity for this dialogue.

If we are to build on Holder's comments, what could it
mean to confront the `cowardice' when it comes to race?
Here are a few ideas:

* The Bill Clinton "Race Initiative" was poorly
focused. A real dialogue would need to happen at
several levels simultaneously. A "Truth and
Reconciliation Commission" model might be a good
framework. There would need to be, in other words, a
commission that directs the work of a multi-year
study and dialogue.

* The Commission would sponsor studies on different
aspects of race and racism in US history, going back
to the colonial era and running through the present.
Such studies would be published and be the basis for
local discussions, available to all, but also
targeted at key opinion-makers and political

* A curriculum would be developed that would be
introduced in the public school system and that
would be made available for private schools, as well
as colleges and universities. The US Department of
Education would sponsor a special training program
for teachers to use the curriculum.

* Hearings would be held across the USA, looking at
different aspects of race. This would not simply
focus on what is happening to people of color, but
would also look at the impact of race and racism on
the lives of white Americans.

* Through vehicles established at the time of the 2001
United Nations World Conference Against Racism,
further hemispheric discussions would be encouraged,
with the full and constructive participation of the
USA, examining race in the Western Hemisphere.

* Specific policy recommendations would be put before
the President of the United States with the
intention of translating them into legislative
action items. Such proposals would aim to repair the
damage which resulted from the hundreds of years of
racist oppression we have experienced in North

The question remains as to whether there is the
political will - what Holder described as `courage' -
for the USA to come to grips with its history. After
all, that history is not as Pollyanna-ish as the myth
we have been taught, but it is nevertheless more
exciting, challenging and true. Executive Editor, Bill Fletcher,
Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy
Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica
Forum and co-author of, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis
in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice
(University of California Press), which examines the
crisis of organized labor in the USA.


No comments: