University History Departments Have a Race Problem

Historians in the News
tags: education, Alt Right, White nationalists



Josephine Livingstone is the culture staff writer at The New Republic.

This October, Professor Matthew Gabriele of Virginia Tech’s religion department co-hosted a symposium at George Washington University called “The Middle Ages, the Crusades, & the Alt Right.” The conference was aimed at “bringing together scholars and journalists” to discuss “popular contemporary nostalgia for the Middle Ages, specifically the Crusades and ideas about Race.” The resurgent white supremacist movement has been appropriating medieval (or medieval-flavored) motifs in the public eye this year, taking up the “Deus Vult” slogan (or “God wills it,” purported to have been chanted by medieval Crusaders) and the so-called Celtic Cross. The symposium aimed to discuss “where those ideas come from, what the real Middle Ages was like, how universities are reacting to this newfound interest, and how these modern groups are themselves evolving.”

White nationalists have a long and storied history of abusing the premodern past for their own ideological ends. In our moment as in the original Nazis’, the nationalists believe that white identity’s roots lie in some long-lost cultural heritage dominated by white men. When I spoke to Professor Gabriele, he told me that the symposium was in part an extension of a piece he wrote for the Washington Post in response to the London terrorist attacks in June, which had prompted an uptick in the use of the word “crusade” in the press. 

The new urgency of historical studies’ situation prompts a broader question for the humanities, especially for fields whose object of study is politically sensitive or prone to right-wing appropriation. Should historians take responsibility for the abuse and exploitation of the past by amateurs, or even by those within their own ranks? Is scholarship doomed to be complicit in the violence done in its name? ...




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