We well-intentioned white folks find ourselves called on as never before to demand that Black Lives Matter. Conscience tells us that we must do all we can to put down those who shred the fabric of our (presumably) multiracial democracy. We must insist on bringing the killers of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to account, on facing down Congress-trashing insurrectionists, on disarming white supremacist political opportunists and on visiting justice on our criminal outgoing President.
But as any serious student of American history will be quick to caution, all of the above, as important is it is, will not, by itself, cut it. The same deep-seated racial bigotry that has so profoundly shaped our past, such a historian will observe, is precisely what is driving the news cycle today and will continue doing so until we fundamentally disrupt it. Our deepest challenge is not defeating Josh Hawley, the Proud Boys, and our terrorism-enabling outgoing President, imperative as those actions are. It is the painful, slow, sustained unwinding of structural white supremacy and the political culture that nurtures it. History in short, indicates that we white folks need to step up this very moment to insure that Black Lives Do Indeed Matter, and to persist in sustaining this fundamental struggle over the very long haul.
But at this agonizing juncture, most unfortunately, we white folks have been told in no uncertain terms that we lack the basic emotional strength to do precisely this. And still more unfortunately, a disturbingly large number of us have come to believe it after having absorbed the basic message of Robin D’Angelo’s wildly popular White Fragility: Why White People Find it So Hard to Talk About Racism, which easily outsold Hunger Games throughout this past summer’s burgeoning protests over the murder of George Floyd.
D’Angelo counsels that when we white folks face racially charged situations we find ourselves held hostage by guilt, fear and defensiveness arising from our “unconscious biases.” Thus immobilized, our first priority should be to look deeply inward, take scrupulous inventory of our embedded bigotry, name it, confess it, share it and finally atone for it. And all over the country that’s what many of us have been doing when participating White Fragility discussion groups sponsored by communities of faith and college administrators as well as in corporation mandated “diversity training” sessions.
I’m one of those historians (a specialist in the history of abolitionism and of white supremacy) who insist that white folks must sign up for the long haul, not simply protest in the present moment. So as I see it Robin D’Angelo’s analysis is dangerously counterproductive because it invites us white folks to ignore what history can teach us and to suppress our gut-level imperatives to step up and truly “make a difference.” Rather than looking inward as D’Angelo recommends we white people can best prepare ourselves to grapple with racial conflicts by looking to the past for answers—and then perhaps connecting to our personal experiences and social responsibilities.
With these convictions in mind and as a personal response to the murder of George Floyd I’ve recently released a series of YouTube videos titled “Jim Stewart’s Historical Tonic for Fragile White Folks that strongly contests D’Anglo’s diagnosis. Since then, tragically, the failed insurrection against democracy has added greatly to their timeliness. A press release gives the gist of the series’ approach.
Just up on YouTube: “Jim Stewart’s Historical Tonic for Fragile White Folks.” These 16 mini-lectures (6-10 minutes) give an unflinching account of the brutal history of white supremacy in the United States after 1865. They speak to the general public and are designed to support antiracism initiatives being undertaken by communities of faith, labor unions, civic groups, businesses and student organizations. Their presentation is informal and accessible. They appeal not to white guilt but instead to history-supported empowerment and are documented with vivid images and film clips. Several college campuses, businesses and congregations are currently using them as they develop antiracism projects. For further information, click https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCoIUI7MoZfo8CM3-fHdFylQ/videos
So how, exactly, does this project push back against “white fragility” in our present moment? The succinct answer is that it places the power of historical knowledge and insight at the center of the struggle for racial justice, black and white bound together. It demonstrates that our work as scholars and teachers, when effectively presented to people from every walk of life, is a powerful antidote to “white fragility” and high-energy stimulant of sustained antiracist activism.
The plain fact is, however, that we antiracist historians have never succeeded in substantially influencing the general public. The videos offer an example of how this problem might be overcome. We are fortunate if our books get read by anyone besides our fellow specialists. The PBS documentaries in which some of us show up have demonstrated no self-sustaining audience appeal. Our op-eds, blog posts, interviews and video conferences have the most fleeting of half lives. These videos, by contrast, are designed so that their impact expands and endures.
Solving this “perishability problem” takes on particular urgency for activist-inclined historians at this intensely uncertain moment. Across these various media we are witnessing an extraordinary supernova of historian-driven antiracist illumination in the press and on the internet. One’s list might begin with David Blight, Eric Foner, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Nancy McLean, Donald Yacovone, Nicole Hannah-Jones, Michael Landis, Jill Lepore, Jelani Cobb, Manisha Sinha, Robert E. Wright, Eddie S. Glaude, Heather Cox Richardson, Leslie Harris, Karen L. Cox, and Ibram X. Kendi, and go on from there.
But this list also poses a critically important question particularly in the aftermath of the terrorists’ siege of the Congress: Can our historian-ignited “supernova” be made to expand antiracist commitment deep into our political universe? Is there a way to empower people in general as they develop their own engaged understanding of the past and day-to-day activism in the present? Can we historians preach our way past our predictably “progressive” choir with a message that sustains a much broader desire and demand for racial justice apart from any current political positions?
Because the challenge of dismantling structural white supremacy and encouraging true democratic principles is so enormous providing answers to these questions as we enter the ‘post-Trump” era is absolutely urgent. African American journalist and author Pamela Newkirk bluntly sets forth the reasons why:
“Racial diversity will only be achieved once White America is weaned off a prevailing narrative of racial preeminence — a belief system as intoxicating and addictive, and ultimately destructive, as any opiate…. “Change will require resources and resolve, but no amount of money, no degree of effort, will succeed alongside a willful negation of our shared humanity.”
In short, it’s no longer simply (!!) a matter of passing and enforcing enlightened laws, implementing equitable administrative procedures and developing democratizing public policies. Neither is it a matter of arraigning MAGA terrorists and abusive politicians Instead Newkirk’s challenging vision flawlessly reprises the bedrock insight of Frederick Douglass who spent his life demanding that first and foremost American society undergo a soul-purging “moral revolution.”
Does Douglass’ “moral revolution” anticipate D’Anglo’s “fragility” solution? Is this also what Newkirk is advocating? The simple answer in Douglass’ case is a resounding “no” (Best to ask Newkirk directly). Biographer David Blight has demonstrated that for Douglass moving toward “moral revolution” required ceaseless engagement, not self-regarding contemplation. That’s a far remove from introspective psychological theory.
But when stepping forward to address the general public even in our current highly fraught circumstances, we antiracist historians harbor no revolutionary expectations. Our modest goals make perfect sense but also pitch us into a torturous dilemma. Thanks to what we study and to what we read into today’s headlines, we know just as well as Douglass did the intractable nature of white bigotry. Arraying our historical knowledge against it to move the public is an existential imperative, a fundamental moral obligation, an exercise in trench warfare, an expression of personal anguish. But we know that an authentic “moral revolution,” if ever possible, requires so very much more.
But at the same time, as noted, the grim fact is that our attempts to influence the public as historian/ journalists are ephemeral one-offs in the public’s rapidly shifting consciousness. They quickly become “yesterday’s news.” Ours, clearly, is anything but a position of strength. Yet in the present moment the imperative that our knowledge be widely heard has never been more pressing and obvious.
This sobering diagnosis even affects Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s “Reconstruction: America after the Civil War,” by my estimate, the most powerful documentary we have that addresses the struggle for racial justice in America. It runs four hours and features incisive contributions from a wealth of distinguished commentators. Its script is wondrously accessible and it is enriched by eye-catching images and production features. This list of major underwriters of that film suggests the enormity of its bottom line:
Johnson & Johnson, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; the Ford Foundation; The Gilder Foundation; Dr. Georgette Bennett and Dr. Leonard Polonsky, CBE; Lloyd Carney Foundation; and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS.
In my perfect world all white Americans will have viewed it, learned from it, discussed it with their children, and infused it into the public school curriculum. Its impact would reverberate deeply across the decades ahead. Here in our “real world,” Gates himself has done everything possible to make something like this happen. Search Google, see for yourself, and come away staggered by his investments of time, intellect and energy. Add to that his teaching text that supplements the documentary, Stony Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy and the Rise of Jim Crow (2019) and the incorporation of both book and documentary in the pre-collegiate curriculum of the Howard Zinn Project.
The odds against Gates’ effort succeeding alone, however, are overwhelming unless we provide serious reinforcement. As we sort through the consequences of our failed coup d’etat attention spans will continue shrinking and challenges will multiply for this four hour documentary. Once we reach, say, 2023, Reconstruction’s cachet as the ‘next big thing” will have faded. Teachers will have begun revising their pedagogy as current trends, fair or foul, dictate. In the end, this most luminous fire in our history-powered “supernova” will, like the others, go dim—- unless we work to sustain it, push out its boundaries and embed its wisdom in our nation’s political culture. That’s the basic goal of “Jim Stewart’s Historical Tonic for Fragile White Folks.”
Each segment of the “Tonic” delivers a straight-up account of a pivotal event or trend in the brutal history of post-1865 America. There are no pulled punches, no concessions to presumably “fragile” viewers. Each is laced with attention reinforcing graphics and images, follows the established historical chronology, addresses the era’s dramatic themes and consequences and represents the scholarship of our finest post-emancipation historians. The Tonic’s advantage is that it offers these lessons in small (though bitter tasting), self-paced, rapid-acting doses. And once ingested, its historical impact stimulates white folks to reconsider their roles in the struggle for justice—and to begin acting. This is how the ‘Tonic” makes its way into day-to day political culture— viewing by viewing, conversation by conversation, personal action by personal action.
Here in Minnesota, where I live, the videos have been adopted for antiracism education by three large Protestant churches and a major Synagogue. The Ramsey County Library System is circulating them to its thousands of users and planning follow up programming that involves community activists. Macalester College, the University of Minnesota and the University of St. Thomas are working to integrate them into their teaching and programming. In February, the Minnesota Council of Churches will consider the “Tonic” as it develops statewide antiracism initiatives. Outside Minnesota similar trends are developing on at least six college campuses, among churches and synagogues and in other community organizations. Additionally, a consulting firm has appointed me its adviser and is adapting the videos for their corporate clients’ diversity training programs. All this activity in the twelve weeks since the “Tonic” became available on YouTube.
How can videos that so dig deeply into such a shameful history evidently gain such rapid acceptance by so many “unconsciously racist” white folks? To answer that question, view the videos yourself. It is worth observing however that the “Tonic’s” production costs totaled a mere $6000.00, preparation required less than a month and recording took only six hours. Producing it was no great challenge. Activist-inclined historians of the Native American, Asian and Latinx experience might want to think on this.*
What we all should be thinking about are skyrocketing hate crime statistics, Proud Boys mobilizing, “dog whistles” becoming bugle blasts, armed Q-Anon Representatives infiltrating the Congress, former President Trump’s approval rating among Republicans hovering at 90% and the list of those murdered at the hands of the police growing ever longer. Projects like Jim Stewart’s Historical Tonic for Fragile White Folks” alone won’t bring the “moral revolution” that Douglass envisioned. They will, however, keep our essential work as historians from becoming “yesterday’s news” and un-fragile white folks engaged in the struggle for racial justice.
* To explore this possibility I highly recommend contacting The “Tonic’s” abundantly gifted videographer Dan Rippl, http://www.ripplcreative.com/ .