I’m frankly a little embarrassed as a history teacher that I was slow to take seriously the popular support for and acquiescence to the possible authoritarianism of President-Elect Trump (for more on Trump’s authoritarianism see @sarahkendzior and Brendan Nyhan). Despite extensive reading and research since I started teaching in 1990, America, its past and present, is always more racist than I think. I have always included slavery, Indian Removal, Japanese Internment, and similar topics in my US History classes. But, America can still surprise. I had taught US History for two decades before reading Slavery By Another Name, which depicts how black lives were subject to the machinations of kleptocratic police states across the American South between the 1880s and 1940s. Five years later, the Half Has Never Been Told fleshed out the brutal authoritarianism of American slavery for me. And, it was just last week that I worked through the idea that support for chattel slavery was one motivation for adopting the electoral college. There is always more.
The notion that American authoritarianism is unthinkable ignores this history of racism. American chattel slavery and Indian Removal were authoritarian acts. Unaccountable political forces brutally dictated people’s lives. If a Trump administration continues its current trajectory toward an authoritarian kleptocracy, this will not be a unique development in the story of America. The concentration of authority in a single family and its contacts, rather than much broader networks connected by race and kinship, will be the unique aspect. Racial privilege exempted many white folks from the bluntest force of this authoritarianism, and thus their descendants may be prone to take guarantees of human rights for granted. We are learning that we should not.
The aftermath of the presidential election has driven this home for me. I’ve been concerned about the safety of students of color at my school since November 8. A high school in a neighboring district had to investigate racist, pro-Trump graffiti. Administrators and students of color at my school report increases in racist remarks and microaggressions. Since the election I have checked in with several students of color. These students, many of whom feel vulnerable in a school that is 85% white, expressed much less surprise about the election outcome, compared to whites similarly disappointed in the result. While on their own these conversations are anecdata that prove nothing, to me they illustrate the natural skepticism of people of color and American Indians toward the American project. In no way is this news, but it is a call for white teachers to take the history of American authoritarianism seriously, or to seriously consider American racism as a type of authoritarianism. Our lived experiences have not prepared us to confront Trumpism. We need history to help us and to help us to help our students.
[Update: Since writing this I’ve read a deeper, more focused look at the intersection of history, whiteness, and authoritarians. Check out Neil Robert’s insightful piece.]