This article appeared in Political Theory, 30(2002):623-648; copyrights are with the author and the journal.
On the Politics of the Memory of Slavery
The settlement of the North American continent was ... a consequence not of any higher claim in a democratic or international sense, but rather of a consciousness of what is right which had its sole roots in the conviction of the superiority and thus of the right of the white race. Adolf Hitler, 1932
It seems that wherever one turns
these days questions of how to deal with difficult pasts have risen to the top
of national and international agendas. The general premise of this paper is that the
I shall focus here
on only one of the major constellations of racial injustice that disfigure our
past and present, the one associated with racial slavery and its
aftermath. The “logics” and “dynamics”
of the constellations associated with the near extermination of Native
Americans, the forceful subjection of the inhabitants of territories conquered
the close of World War II to the present,
Nolte, Michael Stürmer, Andreas Hillgruber,
and other professional historians undertook to reinterpret the events of the
Nazi period in ways that reduced their singularity and enormity -- for
instance, by comparing the Final Solution to other mass atrocities of the
twentieth century, from the massacres of the Armenians by the Turks to the
Stalinist purges of the 1930s. Indeed,
the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath also served as the major explanatory
factor in their account of the recent German past: Hitler and Nazism were a
response to the threat of Bolshevism from the East. In addition to “normalizing” and
“historicizing” the Holocaust in these ways, historical work from this quarter
also promoted a shift in perspective from solidarity with the victims of Nazism
to solidarity with the valiant German troops fighting on the Eastern front and
with ordinary Germans suffering through the war’s grim end. There was, of course, a political-cultural
point to all of this: it was time for
With such arguments, and in concert with their political allies, the conservative historians were putting revisionist history to public use in the interests of reshaping public memory -- and thus German self-understanding -- and of relieving public conscience so as to revitalize German patriotism. And it was precisely to this political-cultural challenge that Jürgen Habermas, Hans Mommson, and other German left-liberal intellectuals responded in the Historikerstreit. I want now to consider briefly their responses concerning the public use of history, and to do so from the interested standpoint of our own difficulties in coming to terms with the past.
overriding political-cultural issue behind the historians dispute might be put
as follows: what should be the attitude of present-day Germans toward a Nazi
past in which most of them were not directly implicated? Often enough the collective past is a burden
on the present, and the stronger the memories of it the greater the
burden. If the past in question involves
terrible crimes for which amends can never really be made, the problems for
collective identity and collective action can be immense. With worries of this sort in mind, many
Germans felt in the mid-1980s that forty years of dealing with the Nazi past
was enough and that it was time for Germany to move on -- to reestablish
continuities with the many glorious aspects of its history and traditions, to foster
a more positive self-understanding, and to play a more self-confident and
self-interested role in international affairs than its postwar pariah status
had permitted. Those who argued against
this -- successfully in the end -- noted that the process of publicly facing
the past had gotten fully underway only in the late 1960s and was already
throttled in the early 1980s by the Tendenzwende, or
change of direction, set in motion when the Christian Democrats regained power
under Kohl. And the character of that
change -- particularly the heavy-handed attempts to reverse the
political-cultural accomplishments of the 1970s and to renew German patriotism,
encapsulated by the infamous events at Bitburg in
1985 -- made it clear that Germany had not yet effectively worked through its
past but was rather in the process of trying to repress it. The questionable work of the conservative
historians enlisted in these efforts only proved the point: professional
history was being misused to improve
There were, of course, historiographic criticisms of that work by other
historians; but the line of criticism I want to focus on stressed rather the
political implications of this effort to leave the painful past behind. Jürgen Habermas, in particular, advanced the argument that German
national identity was inseparable from its historical consciousness, and that
any major shifts in German public memory would leave their mark upon German
self-understanding, with practical-political consequences. If those shifts were in the direction of
denying and repressing the past instead of confronting and dealing with it,
they would likely lead to forms of “acting out” rather than “working through,”
symptoms of which could already be discerned in German public life, most
notably in various expressions of a mounting xenophobia. For what was at issue here was not a
temporary aberration but a catastrophe with deep roots in German history and
culture. Historians of the Holocaust
had, for instance, pointed to a virulent strain of popular anti-Semitism as a
contributing factor, a diagnosis later reinforced and sharpened in Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s
Willing Executioners. Long-standing,
widespread, and deeply rooted views of German racial superiority and Jewish
racial inferiority had shaped a popular mindset that was, Goldhagen
argued, a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the attempted Judeocide. Even
those born later, who bore no individual moral guilt in that connection, had a
continuing responsibility to work up, on, and through such elements of German
political culture in an effort to break with the past. Failure to do so, Habermas
argued, would come back to haunt German public life, for allowing the motivational
force of such beliefs and attitudes to persist would only heighten the risk of
repeated outbreaks of racially imbued thinking and acting, as already evinced
in the growing conflicts over asylum and immigration. It would also amount to a renunciation of
On this point, referring to Walter Benjamin’s idea of reversing the usual triumphal identification with history’s winners for an anamnestic solidarity with its victims, Habermas writes: “There is the obligation incumbent upon us in Germany...to keep alive, without distortion, and not only in an intellectual form, the memory of the sufferings of those who were murdered by German hands...If we were to brush aside this Benjaminian legacy, our fellow Jewish citizens and the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of all those who were murdered would feel themselves unable to breathe in our country.” Public remembrances and commemorations of the suffering of victims -- through artistic as well as historical representations, in public rituals and public places, in school curricula and mass media -- play crucial roles in transforming traditions and in determining what will or will not be passed on to future generations. Whether or not past evils are kept present in public consciousness, whether or not their victims are still mourned, Habermas continues, are central elements of who “we” (Germans) are and who “we” want to be. For recognizing past evil as integral to German history, as issuing “from the very midst of our collective life” -- rather than as marginal or accidental to it -- “cannot but have a powerful impact on our self-understanding...and shake any naive trust in our own traditions.” It is, in fact, an essential ingredient in any genuine effort to re-form national identity in full awareness of the horrors that issued from its previous formation.
The unity of this “we” is, to be sure, by no means given: it is something that has to be continually shaped and reshaped in the public sphere. For in the politics of public memory there is usually a polyphony of voices, emanating from a diversity of “subject positions”: the voices of victims and perpetrators, of resisters and collaborators, of those directly involved and those who were born later, of different regions and cultures, races and classes, political ideologies and religious convictions, and so forth. In a democratic context, this means that representations of the past may be publicly contested from perspectives that are linked to conflicting understandings of the present and orientations toward the future. And in the resultant dialectic of past, present, and future, debates over what happened and why interpenetrate with differences of interest and concern, conviction and attitude, experience and hope among the various participants. This is so in the German debates and, as we shall see, even more so in the American -- where the immense presence of the descendants of slaves in the body politic gives the idea of solidarity with the victims of history a different political edge than it has in Germany, and where Southern views of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and their aftermath managed to gain a hegemony unlike anything to be found in the defeated Germany.
Another issue in the Historikerstreit was the extent to which historical scholarship can and should inform the politics of memory in the public sphere by, among other things, introducing an element of objectivity into what might otherwise become simply a matter of power. To be sure, the ideas of “objectivity” in question were, for the most part, “postdeconstructive” rather than foundationalist. It was generally agreed that narratives and interpretations are not simply dictated by facts; that their construction is always informed by the historians’ questions, interests, standpoints, temporal positions, and the like; and that there is no absolute divide between facts and interpretations, but rather a continuous spectrum. However, the latitude for reasonable disagreement is palpably different at different points in the spectrum. As one moves in the “factual” direction, the constraints imposed by the evidence --documents, eyewitness reports, quantitative data, and so forth -- significantly narrow the range of reasonable disagreement. The critical use of such sources by the community of historical scholars results in the elimination of many proposed interpretations, as the factual claims and presuppositions germane to them are submitted to critical scrutiny -- as happened, for example, with the “Auschwitz lie” and the “Lost Cause” view of the Civil War. For though historical judgment is unavoidable, it is exercised in critical dialogue with a community of historians that can and often does achieve something approaching unanimity with regard to how the available sources bear upon the plausibility of this or that interpretation. And, as Saul Friedlander, Carlo Ginzburg, Jürgen Habermas, and others have argued concerning the historians debate over the Holocaust, if nonfoundationalist practices of objectivity and truth were not possible, there would be no lies, and might would make right, from which there could be no appeal to the evidence of historical inquiry.
The question of objectivity raises moral and ethical as well as epistemic issues; representations of the past can be faulted not only for their lies, distortions, or half-truths, but also for the unfairness they show and injustice they do to the victims of history. This can be seen, for instance, in the use, misuse, or nonuse a historian makes of the victims’ own testimonies and narratives, in how she or he “negotiates” the relationships among the competing “micronarratives” of perpetrators, victims, and onlookers, and between them and her or his own “macronarrative.” And the results of those negotiations have to be submitted to the scholarly community at large, where they will be renegotiated in the light of other judgments of fairness and ethical-political senses of solidarity. This becomes especially pressing when the descendants of victims live among “us” and experience disrespect for past suffering as a failure of solidarity in the present. As historical scholarship intersects with ethical-political debates about who “we” are and want to be as a people, about what is really in the common good and general interest, questions of doing justice to the victims of the past interpenetrate with questions of inclusion and exclusion in the present. Pablo De Greiff has put this point as follows: “we have an obligation to remember what our fellow citizens cannot be expected to forget,” in the normative sense of what we cannot reasonably expect them to forget.
What are we to make politically of these efforts to come to terms with the past? It is impossible to weigh their effects on
West German political culture with any precision. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the
changes have been considerable. But how
much of that is due to the external imposition of a democratic constitutional
order and international pressure on its internal affairs, how much to the
German “economic miracle” and widespread prosperity, how much to countless other factors not directly connected with the Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit, as Adorno
called it, is difficult to say. On the
other hand, we do have two strong comparative indicators of the
political-cultural importance of publicly dealing with the Nazi past:
closer to home, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the hasty unification
of East and
Vergangenheitsbewältigung in postwar
might suppose that with the founding of the American Historical Association in
1884, racist historiography would have waned as professional historians began
to replace their amateur predecessors.
But prior to World War I, the “scientific” history of race in
In this process of historiographic convergence, “there was considerably more
give on the northern side, more take on the southern.” One reason for this was “the near unanimous
racism of northern historians” in this period, fostered by the rise not only of
“scientific” racism and Social Darwinism, but also of American expansionism,
Anglo-Saxonism, and consciousness of the white man’s
“civilizing mission.” Another was the large number of Southern
historians working in the North and the virtual absence of Northern historians
employed in the South. Thus there were “no southern centers of
pro-northern historiography to compare with [William A.] Dunning’s
Reconstruction seminar at
In the interwar period, especially in the 1930s, this ruling consensus, while remaining dominant, came under increasingly sharp attacks from different corners of the rapidly expanding ideological spectrum -- not only from racial egalitarians, black and white, but also from Northern and Southern liberals, and from Marxists and other left intellectuals. There were a number of influences at work here -- the new antiracist anthropology which challenged scientific racism, the repellent harshness of Southern racism as epitomized in the numerous lynchings, the critical interpretive frameworks provided by left political and social thought, and the rise of a new generation of dissident historians, North and South. But despite this breakdown in consensus, no alternative synthesis appeared until after World War II. Thus, the overtly racist views of slavery propounded in the extremely influential work of Ulrich B. Phillips had no effective competitors and was still being incorporated into best-selling textbooks like that coauthored by Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steel Commager in 1930, with numerous subsequent editions. Similarly, the dominant view of Reconstruction propounded by Dunning and his students -- who represented it as a regime of humiliation imposed on the prostate South by vindictive radicals and valiantly resisted by the knights of the Ku Klux Klan -- came under attack but was not displaced, and entered into public consciousness through incorporation into popular fiction, film, and history. And again, the views of black historians, some of whom were now Harvard-trained professionals, were disregarded by most orthodox historians of the South -- including the views advanced by W.E.B. Du Bois in his monumental Black Reconstruction (1935). Despite the continuing dominance of the racist orthodoxy, however, the underlying consensus among historians gave way in the interwar years to a conflict of interpretations.
The new antiracist synthesis toward which dissident historians had begun pointing in the 1930s finally took shape and achieved dominance after World War II. The horrors perpetrated by the Nazis under the banner of racial superiority and inferiority, the decline of scientific racism and Social Darwinism, the worldwide breakup of colonial empires, the exigencies of international competition during the Cold War, and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement gave wind to the writings of younger, heterodox historians who were formed in the interwar years. Works by historians of that generation, North and South, who were committed to racial equality began to appear in the 1950s and by the close of the 1960s had completely transformed the historiography of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and post-Reconstruction.
The politics of the public memory of slavery and its aftermath gained momentum in the 1880s and 1890s, driven by many of the same forces that drove historical scholarship and in much the same direction. The memory of the Civil War was particularly contested, for the meaning conferred on this great conflict in the nation’s past was perceived to be closely connected to competing visions of the nation’s future. In the end, “race” lost out to “reunion.” The demands of sectional reconciliation were met by figuring the War as a fight between valorous brothers, while leaving the slavery and emancipation that were its cause and outcome in the shadows. This configuration also presented fewer obstacles to the re-establishment of white supremacy in the South, which generally met with less and less resistance as racism intensified in all regions of the country and the Republicans, in order to hold on to their Northern white constituency, increasingly distanced themselves from the politics of racial equality. By the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg in 1913, the central public commemoration could be staged as a “Great Reunion” among thousands of white veterans from both armies, with scarcely a mention of the Emancipation Proclamation, whose fiftieth anniversary also fell in that year. As the Baltimore Afro-American Ledger summed up the situation at that time: “Today the South is in the saddle, and with the single exception of slavery, everything it fought for during the days of the Civil War, it has gained by repression of the Negro within its borders. And the North has quietly allowed it to have its own way.”
last line proved to be an underestimation of the situation. That same year, the newly inaugurated Woodrow
Wilson, in collaboration with the newly elected, Southern-Democrat dominated
House and Senate, initiated a policy of racial segregation in federal government
agencies, a policy that eventually expanded, especially under the New Deal, to
include most federally sponsored programs in employment, training, and housing,
among others, as well as in federal prisons and, as previously, in the armed
services. That is to say, from that point until the
1950s or 1960s, federal agencies were not only a prime locus of racial
segregation but also enforcers of the “separate but equal” dispensation and
propagators of it throughout the land.
And, as W.E.B. Du Bois noted in 1935, a
segregated society required a segregated historical memory: there was a
“searing of the memory” in
Given the enormous shifts in the historiography of slavery and its aftermath since the 1960s, one might suppose, especially in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, the same to be true of public memory. And there have, to be sure, also been important changes in the latter; but those who study popular uses of history have repeatedly noted a significant gap between academic and public historical consciousness of these matters. “Generally Americans believe that slavery was a Southern phenomenon, date it from the antebellum period, and do not think of it as central to the American story.” They are generally ignorant of the fact that “by the time of the Revolution it had become a significant economic and social institution in every one of the thirteen colonies and would remain so in every region of the new nation well into the nineteenth century.” Moreover, many think of legally institutionalized racial oppression as ending with emancipation and know rather little about racial relations in the post-Reconstruction South; and most are quite ignorant of institutionalized racism in the rest of the country -- for instance, of the roles it played in the formation of the American working class in the nineteenth century, in structuring immigration policy and citizenship law throughout our history, and in the policies and programs of the federal government in the twentieth century. With the German discussions in mind, one might be tempted to say that though our Historikerstreit concerning slavery and its aftermath effectively ended, at least in regard to fundamentals, in the 1960s and 1970s, the process of public Vergangenheitsbewältigung has only just begun.
number of different reasons are offered for the lag in public historical
consciousness. To begin with, there is a
clear popular preference for history that confirms rather than confronts
positive portrayals of the nation’s past.
Thus in public memory, what Nathan Irwin Huggins called the “master
narrative” of American history remains largely unshaken: “a national history teleologically bound to the Founders’ ideals rather than
their reality,” an “inexorable development of free institutions and the
expansion of political liberty,” in which racial slavery and oppression are
treated as regional “aberrations -- historical accidents to be
corrected in the progressive upward reach of the nation’s destiny.” And then there is the appalling state of
history instruction in the schools: “much of the best and latest scholarship
never reaches high-school students because most high-school history courses are
taught by teachers with inadequate training in history...In Louisiana, 88
percent of the students who take history in high school are taught by teachers
who have not even a college minor in history.
But ours is a
community of fate that has also historically been a land of immigration, and
that complicates the politics of memory considerably. The diversity of subject positions in our
society is marked not only by the differences of class, age, gender, and so
forth found in any society, and by black/white racial differences and
North/South sectional differences. It
also includes positions connected with the conquest, settlement, and expansion
This broad and deep diversity of subject positions is sure to be reflected in the democratic politics of public memory -- in rival narratives, conflicts of interpretation, and other forms of cultural-political contestation. There is no need for unanimity here, for one substantive version of the American past to which all parties subscribe; but if there is to be public communication across differences, citizens do have to see themselves as members of the same political project, defined in large part by overlapping interpretations of constitutional rights, principles, and values. This is not a matter of returning to pure origins or foundations; there can be no reasonable doubt that our foundations were fractured from the start. But it is also not a matter of simply condemning them, or burying them forever under heaps of criticism. It was, after all, the same motley of religious and philosophical ideas that was used to justify both slavery and abolition, both segregation and its dismantling. The politics of memory has to identify those deep tensions and ambivalence in our political-cultural heritage and trace the ways in which ideas implicated in injustice could, upon critical reinterpretation, serve as resources for attacking it. It has to comprehend how black Americans struggling for freedom and equality were able to invoke putatively universal rights and principles and argue that they were being betrayed -- how, in Judith’s Butler’s formulation, they could “seize the language of the universal and set into motion a ‘performative contradiction,’ claiming to be covered by it and thereby exposing the contradictory character” of hegemonic formulations.
Successive waves of immigrants have also been able to tap into that political-cultural heritage to gain a place for themselves in American society; but owing to the polarized force-field of racial relations pervading it, they did so not only by tapping into the critical potential of universalistic ideals but also by making strategic use of their dominant, exclusionary interpretations. An inclusionary politics of memory would today have to be conceived as a multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural dialogue aiming not at unanimity but at mutual comprehension, mutual recognition, and mutual respect. Anglo-assimilationism is in its death throes; the idea of a mosaic of self-enclosed subcultures is a non-starter; what is left to us, it seems, are versions of an interactive and accommodative diversity of forms of life, with an overarching democratic political culture that leaves room for ongoing contestation, critique, and reinterpretation of its basic principles and values. What has never been the case but must be the case, if we are ever to get beyond the racialized politics of our public sphere, is that blacks participate as equal partners in public life and public discourse. It is obvious that no one can speak for them in a public dialogue of this sort. But if they are to be included as equals, much will have to change in the massively unequal conditions of life and politics that have historically muted their voices. So we seem to be caught again in a familiar circle.
In the final part, I want to take a brief look at one way a politics of public memory might help us to break out of it. Consistent with the focus of this essay, I shall be stressing the importance of historical enlightenment. To forestall possible misunderstandings: I am not claiming that the politics of memory exhausts the politics of race. The furthest thing from my mind is to deny the importance of social-structural factors such as the protection of group interests in the maintenance of social dominance. Nor do I harbor the slightest doubt that psychodynamic and socio-psychological factors are especially virulent in this domain. Nor, as I hope my discussions of the dialectic of past, present, and future in parts I and II make clear, do I think that the past can be separated off, either in theory or in practice, from the present and future. As I trust will become clearer in the course of part III, my selective focus here on historical consciousness is for analytical purposes only. Whether the results repay the narrowing is for the reader to judge.
Two other important variables are whether discrimination is believed to be a thing of the past, and whether the history of slavery and segregation is taken to be a major cause of the inequalities African-Americans suffer under at present. Most blacks answer no to the first and yes to the second, and in fact prominently cite these factors in justifying policies aimed at remedying racial inequalities; whereas most, though by no means all, whites do the opposite. And that difference is consequential: the beliefs that racial discrimination has been eliminated, that “the playing field is now level,” but blacks, owing to weaknesses of character, persist in seeking handouts, and that they thereby claim and receive unfair advantages over whites, are further ingredients in the racial resentment syndrome that is the best single predictor of views on racial policies. There are other elements, some so improbable that one hesitates to mention them, but at the same time so often noted that one can’t simply ignore them. Orlando Patterson reports them as “misperceptions”: “Only 31 percent of Euro-Americans believe that Afro-Americans have less opportunity to live a middle-class life than they do, compared with 71 percent of Afro-Americans [who believe this]. Most extraordinary of all, 58 percent of Euro-Americans think that the average Afro-American is as well off or better off than Euro-Americans in their income and housing condition.”
Even these sketchy remarks may be sufficient to locate one important contribution a politics of the memory of slavery and segregation might make to the larger politics of race in our society. Persistent racial injustices cannot be addressed by government action without significant support from whites. Opponents of such action are able to tap into, and simultaneously add to, a large reservoir of racial resentment by representing proposed policies as violations of the basic principles and values of American individualism and thus as promoting undeserved and unfair advantages for blacks at the expense of whites. In the give and take of a democratic public sphere, it is typically the case that complex issues can and will be interpreted, contextualized, framed -- or “spun” -- in different and competing ways. And there is a lot at stake in which frame predominates in public discourse, for that determines the definition of the problem, decides what is central and marginal to it, and circumscribes its justified and feasible resolutions. In the case at hand, effectively recontextualizing the racial issues of today as the latest chapter in the continuing story of slavery and its aftermath is, I want to suggest, an important means of countering attempts to tap into the reservoir of racial resentment and of diminishing that reservoir itself. The greater the public familiarity with and knowledge of that history, the greater are the chances of effectively interpreting current problems as belonging to its accumulated effects, and thus of publicly framing them as moral issues or issues of justice.
Consider only one
example: the yawning wealth gap between white and black households, usually
estimated to be about 10 to 1. I am suggesting that it could well have a
significant effect on the public’s understanding of that gap to know that much
of it is due to differences in the respective rates of home ownership, which is
the major form of savings in the working middle class, and that government housing programs from the
1930s to the 1950s overtly and almost
totally excluded blacks from participation. Until 1948, the Federal Housing Association’s
Underwriting Manual explicitly
identified blacks as unreliable and undesirable buyers. And it also included a model racial covenant,
that is, a contractual clause preventing resale to blacks! Of the nearly three million housing units
that received FHA insurance from 1935-1950, less than one percent -- c. 25,000
units -- was for Negro occupancy. More
generally, of nine million new private dwelling units constructed in that
period, less than one percent was open to purchase by nonwhite Americans. And that was a crucial period in the massive
migration of blacks from country to city and South to North: “In 1940, 77
percent of black Americans still lived in the South – 49 percent in the rural
South…Between 1910 and 1970, six and a half million black Americans moved from
the South to the North; five million of them moved after 1940, during the time
of the mechanization of cotton farming.
In 1970, when the migration ended, black
Understanding the black/white wealth gap in this way, as a cumulative effect of the history of racial injustice -- and one could tell similar stories about the origins of other existing inequalities -- is likely to make a difference, I am suggesting, in the judgments of many whites as to whether proposed measures are “deserved compensations” for discrimination or “unfair advantages.” For a politics of memory to be politically successful, it is not necessary to convince everyone. It is surely the case that in some segments of the population, racial resentment is rooted in deep-seated prejudices that are largely impervious to rays of light from the cultural-political public sphere. But this is by no means true of all segments, particularly not of those strongly committed to the idea of racial equality. However, even the latter normally have to be convinced that any particular racial policy is in truth a fair and proportionate remedy for the effects of clear and persistent discrimination. And it is often difficult to see how that could happen without a serious upgrading of public memory to provide the necessary background for public justifications of a historical sort. From this perspective, then, there is a political need for historical enlightenment.
the absence of widespread public familiarity with the causal background to
contemporary racial problems, the political-cultural resources for resisting
racist reframings of them are seriously
impoverished. The thinness, spottiness,
and frequent incorrectness of public historical consciousness of the story of
Much of this may go without saying, and I have no intention of trying to list here all the forms of cultural politics peculiar to the field on which the politics of public memory is contested. But in closing, I would like only to mention another possible vehicle of public memory: reparations claims. In my view, one of the strongest arguments in favor of going ahead with the class-action lawsuits now being prepared is that, in present circumstances, this could prove to be the most effective means of igniting a “national conversation on race”. On the other hand, there are a number of weighty arguments against taking this path -- including the hostile reaction it is likely to elicit in broad segments of the population -- that also have to be seriously considered. But I shall not attempt that here.
white Americans, the political will to deal with the catastrophic situation of
the urban “underclass,” particularly the millions of “truly disadvantaged”
blacks living in inner-city ghettos, is evidently too
weak to resist the politics of racial resentment waged so effectively in recent
strengthen that will, it seems, we have to diminish the reservoir of racial
resentment and make it more difficult to draw upon it in framing issues of
racial policy. I have tried to argue
that a politics of the public memory of slavery and segregation could be one
way of doing so. In present
circumstances, it enjoys the advantage of having academic historical
scholarship on its side. It suffers the
disadvantage of having our political-cultural elites largely opposed to it, or
at best insufficiently interested in it.
But that has been the starting points of most social movements. If enough people were to think it important
enough, it could become a significant force for change. In any case, as with Vergangenheitsbewältigung in
 Vergangenheitsbewältigung is the usual German term for efforts to deal publicly with the Nazi past.
 Cited in Charles Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 106. Mills draws comparisons between the Nazi extermination of the Jews, the “American Holocaust” visited upon indigenous populations, and the “slow-motion Holocaust” of African slavery, in respect of the millions who died horrific deaths in each, the systematic nature of the violence visited upon them, and the racist ideologies that served to justify it. I shall be using “race”, without quotes, to designate concatenations of social meanings, practices, identities, institutions, and the like, that are internally connected with racial categorizations. It goes without saying that they are no less real for not corresponding to biologically fixed natures
See Ruti G. Teitel, Transitional Justice (
There is another feature of German efforts to come to terms with the past that
is relevant to our situation: the reparations paid to Jews since the end of the
War and, more recently, to forced and slave laborers of diverse ethnic
backgrounds. There has been a recent resurgence of interest here in the
question of reparations for slavery and segregation; a Reparations Coordinating
Committee, led by Charles Ogletree of
 See Richard J. Evans, In Hitler’s Shadow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989) for a sketch of these shifts and a good account of the historians’ debate of the 1980s. I shall be concerned here with the West German story; the East German story was quite distinct, until their separate trajectories began to merge after reunification.
 Many of the relevant documents, in English translation, are collected in Forever in the Shadow of Hitler, trans. J. Knowlton & T. Cates (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1993), and Reworking the Past, ed. Peter Baldwin (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990).
In addition to the collections mentioned in the preceding note, see the helpful discussions by Evans, In Hitler’s Shadow, and Charles S. Maier, The Unmasterable Past (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988). A number of Habermas’s contributions to the debate have appeared in English translation in a collection of his essays, The New Conservatism, trans. S. Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1989).
The Bitburg incident involved a Kohl-staged memorial
ceremony at a German military cemetery, during which then-President Reagan laid
a wreath to honor the dead, among whom were a number of Waffen-SS
troops. See Geoffrey Hartmann, ed., Bitburg in Moral and Political Perspective (Bloomington,
IN: Indiana University Press, 1986). Not long thereafter, Kohl appeared at a
congress of German expelees from
 Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996). See also Habermas’s speech upon the occasion of the awarding of the German Democracy Prize to Goldhagen in 1997, “On the Public Use of History,” in Habermas, The Postnational Constellation, trans. Max Pensky (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001), 26-37.
This passage appears in an earlier (1987) article with the same English title
as Habermas’s address at the award ceremony for Goldhagen (see n. 8), “On the Public Use of History,” in The New Conservatism, 229-240, at
233. It hardly needs mentioning that
with the appropriate substitutions of “American” for “German” and
“African-American” for “Jewish”, this sentiment might be directed toward our
situation as well – but with at least three very important differences: (1)
today German-Jews number in the tens of thousands, while African-Americans
number in the tens of millions, so shaping an American “we” inclusive of the
descendants of the previously excluded is a task of a significantly different
order than forming an inclusive German “we.”
(2) Like most Europeans, Germans tend to think of themselves as
belonging to an ethnocultural nation, whereas the
American people – at least since the decline of Anglo-Saxonism
– generally understands itself to be multiethnic and, increasingly,
multicultural. (3) The
 J. Habermas, “On the Public Use of History,” The Postnational Constellation, 45-46.
 On the notion of a “subject position,” see Dominick LaCapra, “Representing the Holocaust: Reflections on the Historians Debate,” in Saul Friedlander, ed., Probing the Limits of Representation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University press, 1992), 108-127.
 Carlos Thiebault elaborates this dialectic in the democratic politics of memory in an unpublished essay, “Naming Evil.”
 LaCapra uses this term in “Representing the Holocaust,” 111.
 This is a point argued by Martin Jay in “Of Plots, Witnesses, and Judgments,” in Friedlander, ed., Probing the Limits of Representation, 97-107.
 This is the terminology of Martin Jay in the paper cited in the previous note.
 In an interesting, unpublished paper on “The Duty to Remember.” I cannot discuss here the complex question of the nature and source of such an obligation. De Greiff takes it to be a moral duty. My own inclination would be to regard it as an ethical-political “ought” with a moral-political basis. The latter is located in the normative foundations of democratic theory, that is, in the very idea of a form of political association based upon the self-governance of free and equal persons. Unpacking the dimensions of equal respect, consideration, and treatment, and elaborating their connection to the effective exercise of basic liberties, could, I think, give us a handle on the moral-political significance of publicly respecting the forms of life integral to individual and collective identities. But going beyond this general and abstract “ought” requires, I think, taking the particular histories and circumstances of particular polities into account. Thus the ethical-political question of whether the political community as a whole “ought” publicly to recognize the past sufferings of a particular group within it will depend on how “we” understand ourselves as a nation and on what kind of life “we” want for ourselves, on who “we” are and want to be. For some ideas relevant to this line of thought, see Jürgen Habermas, “Struggles for Recognition in the Democratic Constitutional State,” trans. S. Weber Nicholsen, in Amy Gutmann, ed., Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 107-148.
See Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction (New York: Harper and Row, 1990);
and David W. Blight, Race and
 See Peter Novick, That Noble Dream (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), chap. 3, “Consensus and Legitimation.” The remarks on historiography that follow draw heavily on Novick’s account.
 Novick, 76.
Novick lists some of the former on 77-78, including
Woodrow Wilson, who was born in
 Novick, 78.
 One exception to this rule was an article by W.E.B. Du Bois, “Reconstruction and Its Benefits,” which appeared in the American Historical Review 15 (1910): 781-99.
 See Novick, chap. 8, “Divergence and Dissent.”
 S. E. Morison & H. S. Commager, The Growth of the
W.E.B. Du Bois, Black
 See Novick, 348-360.
See David Blight, Race and
See Desmond King, Separate and Unequal:
Black Americans and the
 The phrases in quotes come from the last chapter of Black Reconstruction in America, 725 and 723.
James Oliver Horton, “Presenting Slavery: The Perils of Telling America’s
Racial Story,” The Public Historian 21
(1999): 21. He refers, for instance, to
the fitting out of slave ships in
 See, for instance, David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1999); Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Rogers M. Smith, Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); and Desmond King, Separate and Unequal.
 This is not to deny the continuing disagreements among professional historians of race, which Novick recounts in That Noble Dream, 469-491; it is only to say that the white-supremacist historiography that was hegemonic from the end of Reconstruction through World War II is no longer a viable option.
 Black Odyssey (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), introduction to the 1990 edition, xii.
Horton, “Presenting Slavery,” 23. Jonathan Zimmerman summed up the situation in
an op-ed piece for the New York Times,
 The ongoing controversies about the public use of the Confederate flag are obvious indications of this. There are many others. Horton relates that when John Latschar, park superintendent at Gettysburg National Battlefield, suggested in a public lecture that the Civil War may have been fought over slavery, “the Southern Heritage Coalition condemned his words, and 1,100 postcards calling for his immediate removal flooded the Office of the Secretary of the Interior.” (26)
 Horton notes the numerous reports from interpreters at historical sites of negative reactions by white visitors to presentations of slavery -- even at plantation sites. (27-28) He also notes negative reactions by blacks to such presentations, which they often experience as painful and disturbing. (29-30) The wisdom of preserving the memory of slavery has long been debated among black intellectuals, by Alexander Crummell and Frederick Douglass, for instance, as by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.
 Nathan Irwin Huggins, Black Odyssey, xliv. In using the terms “solidarity” and “community,” I am not signaling a communitarian line on political integration. Rather, I am referring broadly to the “political imaginary” that defines individuals’ and groups’ sense of belonging to a larger political community; and I am arguing that only insofar as whites and blacks imagine themselves to be integral parts of the same political community will the task of taking collective action on common goals related to the legacy of slavery be amenable to democratic resolutions.
Judith Butler, Excitable Speech (New
York: Routledge, 1997), 89. See also, Patricia J. Williams. “Alchemical
Notes: Reconstructing Ideals from Deconstructed Rights,” in R. Delgado & J.
Stefancic, ed., Critical
Race Theory (
As Dilip Gaonkar has
remarked in conversation, this tension presents peculiar problems for those
contemporary “model minorities” who, unlike earlier European immigrants, get reracialized not as white but as “Asian-American,” thus
marking another dimension of the American racial topography. The price of their higher standing in some
spheres (e.g. education, employment) is their marginalization in others (e.g.
politics, culture). For such minorities,
See Habermas, “Struggles for Recognition in the
 On the nature and sources of “deliberative inequalities,” see James Bohman, Public Deliberation (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996), chap. 3, and James Bohman, “Deliberative Democracy and Effective Social Freedom: Capabilities, Resources, and Opportunities,” in J. Bohman and W. Rehg, ed., Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997), 321-348.
 Cf. notes 46, 49, and 57 below.
Donald R. Kinder & Lynn M. Sanders, Divided by Color (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1996), 11. I draw on empirical material provided by Kinder and
Sanders in the analysis of racial politics that follows. For a broader survey
of views on the role of race in American politics, see the collection Racialized Politics: the Debate about Racism in
America, ed. D.O. Sears, J. Sidanius, and L. Bobo (
 “On equal opportunity in employment, school desegregation, federal assistance, affirmative action at work, and quotas in college admissions, racially resentful whites line up on one side of the issue, and racially sympathetic whites line up on the other. Racial resentment is not the only thing that matters, but by a fair margin racial resentment is the most important.” (Kinder and Sanders, 124, emphasis in original.) For an alternative view that places perceived group positions and interests at the center of the politics of race, see Lawrence Bobo, “Racial Beliefs about Affirmative Action: Assessing the Effects of Interests, Group Threat, Ideology, and Racism,” in Racialized Politics, 137-164. For another version of the social-structural approach that stresses the role of race in social stratification hierarchies, see Jim Sidanius & Felicia Pratto, Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Admittedly, to the extent that the politics of race is driven by the protection of group interests or the maintenance of social dominance, it would be less susceptible to amelioration by a politics of memory; beliefs in racial superiority/inferiority would be secondary factors -- ideological justifications for existing inequalities in the distribution of material and symbolic resources -- whereas the line I pursue gives some independent force to such beliefs. It seems probable that all of these factors, and more, are at work in our racialized politics and that effective political action in this domain will have to deal with all of them. How much weight should be given to each, and in which circumstances, is not likely an issue capable of definitive empirical resolution. At any event, in the present context I am content to leave indeterminate the extent to which our racialized politics can be improved by a politics of memory, though the argument would lose its point if that extent were not considerable. My characterization of these opposing positions is indebted to Derrick Darby’s discussion in “Can Rights Combat Racial Oppression?” (unpublished).
 Not completely, of course, as the hubbub around The Bell Curve by Richard J. Herrnstein & Charles Murphy (New York: Free Press, 1994) indicates. Kinder and Sanders report a study in which about 75 percent of whites rejected the proposition that blacks come from a biologically inferior race, against about 10 percent who agreed with it. (326, n.60) To be sure, biological racism also typically includes psychological and cultural stereotypes; but unlike ethical racism, it takes them to be biologically rooted and thus largely unalterable.
 See Kinder & Sanders, chap. 5, and the survey results summed up in the table on 107.
 Ibid. A similar divide is reported by Sears, Sidanius, and Bobo in Racialized Politics, 9-16, drawing upon the extensive survey analyses of Howard Schuman et al. in Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). As I shall explain below, the view that discrimination has been largely overcome and that persistent inequalities are due not to white racism but to black culture and character figures importantly in the lower level of white support for government programs meant to address them. This means, of course, that the politics of memory, however necessary it may be to gaining enduring majority support for race-targeted reforms, is by no means sufficient. Politically contested interpretations of the present and of its relation to the past are very important factors in the politics of race, and a more complete discussion would have to take them into account; but here I address the latter only briefly and the former not at all. So I do not claim to be offering a complete picture; nor do I suppose that past and present can be kept apart either in theory or in practice. I am merely focusing analytically on the past so that I can develop the neglected dimension of public memory. I am grateful to Derrick Darby for pressing this point.
 The Ordeal of Integration (Washington, DC: Civitas, 1997), 57.
 The importance of preexisting cultural beliefs in enabling and constraining the definition of problems, their causes, and their solutions is stressed by social mobilization theorists who use a frame approach. See, for instance, David A. Snow & Robert D. Benford, “Ideology, Frame Resonance, and Participant mobilization,” in International Social Movement Research 1 (1988): 197-217.
 See. For instance, Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas M. Shapiro, Black Wealth/White Wealth (New York: Routledge, 1995).
 King, Separate and Unequal, chap. 6.
 Nicholas Lehmann, The Promised Land (New York: Vintage, 1992), 6.
 See Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).
 The social-psychological approach to racial resentment of Kinder and Sanders does in fact stress its affective as well as its cognitive side, and it does recognize the at times considerable independence of affects from beliefs. In particular, negative feelings toward blacks sometimes operate covertly in relation to stated beliefs, and sometimes even unconsciously in relation to conscious awareness of prejudice.
 Robert Gooding-Williams has objected in conversation that in focusing on ignorance and false belief, my argument gives too much weight to the cognitive dimensions of racism. That is indeed my admittedly one-sided emphasis here -- though the politics of memory, as I understand it, does include public rites, representations, and activities of many different sorts, all of which have their emotional sides. But my choice of argumentative emphasis should not be construed as theoretically calling into question the importance either of perceived interests or of deeply entrenched prejudices and other less “cognitive” factors. I want only to argue that historical consciousness and historical enlightenment also have an important role to play in the politics of race.
 In “Race, Multiculturalism, and Democracy,” Robert Gooding-Williams stresses the importance of “race-conscious multicultural education” in fostering the capacity for democratic deliberation in a society like ours.
See, for instance, the discussion of the “tools of memory making” in
 See Roy L. Brooks, ed., When Sorry Isn’t Enough. The Controversy over Apologies and Reparations for Human Injustice (New York: New York University, 1999).
 This has led a number of theorists and activists to advocate class-based rather than race-based policies to deal with urban poverty. But public support for such policies is also affected by their racial subtext and the willingness of political opponents to exploit it. So it is difficult to see how an effective political response to urban poverty could be mounted and sustained while ignoring the operations of racial resentment. Reparations payments to fund a “Marshall Plan” for urban ghettos are increasingly mentioned as another possible line of attack.
Thomas McCarthy is a professor
of philosophy at