On Tuesday night, the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department and the Department of History, in partnership with Columbia University Libraries, hosted a panel discussion with Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, Eric Foner, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the topic of reconstruction and why it matters. Events Editor Brigid Cromwell attended.

“Reconstruction was twelve years of Black freedom followed by an alt-right rollback. Obama’s presidency was eight years of Black freedom followed by an alt-right rollback.”

The event, hosted on Zoom, began with an introduction by Ann D. Thornton, Vice Provost and University Librarian. She provided a brief overview of the accomplishments of each panelist, all of whom are experts in their fields, not to mention great friends and colleagues. Kimberlé W. Crenshaw is an Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. She coined the term intersectionality, defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.” Eric Foner is a DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History in Columbia’s Department of History, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. This was one of the most educated, passionate, and impressive panels I have ever seen, and the evident camaraderie between all three scholars was admirable. The panel was moderated by President Bollinger himself. 

This was the most epic four person Zoom call of all time. The only thing that could’ve made it better was if Prezbo did a backflip.

The panelists began by outlining the issues central to Reconstruction: citizenship, voting rights, and the establishment of an interracial government. They cited Reconstruction as a cautionary tale and asserted that in the current political climate, we have reversed the progress of Reconstruction and even moved further backwards. Under Trump’s presidency, “anti-racism is the new racism,” as in supremacy is being taken away from white people. White people feel they are being discriminated against in the process of giving rights to Black citizens. This fundamental reversal of equality and racism fuels divisiveness, hatred, and the spread of misinformation, especially in the current state of American politics. For these reasons, and so many others, including the pending appointment of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, the panelists believe this presidential election is one of the most pivotal in our history. 

The panelists outlined how the failure of Reconstruction is a structural problem. To repudiate slavery, you must repudiate the legal structure that made it possible. They made it clear that the flagrant racism, xenophobia, white supremacy, and blatant disregard of truth in politics today all have roots in the past. It is our failure as a nation to address and deconstruct racist legal and political systems that makes today a perfect breeding ground for unrestricted hate.

Eric Foner then offered a brief discussion on the confirmation hearing of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, citing her textualist approach as dangerous, specifically in the context of Reconstruction. Textualism erases history and the context of laws, which was extremely detrimental to Black people and freed slaves when it came to voting rights and citizenship. Moreover, there is not a national law granting people the right to vote, which allows states to enact a myriad voter suppression acts. If there is one thing we can do to begin righting the wrongs of Reconstruction, Professor Foner believes it would be establishing a federal right to vote.

As for current political discourse, there seem to be virtually no consequences for blatantly lying. Words have lost their value and meaning in political engagement, which makes for an extremely dangerous society. What people believe is more important than what is, and that is the central issue of Reconstruction. Lies spread about Black people during this era were more widely accepted than the truth. We are seeing this now with President Trump and white supremacists who follow him. Beliefs trump facts, and this puts human lives on the line. During the Reconstruction era, lies became the grounding for disenfranchisement, segregation, and racial violence. Unfortunately, history is repeating itself in this sense.

The election is twelve days away. Please vote.

You can watch the full event here.

Image via Bwog Staff