Believe it or not, on Fox News Friday Sarah Palin accused Barack Obama of wanting to return America to the days before the Civil War. There is a video going around of a young Obama, in his days as a Harvard Law School student, voicing his support for Derrick Bell, a professor there who had put himself on unpaid leave as a protest because the law school had no black women on its tenured faculty. The video prompted Palin to tell Sean Hannity:
"What we can glean from this is an understanding of why we are on the road that we are on. Again, it's based on what went into his thinking, being surrounded by radicals. You could hearken back to the days before the Civil War, when too many Americans believed that not all men were created equal. It was the Civil War that began the codification of the truth that here in America, yes, we are equal and we all have equal opportunities, not based on the color of our skin. You have equal opportunity to work hard and to succeed and to embrace the opportunities, the God-given opportunities, to develop resources and work extremely hard and as I say, to succeed. Now, it has taken all these years for many Americans to understand that the gravity, that mistake that took place before the Civil War and why the Civil War had to really start changing America. What Barack Obama seems to want to do is go back before those days when we were in different classes based on income, based on color of skin. Why are we allowing our country to move backwards instead of moving forward with the understanding that as our charters of liberty spell out for us, we are all created equally?"
It doesn't take too much historical insight to come up with reasons that America's first black president would not want to bring back the days of slavery -- only in the world of minstrel songs do blacks yearn for a return to the plantation -- so it's worth considering the reasons why Palin might make such a bizarre statement.
First of all, it's curious to hear a Republican commenter accusing Democrats of wanting to turn back the clock, when it is the Republican presidential candidates who seem to miss nineteenth-century America. Rick Santorum has called for a return to our pre-industrial educational system. Newt Gingrich has praised Andrew Jackson's foreign policy. Ron Paul has made a career advocating for an antebellum view of "states' rights." (Paul, by the way, is one of many conservatives who believes the Civil War was fought over states' rights, not slavery, so it's interesting to note the split Palin makes here by acknowledging the war was about race.)
But there is an underlying insinuation in Palin's comments that is more nefarious: Palin seems to suggest that America solved "the race problem" at Appomattox in 1865. That's why she is so aghast to see African-Americans making race-based claims in the 1990s. Palin's version dusts off an old American myth, with roots in Abraham Lincoln's rhetoric, of a trial on the battlefields of Gettysburg and Antietam that washed America in the blood of martyred soldiers and purged us of our original sin of slavery. Since then, Palin suggests, there's been an even playing field -- "we all have equal opportunities," she says. In Palin's construction, Barack Obama just didn't get the memo: since 1865, America has been color-blind.
The Civil War did end slavery, but Palin's remarks suggest that she needs to be reminded that emancipation brought, in the words of influential historians Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch, only "one kind of freedom." Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar David Oshinsky called his book on post-emancipation African-American history Worse than Slavery. The structures of racism continued to violate the spirit of freedom and equality in America long after the Civil War. When W.E.B. DuBois wrote that the problem of the century was the "problem of the color-line," he was writing, perceptively, about the twentieth century.
That's why Barack Obama and his classmates at Harvard were still fighting for inclusion in 1991, why his election in 2008 was a milestone and why it is still important to talk about race today. In that video, Obama was not talking about the historical vestiges of slavery and a response that some call "reparations." Rather, that in 1991 Harvard Law School had no tenured black women was just one comparatively-benign example of how racism is a contingent force, frequently refined and reinvented, that continues to foreclose possibilities in American life, denying our fellow citizens of their chance to thrive today.
One way of reading the darkest insinuations in Sarah Palin's comments would be to see the implication that Barack Obama wants to put white Americans in slavery. Of course that's not what the president wants, and more broadly, few African-Americans have ever called for limits on white opportunity. Affirmative action, for instance -- which is not what Obama was discussing in 1991 -- is not about creating black advantage, it's about trying to find ways to account for African-American structural disadvantage. The long African-American civil rights movement has been a struggle to gain the same respect and privileges and opportunities some whites have long enjoyed -- a constellation of good things we call "the American Dream."
Palin's bad historical punditry tries to foreclose certain kinds of conversations: conversations that are among the most pressing in American society today. To talk about class is not, as Mitt Romney would have it, to wage class warfare, and to talk about race is not, as Sarah Palin suggests, to long for a return to racial apartheid. If we can't find ways to talk about class and race in America, we're doomed.