Historian Eric Foner discusses Obama's place in history

Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University. He sat down with msnbc.com’s Cynthia Joyce to discuss Obama’s place in history one year in to his presidency.

Q: As a close observer of history, were you personally surprised by the outcome of the 2008 election?

Eric Foner: I wasn’t surprised. I couldn’t imagine anyone voting Republican after eight years of Bush. I wrote an article in the Washington Post saying that Bush was the worst president in all of American history. I still think that.

So I was not surprised – all of what they call the political fundamentals – and here I’m sounding like a political pundit – were heading in the Democratic direction. Unless Obama totally screwed up, a Democrat was going to win.

Q: In a historical context, race was what made the election of Barack Obama so significant. But now that the euphoria has passed, we seem to have such a strong impulse to get past it. Why is that?

EF: It is a major turning point in American history, and I don’t think that should be denigrated or minimized. On the other hand – and there was a lot of euphoria immediately following the election even among people who didn’t vote for him – the fact is that now most people are viewing President Obama the way they would any other president. In other words, with a “what are you doing for me?”

If you look at the first eight or nine months of almost any president, they didn’t really accomplish a heck of a lot – except for Franklin D. Roosevelt, who came in under even a more dire situation than Obama. (And much of what he did in his first 100 days was sent to the scrap heap within a year or two of his administration anyway and later had to be changed.) So it’s still too early to tell what will happen with Obama’s presidency.

Q: There’s often a lot of talk about the need for a national dialogue on race – and occasionally awkward attempts to force one [i.e. Beer Summit 2009]. But does it ever truly take place?

EF: I don’t know that a national dialogue on race is what we need. That’s a kind of psycho-history, psycho-politics. Because, the problem is, race has come to be seen almost as a personal problem. “The bigot” is the problem, and it’s just a matter of overcoming our prejudices and loving our neighbor. Which is fine – we should love our neighbor – but that takes you away from the structural racism that is still around.

I saw an interesting statistic recently on family wealth (National Urban League – The State of Black America 2009 p.27- Median Wealth in 2005 Dollars) – the average for white families was $100,000. For black families, it was $10,000. Why? This is the accumulation of history.

I’m less interested in a national conversation than in people saying, “Well, if we do have a problem, what can we do to address it? Are there social policies we can adopt?”

Q: Do you think that’s more likely to happen under Obama?

EF: No. Obama is a mainstream politician. I admire Obama, he’s certainly a lot more eloquent than many others, but he’s a mainstream politician. You never hear Obama say a word about “the poor.” Everything is the middle class – middle class tax cuts, middle class this and that. That’s fine, I don’t mind the middle class. But the poor – which is a rather disturbingly large number of people in this country – never get mentioned.

Now, Obama is doing things to help the poor, but it’s kept under the radar. Similarly, Obama very strategically does not present himself as “a black president” in the sense of having a particular commitment to black America. I don’t think Obama’s going to come forward with a plan that says here’s what I’m going to do to help black America. I think he says, here’s what I’m going to do to help the American middle class, on the assumption that a lot of that will help blacks. And certainly, raising taxes on people earning over $250,000 a year is not going to hit a lot of black people, helping expand Medicaid will. Those aren’t race-based policies, but they will have racial effects, among others.

Q: You teach a course in which you frequently point out the continued resonance that the Civil War has in this country – is that still something that we’re fighting?

EF: I honestly believed that you can understand the present by understanding history – which is an uphill battle in this country, which lacks much of a historical consciousness.
This is one of my techniques as a teacher.

After Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst during Obama’s congressional address, I said to my class, what is it about South Carolina in our history – why does it always seem to be a South Carolinian going off the deep end? And you know, they’ve moved forward – back in 1856 it was actually a S.C. congressman, Preston Brooks, who beat a member of the senate over the head, Charles Sumner, on the floor of the Senate. So [Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst] is a little more civilized than that.

So, what is it about South Carolina? Why are they at the cutting edge of southern radicalism? There are historical reasons for that. It’s not that there are more crazy people in that state than in other states. They were the first to secede. They have a particular, unique history.

I’ll contradict myself here and say that one also has to avoid is to put all the responsibility on history. The face of racism today is not Bull Connor with his dogs in Birmingham. It’s a guy at Wells Fargo Bank, in a suit, who for the last several years has been shuffling black would-be homeowners off on sub-prime mortgages. That’s racism going on right now – that’s not slavery, that’s not segregation – and it’s going on right this minute. So we can’t just go back.

The legislature of Virginia just apologized for slavery. To my mind, that’s idiotic. They’re not slave owners, they shouldn’t apologize for slavery. Nobody in the state legislature ever held a slave. But they think they’ve actually accomplished something by doing that, and it turns your attention away from the guys who are actually perpetuating racism today.

Q: Has there ever been a comparable moment of such self-consciousness about national identity politics?

EF: Maybe with Kennedy. When Kennedy ran in 1960, anti-Catholic sentiment was far more openly expressed in the campaign – not by Nixon, but by others – than openly anti-black sentiment was in this campaign. That was breaking a very big barrier, just as Obama was. Just having the guy in there is the point.

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