Maybe President Obama was the Exception and Jeremiah Wright was the Rule

Matt Lewis thinks the Trump campaign is foolish to use Obamagate against Joe Biden and the previous administration since no one is more popular (especially among African-Americans) than President Obama. But if you read then Senator Obama’s Philadelphia speech about race (in response to inflammatory statements by his United Church of Christ pastor, Jeremiah Wright), the former president’s ideas have not aged well. You might even think he was living in a never-never land about race. Timelines are again important and the 1619 Project has swept away President Obama’s hopes for national unity:

I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who’s been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

…The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

That was 2008. By almost the end of Obama’s second term as POTUS (2015), Jeremiah Wright was still making the rounds and his “static” view of the United States made sense:

Wright is a flawed messenger with a flawed message, but the message feels far more suited to the times in 2015 than it did to 2008. Back then, the prospect of an Obama election set off giddy daydreams of a post-racial America. Today, nearly three out of five Americans say that race relations in the United States are bad. Wright’s argument in those sermons more than a decade ago, that the United States was structurally racist and conceived in white supremacy, are now commonly voiced, by those like my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates, Black Lives Matters activists, and white liberals. Another cause he championed back then has come to draw adherents from across the political spectrum—the dangers of mass incarceration. Wright said in 2003:

The United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on the reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating the citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of the racist bastions of higher education and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America”

It could be that Obama didn’t really have a chance. The major media outlets and universities had not really agreed with his understanding of the United States. As David Graham added in his story about Wright:

much of it sounded very much like what you might hear from liberal professors in university classrooms across America: the emphasis on structural racism; skepticism of imperialism in many guises; sympathy for Palestinians and even antipathy toward Israel; praise for interdisciplinarity; the plea for multiculturalism and alternative viewpoints. Adding to the professorial vibe, Wright peppered his talk with repeated “assignments” for reading: the pioneering black historian Carter Woodson; C. Vann Woodward’s classic The Strange Career of Jim Crow; A. Leon Higginbotham’s In the Matter of Color: The Colonial Period; academic monographs in various disciplines. (The parallels between Coates and Wright were amusing: an interest in the study of white supremacy; a deep immersion in academic literature; a reverence for Howard University as an intellectual Mecca.)

For confirmation that President Obama did not change the minds of many Democrats and progressives about race, (trigger warning) read Adam Serwer on the Pulitzer Prize winning 1619 Project:

The most radical thread in the 1619 Project is not its contention that slavery’s legacy continues to shape American institutions; it’s the authors’ pessimism that a majority of white people will abandon racism and work with black Americans toward a more perfect union. Every essay tracing racial injustice from slavery to the present day speaks to the endurance of racial caste. And it is this profound pessimism about white America that many of the 1619 Project’s critics find most galling.

Not the hope of 2008 but the despair of 2019/1619 is prevailing.

What Historians Do

Sean Wilentz, the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University, is not a conservative. His ethic background is both Jewish and Irish, so chances are he is not a Reformed Protestant and so does not have a Christian w-w. He’s a Democrat, an egalitarian, and generally progressive. Plus, he’s a darned good historian and will not let partisan politics shape our understanding of the past.

For instance, he has been outspoken about the inaccuracies of the Sixteen Nineteen Project:

On December 20, the Times Magazine published a letter that I signed with four other historians—Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood. Our letter applauded the project’s stated aim to raise public awareness and understanding of slavery’s central importance in our history. Although the project is not a conventional work of history and cannot be judged as such, the letter intended to help ensure that its efforts did not come at the expense of basic accuracy. Offering practical support to that end, it pointed out specific statements that, if allowed to stand, would misinform the public and give ammunition to those who might be opposed to the mission of grappling with the legacy of slavery. The letter requested that the Times print corrections of the errors that had already appeared, and that it keep those errors from appearing in any future materials published with the Times’ imprimatur, including the school curricula the newspaper announced it was developing in conjunction with the project.

The letter has provoked considerable reaction, some of it from historians affirming our concerns about the 1619 Project’s inaccuracies, some from historians questioning our motives in pointing out those inaccuracies, and some from the Times itself. In the newspaper’s lengthy formal response, the New York Times Magazine editor in chief, Jake Silverstein, flatly denied that the project “contains significant factual errors” and said that our request for corrections was not “warranted.” Silverstein then offered new evidence to support claims that our letter had described as groundless. In the interest of historical accuracy, it is worth examining his denials and new claims in detail.

No effort to educate the public in order to advance social justice can afford to dispense with a respect for basic facts. In the long and continuing battle against oppression of every kind, an insistence on plain and accurate facts has been a powerful tool against propaganda that is widely accepted as truth.

The article goes on, almost in the manner of a legal brief, to do the historical equivalent of math assignments — show your work.

Wilentz was also pretty good about the differences between liberalism and socialism. In defense of Hillary Clinton, in 2018 he pointed out the conceit of Sanders claiming to be merely a liberal on the order of the New Deal:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt called himself a Christian, a Democrat, and a liberal. He did not call himself a democratic socialist, or any other kind of socialist. He was, in fact, no socialist at all. Nor was he a conservative or a reactionary, although many on the socialist and communist left charged that he was—including the Communist Party USA, which attacked his New Deal for a time (until Moscow’s political line changed) as American “masked fascization.”

The only Americans who considered Franklin Roosevelt a socialist were right-wing Republicans. “The New Deal is now undisguised state socialism,” Senator Simeon D. Fess of Ohio declared in 1934. “Roosevelt is a socialist, not a Democrat,” Congressman Robert Rich of Pennsylvania announced on the House floor a year later. Roosevelt scoffed at such talk, but in 1939 he paused to present a very concise political dictionary of his own. “A radical,” he told the New York Herald Tribune, “is a man with both feet firmly planted—in the air.” A conservative, he continued, “never learned to walk forward”; a reactionary walked backward in his sleep. A liberal, though, used legs and hands “at the behest—at the command—of his head.” The metaphor was poignant coming from him, but it also emphasized his point: In the face of all adversity, he was every inch a liberal.

In the 1936 election, FDR masterfully ran as an unabashed liberal and at the same time completely outmaneuvered the left and would-be populists like Louisiana Governor Huey Long, who, before his assassination, planned to challenge Roosevelt in the campaign on a “Share Our Wealth” platform. As Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks related in It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, the Great Depression “presented American radicals with their greatest opportunity to build a third party since World War I.” But Roosevelt’s New Deal, in its improvisational way, offered a triumphant liberal alternative.

The election of 2016 showed how confused these old labels and distinctions have become. The socialist senator Bernie Sanders, for example, rallying his supporters with a speech at Georgetown University in November 2015, offered a surprising definition of socialism, which consisted of a paean to FDR and the social protections ushered in by the New Deal. “Almost everything he proposed, almost every program, every idea, was called socialist,” Sanders said—as if the right-wing name-calling was the rightful definition.

Somewhere the ghost of FDR burst out laughing, while the ghost of one of Sanders’s other heroes, Eugene V. Debs, scratched his head.

What distinguishes liberals like Wilentz from Leftists like Sanders or writers at the New York Times is an attachment to the United States. He may not think it’s the greatest nation ever. But he seems like you could have a conversation about it. Wilentz would also likely be suspicious of newspapers and magazines that claim to be exceptional in ways formerly reserved for nations.