By Guy Lancaster, History News Network
“Putting on my pith helmet.” That’s the phrase I used to describe the mental stance I would adopt whenever my wife and I went to her parents’ church on one of our visits to Hot Springs, Arkansas. Theirs was a rather fundamentalist Presbyterian congregation, one that gave truth to the description of Calvinists as the “frozen chosen,” although the pastor did occasionally adopt a youthful and hip style of delivery, perhaps in a paradoxical attempt to make the doctrine of limited atonement more acceptable to a wider audience. It was ultimately easier for us to tag along on Sunday mornings than to have the weighty and tearful discussion with her parents about our actual beliefs (or lack thereof) should we refuse, but each time by the end of the service my jaw would be clenched so tightly that it was difficult to do the usual post-worship chitchat.
I realized soon that I needed a new way to approach these occasional obligations, and that’s how I hit upon the framework of “putting on my pith helmet.” Like those British anthropologists of yore, I would, on these Sunday visits, regard myself as dropping in on some savage tribe to study their strange beliefs and behaviors. I even started carrying with me a little notebook in which to inscribe my observations. My mother-in-law praised my attentiveness during the service, and I counted it a blessing that she never looked down at my notes and saw: “Interestingly, the natives here do not regard their tribal deity as evincing ‘total depravity’ himself despite his apparent desire to torture the majority of his creations for all eternity.”
Fundamentally, I survived these church visits by adopting the position that what was being said had no bearing upon my world whatsoever. I was there to learn about—not from—the people involved. The mental attitude I adopted was exactly like that typified by those anthropologists of yore, if possibly with greater justification in my case.
I’ve been reminded of those long-ago visits recently with the proliferation across this country of laws that, to pull from the title of Arkansas’s own Act 1100, aim to “prohibit the propagation of divisive concepts.” Act 1100, like others of its kind, is a piece of cookie-cutter legislation preventing the state from providing any training—or contracting with or providing a grant to any organization or individual—that promotes any of a number of so-called “divisive concepts,” including such ideas as “The state of Arkansas or the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist” or “Meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.”
Such laws are all part and parcel of the American Right’s new moral panic over the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory (CRT), scholarly frameworks conservatives have accused of sowing division and undermining patriotism. In the wake of this wave of legislation, there has been plenty of debate over how historical facts are best translated into overarching narratives, and to what extent we can marry historical reality to social unity. However, I believe that, at the core of this current moral panic, there is an unspoken idea so fundamentally threatening to the conservative worldview that it must be dressed in the garments of yet another fight over historical interpretation—namely:
People who are not like us can constitute reliable informants about the nature of our world.
In other words, we and people like us might exhibit what philosopher Charles W. Mills, in his 1997 book The Racial Contract, called an “epistemology of ignorance,” or a way of knowing that deliberately misinforms the individual or group about the nature of reality, to the extent that people outside our group might be better informed about our own world. Focusing upon the social construct of race, such an epistemology of ignorance is “a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.”
The idea that whiteness entails some kind of cognitive dysfunction is certainly offensive to those individuals invested in their whiteness, a concept worth the descriptor of “divisive,” but can we not see this dysfunction at work in history? James Henry Hammond, who served as governor, U.S. representative, and U.S. senator from South Carolina, and who had a large plantation and more than 300 slaves himself, serves as a perfect example of this epistemology of ignorance. In a March 4, 1858, speech before the U.S. Senate, he said of slaves in the South, “They are happy, content, unaspiring, and utterly incapable, from intellectual weakness, ever to give us any trouble by their aspirations.” This was no mere political posturing but evidence of a doctrine necessary for the preservation of the system; as philosopher Mikkel Thorup wrote in his 2010 book An Intellectual History of Terror, “No one ever struggles for unfreedom, submission, medievalism, ignorance but for their version of freedom, independence and enlightenment.” Maintaining slavery was key to the Southern definition of freedom, and so they could not see their slaves as anything but “content” and “utterly incapable,” with resistance being regarded as the exception, not the rule (and usually stirred to life by outside agitators).
As Mills noted in an essay in the 2007 anthology Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, in such matters as these, “the concept is driving the perception, with whites aprioristically intent on denying what is before them.” Sometimes, slavery as an institution could be simultaneously the cornerstone of civilization, worth tearing apart the union to defend, and fundamentally invisible. When Abraham Lincoln in 1861 called upon the states for volunteers following the attack upon Fort Sumter, Governor Henry Massie Rector of Arkansas replied without the slightest trace of irony: “The people of this commonwealth are freemen, not slaves, and will defend to the last extremity their honor, lives and property against Northern mendacity and usurpation.” At that time, more than a quarter of the state’s population was enslaved, but they did not count as “people.”
Surely it should not be controversial to state that enslaved persons had a deeper knowledge of the institution of slavery than did the men and women who legally owned them. And surely we could accord their views on the subject greater weight than the testimony of those who profited from human exploitation. And if we can make this particular allowance for those who survived slavery, might we not do likewise with regard to any period, historical or present, suffused with prejudice of some kind or another? As the philosopher Miranda Fricker writes in her 2007 book Epistemic Injustice, “But our predicament as hearers is that even if we are personally innocent of prejudiced beliefs, still the social atmosphere in which we must judge speakers’ credibility is one in which there are inevitably many stray residual prejudices that threaten to influence our credibility judgements; so the primary conception of the virtuous hearer must be that of someone who reliably succeeds in correcting for the influence of prejudice in her credibility judgements.”
And one way to correct for the influence of prejudice is to acknowledge one’s own epistemic limitations and to make oneself open to a greater variety of sources of accurate information about the past and present. After all, much of the information about our shared reality has been passed down in closed epistemic communities due to a function of prejudice labeling certain informants, by dint of race or gender or sexuality or class, as unreliable and unlikely to reveal to us the truth. “If black testimony could be aprioristically rejected because it was likely to be false,” Mills writes, “it could also be aprioristically rejected because it was likely to be true. Testimony about white atrocities—lynchings, police killings, race riots—would often have to be passed down through segregated informational channels, black to black, too explosive to be allowed exposure to white cognition.”
Critical Race Theory has been one tool for correcting the influence of prejudice in our credibility judgments, forcing us to acknowledge, as I noted at the beginning, that people who are not like us can constitute reliable informants about the nature of our world. And that is the threat to the conservative white worldview. It’s one thing for us to learn about other cultures and peoples and perspectives, to don the metaphorical pith helmet and observe these strange tribes in action (as I used to do those Sunday mornings), and to segregate the operation of their forms of knowledge from the mainstream of our own collective epistemology. It’s why we have Black History Month specifically segregated from the course of our main historical narrative, so that it does not threaten to change how we tell our American story. For if you tell American history from the perspective of those at the margins, you might come up with an idea like one of those divisive concepts—e.g. “The state of Arkansas or the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist”—now outlawed in my state and many others.
To admit that the marginalized can speak the truth about our shared world and its legacy of injustice is to allow them to make claims for justice, and this is a bridge too far. Or as philosopher David Theo Goldberg wrote recently in the Boston Review, “Conservative critics of CRT not only have no serious response to these tragic injustices; instead they belittle the very suggestion that they ought to have one. Willed away are the lives of those they would rather not admit are fellow citizens.”
Incredibly enough, proponents of Critical Race Theory—and such attempts to recenter the narrative of American history as the 1619 Project—have an ironic intellectual forebear in the aforementioned James Henry Hammond, slaveowner. In a December 1849 speech, Hammond said as follows:
Truth, the only safe and certain guide, does not glitter from the heights, but casts up a feeble though unerring ray from the very depths of nature, and we must pass the prime of life in toilsome search for that before we can read aright, the dim traditions and mutilated and discolored records which pourtray the wonderful career of man.
But it is only when we have conquered, sacked and seized possession of the past and all the past, that we have real knowledge, and may then, so far as we are permitted to do it, comprehend ourselves—our civilization and our mission. Yet, to fulfil that mission, we must not only know the past, but we must judge it. We must mark its errors and its follies, its crimes and wickedness. We must note where philosophy has gone astray; where superstition has betrayed its votaries; where ambition, bigotry and ignorance have shed their blights; where that wholesome restraint, without which genuine liberty cannot exist, has been perverted into oppression, and where that just resistance to wrongs, which is the inherent right of all, has degenerated into factious warfare and ended in anarchy and ruin.
Here is one of the foremost defenders of slavery telling us that we not only can but must judge the past in the pursuit of Truth. However, he fell far short of his intellectual ambitions because he was unwilling to accept information about his own world from people who were not like him. The humanity of Black people was too divisive a concept in his day—and, unfortunately, it remains so in our own present moment.
Editor’s note: This article was republished from History News Network under a Creative Commons license.
Guy Lancaster is author or editor of several books on racial violence in Arkansas, most recently the revised edition of Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Massacre of 1919, co-authored with Grif Stockley and Brian K. Mitchell. His forthcoming book, American Atrocity: The Types of Violence in Lynching, is tentatively scheduled for release by the University of Arkansas Press in the fall of 2021.