Last night at OSI-Baltimore’s Talking About Race event, Pulitzer-winning historian Taylor Branch suggested that race has been the central story line throughout American history and politics, and it continues to be in the age of Trump. (Listen to the whole thing below.)
“There is no subject remotely comparable to the impact of race on our history and on our politics since colonial days,” he said. “Race consistently has the power to turn us upside down, to send us to war and in flight, and then to involve us in a concerted effort to repress, ignore, distort, and forget the history that we just went through. This is a remarkable force.”
He talked through the impact of race in various parts of American history, beginning with Andrew Johnson receiving Frederick Douglass at the White House, up through the recent election.
Branch pointed out the extent to which the language of Donald Trump and his allies originated with George Wallace and other segregationists of the 1960s.
“‘Big government’ and ‘pointy-headed bureaucrats’–Wallace’s great phrase–is a mantra created for hostility toward a government that is serving, presumably, the interests of a minority,” he said. “It’s a way of appealing to tribal feelings.”
He added, “Trump is bringing everything that been going on in a subterranean way to the surface in overt racial attacks.”
As an antidote, he prescribed frank conversations about race and a proudly liberal agenda.
“We are far too cautious to talk about the good things that happen when we come together across the lines that divide us and deal with issues of race,” he said, adding that liberals should not be ashamed of their history.
“Look at the difference: Conservatives, for 50 years, have retreated everywhere, from integrated water fountains and Ivy League coeds–they were against that–all the way down to same-sex marriage and yet they can’t say they’re conservatives often enough as a mantra of principled upright success,” he said. “Liberals, who set in motion the liberation that ought to be the model for how we should approach our intractable problems today, don’t even call themselves liberals. A progressive is a liberal that doesn’t want to talk about race.”