In my history classes I introduce students to the concept of ontology. Ontology as it applies to history consists of what might be called “common sense” as in what everyone knows implicitly. Historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot defines ontology as “an implicit ordering of the world and its inhabitants.” That it is implicit means that it is knowledge that is so embedded in the culture that we often don’t even recognize it as something we know. It is not an easy concept.
In historical study the concept of ontology is used to try to place our historical conscience in the world of those we are studying. People who lived in the past lived in a different ontological world than we do. If we consider the actions of those who lived in the past through the lens of our own ontology, we can condemn them, but we can never understand them. Yet history has already condemned them, our purpose as historians is to remember why.
For example, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the words “all men are created equal” in our Declaration of Independence, reported in a letter to George Washington in 1792 that he had discovered he could make a 4% profit from selling black babies. Everyone with the least knowledge of American history knows that Jefferson was a slave owner, but he has been by and large given a pass because he lived in a time when slave owning was normal, and some would argue even necessary. To some extent this is true but must be considered in the context of a world that is already questioning the morality of slavery based on the same principles Jefferson advanced as motivating the American Revolution.
So, do we condemn Jefferson? Do we hold him up for ridicule and erase his importance to the United States? Are his words any less eloquent, his contribution to our understanding of liberty diminished? Most of us would say no, even knowing that what he did was damnable. He lived in a different world than we do.
Now let us consider this article about a conversation between Reagan and Nixon in which both used words that in our day would not be acceptable, even in private (unless you are the President or one of his acolytes). Nixon has in later years been exposed as having engaged in what can be considered treason under its limited definition in the Constitution. Nixon was a calculating political beast, and he paid the price for his cynicism.
History has been kinder to Reagan. He did a lot of damage, especially in his embrace of “voodoo economics.” But he did it with such charm and confidence few seemed to notice. I think Reagan’s continuing popularity can be assigned to the fact that he restored the American missionary ethos that had propelled his generation to make great sacrifices in the cause of freedom. It was the attitude that made America special, even “great.” It pains us to hear him say reprehensible racist things.
But let us try to bring to bear the concept of ontology. The conversation occurred in 1971. The Civil Rights Movement, seemingly triumphant, had been followed by worsening race relations. Cities all over the country erupted in flames of black frustration and rage. White backlash was met with increasing black militancy.
It was also an era in which most of the population had never even dreamed of a nation of real racial equality. My own father was not a vicious racist, but he laughed at and repeated ni**er jokes and was entrenched, as we all were, in a white society that considered black people, and pretty much every other minority ethnicity, inferior. It wasn’t as explicitly racist as the race theories touted by the segregationists; it was ontological. Everyone knew it. You could tell by our actions and demeanor. It was so deeply ingrained that most did not even know we knew it.
To illustrate, my father, who engaged in racist stereotyping without even thinking about it, was the man who, when I declared our high school football team was bound to win against our opponents that week because they were majority black, admonished me that the fact they were black made them even more fierce opponents. In a time (the late 60s) of terrible racial confrontations my father approached black people in the park to drink a beer and seek common ground. My father, a veteran of World War II and Korea, claimed friendship with people of all backgrounds.
The troubles of this era caused a lot of people, including me, to reconsider, or at least to consider, racist attitudes. I think that the conversation between Nixon and Reagan reflected the ontology of the time. I doubt that in 2019 either one of them would engage in such banter. This does not excuse the ignorance and hurtful behavior. But it helps us to understand it — to place it in its proper context.
Consider another story about Ronald Reagan that happened a decade later. A Black family had moved into a majority white suburb of Baltimore in 1977. Both partners were government employees. They endured a series of racist attacks against them simply for being in their home, in what was, to some, a “whites only” area. On May 4, 1982, President Reagan paid the family a 20 minute visit at their home. “I thought maybe I might just call attention to how reprehensible something of this kind is,” Reagan said. He told reporters he told them, ”how much I regretted any unpleasantness that they may have had because there shouldn’t be any place in our country for that sort of thing.” Had his thinking about race matters evolved? I think it is possible. As President he certainly never engaged in the sort of vicious race-baiting the current occupant of the White House does.
Why do we want to understand history? Why don’t we just condemn the past and move on? The answer is that understanding where we came from gives us the awareness of the continuity of our conceptual world. We are not where we were, but we are not yet where we want to be as a nation that values human dignity.
In June of 2015, in the wake of the Charleston shootings, President Obama gave an interview to Podcaster Marc Maron where the two discussed race relations in the United States:
Where are we, Maron asked, when it comes to race relations?
Obama: I always tell young people in particular: ‘Do not say that nothing’s changed when it comes to race in America —unless you’ve lived through being a black man in the 1950s, or ’60s, or ’70s. It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours, and that opportunities have opened up, and that attitudes have changed. That is a fact.
What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives —you know, that casts a long shadow. And that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.
We’re not cured of it.
Obama: Racism. We are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 200-300 years prior.
So what I tried to describe in the Selma speech that I gave, commemorating the march there, was, again, a notion that progress is real, and we have to take hope from that progress. But what is also real is that the march isn’t over, and the work is not yet completed. And then our job is to try in very concrete ways to figure out, what more can we do?”
We are not cured of it. But at the same time we are not without hope. Between 1971 and 2019 many people, including myself, have made individual efforts to appeal to our better angels. The measure of our progress is not that we were never racist but that we look back on ontological racism with shame. And we make a deliberate effort to overcome race divisions.
“In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” – Angela Davis
Tuesday afternoon, before the first round of the Democratic debate in Detroit, a friend sent me a link to an article in the Atlantic: The headline is “Ronald Reagan’s Long-Hidden Racist Conversation With Richard Nixon.” As I clicked on the link, my mind was already heading in the direction of: Something was taken out of context.