Columnist Jamelle Bouie on dispelling 'civic myths' with American history

Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie. Photo illustration by Mark Riechers/Midjourney (TTBOOK)

Listen nowDownload file
Embed player

There’s an old saying that journalism is the first draft of history. For Jamelle Bouie, journalism itself can be an exercise in historical writing.

Bouie is a New York Times columnist and political analyst for CBS News who’s steeped in American history. When he writes about police violence or threats to democracy, he’s likely to cite old legal cases or the era of Jim Crow segregation. That ability to provide historical context for present-day debates is no small feat for a 750 word column, and it’s given Bouie a distinctive voice among today’s pundits.

I sat down with Bouie shortly before he spoke at a conference on American power and democracy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. 

Steve Paulson: One thing I've always appreciated about your writing is how historically informed it is. It's sort of like you are a historian masquerading as a journalist. Do you see part of your project as bringing the forgotten or largely unknown pieces of history into our political consciousness?

Jamelle Bouie: Yes, part of what I'm doing with the column is trying to bring things that are well-researched and well-known in the world of academic history, but not so well-known to the public, and using the resources I have to translate academic history to a larger public audience.

But the other thing I'm doing is using academic history to push back against what I call "folk civic myths" about the United States, about the origins of its system of government and its institutions. There is no timeless wisdom that undergirds them. There are political choices and political compromises. I happen to think that American political institutions are in desperate need of reform and a lot less static than they appear to be.

SP: You often write about politics and race, and clearly, you’ve spent a lot of time studying particular historical periods, like the Transatlantic slave trade and Reconstruction. Are there certain historical throughlines that you feel are essential for understanding the moment that we're in now?

JB: I do think there are. Reconstruction especially, and the period after Reconstruction, can be very instructive in thinking about our present. But the problem is that you can very easily run into making these one-to-one direct analogies. The past is actually the past. The past doesn't repeat itself. Things are different. So what you want to look for are underlying dynamics, underlying forces across time. 

When you look at Reconstruction, that period raises questions: Is it possible to build an integrated democracy? What is the relationship of labor to democratic practice? What is the role of violence in constructing political communities?

SP: What is the role of violence in constructing political communities? We usually think of violence as something that’s horrible, but not really part of our politics.

JB: This is one of the things that I've tried to push back on. Americans have this idea that politics is where people make arguments and debates, and then they come to conclusions. But the truth is that political violence, both small scale and large scale, has been a hugely important part of the shaping of the United States. 

Among Southern whites, the vigilante groups that emerged in the years after Reconstruction — most famously the Ku Klux Klan, but there were a bunch of them — those vigilante groups were as much a political community as they were attempts to terrorize former slaves. It was a way to build cross-class coalitions among white men, among the local elites and young men who may not have had many prospects, and it bound them together into a kind of community. If they successfully terrorized the Black sheriff, that would become the fuel and basis for other kinds of political activity.

SP: And you're saying there's a direct link between that violence and then what happens at the election booth?

JB: Exactly. And when you're thinking about our present, you can dismiss something like the Jan. 6 insurrection, with people just wilding out for the sake of Donald Trump. But it's important to look at the ways in which these conspiracy theories can create this virtual community of an insurrection. That event has taken on an almost totemic power among the Far Right. It's become the basis for further organizing and future political action.

SP: Let me mention another hot potato issue. Critical race theory has turned into a battle cry for conservative activists. Chris Rufo made this a centerpiece of the culture wars. So why is this good politics for Republicans? And is it necessarily a losing issue for Democrats?

JB: On paper, the critical race theory stuff really shouldn't work. In polling, if you ask parents "do you think schools should teach about the history of slavery?" large majorities say yes. "Do you think students should also learn about racism?" Large majorities say yes. But obviously this has been a potent rallying cry for Republican voters. I think you have to recognize that people don't evaluate issues in some sort of rational way. They're moved by emotion, they're moved by grievance, they're moved by excitement. That's what moves people to participate politically — to vote and phone bank.

The attack on critical race theory is predicated on fanning people's anxieties about patriotism, about their ability to transmit their own values to their children. And even if you would agree, in the abstract, that kids should learn about slavery in school, you may still feel those anxieties but not be able to articulate what you feel. That's why it’s proven to be effective for Republicans. And on the flipside, it's why Democrats have had a hard time responding to it. They’re thinking this is not popular, so it shouldn't work.

SP: Isn’t the other big underlying question about "white privilege?" A lot of white people don't want to say, "I'm inherently privileged because of my skin color."

JB: I studiously do not use that term in my writing. I do not think it's very useful or effective. I can see why it appeals to people. It's sort of a very individualistic, moralistic thing. You know, you can confess to privilege and that brings some sort of moral absolution. 

My concern is not so much with anyone’s individual soul, but with material and structural inequality. So I'm less interested in privilege and more interested in hierarchy. If I were a political strategist, I would say to people, don't talk about privilege because I think it affects people the wrong way.

SP: To get a little more personal, you went to the University of Virginia and now live in Charlottesville, where the notorious white supremacist rally happened in 2017. It’s also the home of Thomas Jefferson, one of the most complicated political figures in American history. He wrote most of the Declaration of Independence but was also a slaveholder and the father (of seven) children with Sally Hemings. How do you calculate the ledger of someone like Thomas Jefferson?

JB: I don't know if I calculate the ledger. I'm not sure it's possible to balance out these things. They’re the kinds of questions you ask if you're trying to hold someone up for public acclaim. But if you're trying to understand someone as an historical figure in their terms and in their time, I'm not sure how useful that exercise actually is.

SP: Although it does come into play when there's a statue of Jefferson or his name is on a building.

JB: Right. For guys like Jefferson or Madison, or James Monroe or George Washington – they all lived near Charlottesville — my approach is to treat them as historical figures and not try to become emotionally invested in them. Hold them to account where that’s appropriate but also recognize that ideas can exist disconnected from the person. 

If someone wants to argue that we should take down Jefferson's statue because he was an unrepentant slaveholder, I'm not going to argue and disagree with them. I think it's an entirely legitimate perspective to say we're not honoring Jefferson the slaveholder, we’re honoring the Jefferson of the Declaration. 

And although one response is that you can't really disentangle the two — Jefferson's conception of himself as a free man is intimately tied to his conception of himself as a slaveholder and patriarch — I think you can still say that the Declaration of Independence has taken on such world historical importance, and inspired people across cultures and across time, that we keep the statue to Jefferson for that.

 Less so for Jefferson the man. And if you want to put a plaque there that says Thomas Jefferson owned 600 people over the course of his life and freed exactly five of them….

SP: All who were related to him...

JB: All who were his children, then I think you should do that.