Historians Tackle Our Tumultuous Present

By Ashley Serpa - How can history help us to understand the current political landscape and its heated debates about social justice? On October 18, 2017, seven UC Davis historians shed light on how looking to the past can—and must—inform our present and our future.

Opening the event, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter urged the audience to “gain sufficient knowledge of the facts and evaluate those facts critically.” Historical knowledge, he said, remains crucial in shaping our society, making the analysis of contemporary issues using a historical lens not only important, but necessary.

Remembering past mistakes

Chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “blood in soil,” white supremacists marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia this past August. They carried torches, instilled fear, and engaged in acts of violence that resulted in three deaths and numerous injuries. While some believe the ideas promoted by white supremacists to be imported from Nazi Germany, David Biale demonstrated that much of what they endorse today, such as segregation and racial purity, has roots in the United States. “We shouldn’t feel ourselves so righteous,” he reminded the audience. Biale, however, also urged those in attendance to maintain hope that this darker legacy does not define the country that also succeeded in implementing civil rights laws and electing an African American president.

Susan Miller asked, “Why the obsession with Jews and Muslims?” During the Crusades, Jews and Muslims became known as the “stubborn unbelievers.” The stigmatization of these groups occurred in several ways, with assertions of Jewish exceptionalism that led to their exclusion and with the belief that Muslims represented the antithesis of Christendom. Both Jews and Muslims face continued “othering”. Miller suggested that President Trump’s xenophobic remarks and calls for a Muslim ban mirror attacks against Jews in the 20th century. We must “remember Nazi Germany,” she concluded, so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

The difference between memory and history

Should Confederate statues be taken down? Yes, according to Gregory Downs. Confederate statues illustrate what W.E.B. du Bois called the “propaganda of history.” For example, the Battle of Liberty Place monument in New Orleans was put up to commemorate a vigilante attack on black lawmakers and policemen in a period when segregation and black disenfranchisement took root in the region. This monument valorized the actions of the vigilantes and attempted to erase the period before, when African Americans had access to political office and the ballot. Defenders of Confederate statues argue that we need them to remember our history, but such statues represent at best an incomplete history and at worst a lie.

John Smolenski expanded on Downs’ comments by posing several questions to help us approach the issue of commemoration. Why did people create these statues? What is their purpose? What are we trying to remember? What values are we trying to convey by keeping these statues standing? Ultimately, we must remember the difference between memory and history as we continue to debate the problem of commemoration, and that efforts to commemorate memories can lead to the promotion of false information inadvertently granted the weight of historical truth.

Commitment and compassion 

Cecilia Tsu approached the issue of refugee policy by considering the commitment to refugees in theory versus practice. While the Statue of Liberty predates the concept of refugees in international law, it broadcasts a theoretical commitment to providing safe haven to those seeking freedom. The U.S. signed the UN protocol on refugees in 1967, establishing its official commitment to refugees. Theory operates differently than practice, however, as each individual country that signed the protocol determines who is deserving of refugee status.

Another complication when it comes to refugees is one of justification. During the Cold War, political justifications opened the door to refugees escaping communism, while human rights justifications drove some politicians to support increased numbers of refugees from Southeast Asia. According to Tsu, relying entirely on political justifications results in bias, while relying entirely on human rights justification can lead to compassion fatigue. Articulating a rationale for accepting as many refugees as possible is of particular concern now given the ongoing crisis in Syria.

The U.S. has had some sort of border fortification for decades, but the border was not always intended to keep Mexicans out. Lorena Oropeza showed that early efforts to police the border were to prevent Chinese immigrants from coming in after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. By the 1920s, the border was keeping out bootleggers trying to circumvent prohibition.

Restrictions on Mexican immigration began in 1965 when the new immigration law instituted “equal treatment” for every country. Anyone who entered the U.S. after the yearly cap had been reached became “illegal” by default. In the decades that followed, the border was steadily built up and more intensely policed, but the Mexican population in the U.S. continues to increase. A wall designed to keep people out also keeps in those who would have crossed back and forth. Calls for stricter border control thus promote a solution that is destined to fail.

Challenging the status quo 

Justin Leroy described how critics of social justice movements often question a movement’s legitimacy because of its tactics while ignoring its goals. “No marginalized group facing violence has ever put a stop to it by asking nicely and appealing to American values,” he asserted. Protests are not necessarily intended to convince skeptics of a movement’s cause but rather to force political and social confrontation that “render the status quo unsustainable.” Critics of the rebellion in Ferguson, Missouri, for example, argued it was counterproductive because of property damage, but through their actions the people of Ferguson placed the issue of police brutality in the national spotlight. 

Such issues will continue to be debated in the years to come. Looking to history can help us understand their origins, why they continue to hold political valence, and what kinds of questions we should be asking to untangle them as we promote social and political change.