T.J. Stiles wonders how we can explain “this national tragedy. This Trump.”

Historians in the News
tags: racism, Trump, TJ Stiles, Tribalism



T.J. Stiles has received Pulitzer Prizes for Biography and History, and a National Book Award for Nonfiction. A member of the Society of American Historians and a past Guggenheim fellow. 

... The pattern persists of progress and reaction. The civil rights era brought with it a major change to immigration law that greatly diversified legal (let alone unsanctioned) immigration. In 1970, the Pew Research Center notes, Latinos amounted to only 5 percent of the population; today they amount to 18 percent—and they are no longer confined to the Southwest. The reaction? Explicit racial and ethnic gerrymandering, English-language requirements, mass incarceration, attacks on affirmative action, an insistence that the United States was created as a Christian nation, calls for a wall on the Mexican border—all representing the same tribalist reaction, in kind if not degree, as the various iterations of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s no surprise Donald Trump became president immediately after Barack Obama, who was not only black, but had a Kenyan Muslim father, embodying the full range of fears of white nationalism. Trump is retaliation.

America has a knack for going too far in its tribalist reactions, and in the past this has sparked a countermovement that, at times, led to greater freedom and equality. But we haven’t yet corrected for the flaw in our original civil rights era, Reconstruction. Back then we changed the law, but not ourselves. Anglo Americans still conceive of American identity as themselves plus others—liberty as a state to be extended to newcomers, rather than something confrontation with aggressive bigotry has reinvented, something that redefines us, as a people. The majority has yet to realize our freedom exists because of the struggles of the outsiders, the oppressed, and that it is incomplete. If we are ever to break out of this cycle of self-assertion, reaction, and resistance, then we need to set aside the four options of tribal contact—even that of assimilation, which seeks to alter the Other until it is us. We must believe diversity itself is the American identity. We must get to the point where no one can enjoy the assumption that she is the norm.

Hope endures, even when progress takes decades. If a bunch of white guys in the 1860s who hated Indians and Chinese and weren’t too keen on Africans could find it in themselves to rewrite the Constitution to make it race neutral and protect individual rights, then we have at least some chance of progress, even in the age of Trump.

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