Historians Reflect On The White House Presidential Transition

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President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden watch a military pass in review ceremony on the East Front of the Capitol at the conclusion of the inauguration ceremonies. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden watch a military pass in review ceremony on the East Front of the Capitol at the conclusion of the inauguration ceremonies. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The transition in the White House has taken place. Is the nation capable of change? How do historians look upon this moment? We hear their long view of this extraordinary month.  


Lisa Tetrault, professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University, specializing in the history of U.S. women and gender. Author of "The Myth of Seneca Falls." (@LisaTetrault2)

Peniel Joseph, professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Author of "The Sword and the Shield." (@PenielJoseph)

John McWhorter, linguist and professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. Author of the forthcoming book "Nine Nasty Words." (@JohnHMcWhorter)

Interview Highlights

Have we reached some kind of inflection point for the nation?  

Lisa Tetrault: “I almost just have to exhale because I'm experiencing it not just as a historian, but a citizen who just lived through this. And yes, it is dazzling. It is frightening. It is heartening. And yes, it is certainly an inflection point in American history and one that historians will digest and write about for ages to come.

"But I think that the basis of this disruption are pretty evident to us in the present, I don't know that we need much hindsight to make sense of the kinds of racial strife and the kinds of other things that have produced the moment that we're in. I think history, in some ways, explains very clearly to us where we are right now. But yes, we will be digesting this for a long time.”

"History, in some ways, explains very clearly to us where we are right now."

On America's 'third reconstruction,' and the reimagining of American democracy

Peniel Joseph: “We’re really experiencing America's third reconstruction. I've been writing about this. I'm currently writing a longer book about this. But what I mean by reconstruction is the literal and figurative reimagining of American democracy. And the first reconstruction is really 1865 to 1896. The second reconstruction we think of is the American Civil Rights movement, the modern movement, and not the one that King starts with, but the one that really started in the 1930s and 1940s and goes until Dr. King's death.

"Those are the high points. It's really about three decades and it's going to include Mary McLeod Bethune, and FDR's Black Cabinet, and Paul Robeson, and Claudia Jones, and Ella Baker and not just these male Black ministers. And it's going to include Rosa Parks even before the Montgomery bus boycott, because she was defending Black women against sexual assault and violence and rape.

“So when we think about this third reconstruction, we can argue that it starts with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. We see another political backlash with the Tea Party and the birther movement. We see the Black grassroots with the Black Lives Matter Movement 1.0 in 2013 and 2014. We see the rise and the resurgence of white supremacy and Trumpism, not just Trump, but Trumpism. And then in 2020 we see this year of racial and political reckoning where all of those things are mashed together.

"But when we think about this period of insurrection and Qanon and anti-Black racism, we see similar efforts during the period of reconstruction. And we see similar juxtapositions between Black voting rights and racial suppression. We see people like Reverend Raphael Warnock in the 1870s and 1880s, and we see backlash against that. So this third reconstruction: history doesn't repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.”

"History doesn't repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.”

On the fragility of democracy

Lisa Tetrault: “For some people, and I would say particularly white Americans, it is shocking to see just how fragile American democracy is. I think there's been a kind of American exceptionalism that has undergirded the existence of some people in this nation. Where they have thought that their safety and their kind of enduring freedom — however you want to define that, and other things — were assured and were guaranteed and were, in fact, entitlements and were somehow an expression of their superior being.

"And that has been exposed right now as being an absolute fiction. And many people have known that for a very long time because they've been living without that assurance and without that entitlement. But it is incredibly fragile. And if we don't all pitch in together right now, our institutions will not save us. Those institutions are a reflection of us and we have let them become this. And so it is up to us right now. And I found … President Biden's inaugural speech to be sobering in the acknowledgment of the fact that he calls us at ‘uncivil war’ right now.

"Now, for many Americans, this country has been at war with them for a very long time. But I think this has now expanded to include a whole host of people, including many white Americans who did not imagine themselves being embroiled in something like this. And I think it speaks to the kinds of claims, and warnings and urgent calls that women of color and others have been issuing for a very long time. That if some hurt, we will soon all hurt. You know, if they come for me now, they will come for you soon.

"And we have to make sure that all people in this country are healed and are enjoying equity and that there's reconciliation, or we will not be able to move forward. I feel like the task right now cannot be more incremental. 'We passed a law and therefore we did some sort of justice and some sort of reparation.' And clearly we wouldn't have gotten to this point if we had done the real meaningful work in the past. And clearly that work awaits us now.”

"For many Americans, this country has been at war with them for a very long time."

Was it historic that Biden decided to use the phrase white supremacy in his Inauguration speech?

John McWhorter: “It was historic that he used that particular term, which until not too long ago was used in the current way we use it, only by a certain small group of mostly academics. And I think that it's a good thing, although we always have to remember the difference between what words imply, what the kind of instrumental ring of them is, and what they mean in terms of what we're going to do on the ground. And so white supremacy certainly exists. And it isn't only the distinctly unpleasant physical things that we remember from 100, or 150 or frankly, even 50 years ago.

“But we're talking about a configuration of society. And for him to acknowledge that white supremacy exists is one thing. But it's one thing to think about a person on the hard right who might have violent thoughts and intentions towards people of color. That's one kind of white supremacy and certainly that must be stamped. But I hope that we also realize that there's a more abstract kind of white supremacy that we've been talking about, especially since that term was expanded, to mean what we used to mean by systemic racism, in about 2014. And the idea that we're going to dismantle that, that's a much subtler business.

"And I hope that we realize that that's not something that you can eliminate with legislation or with a kind of morality. It's one thing to say, Don't be a white supremacist protester who tries to burn down the Capitol and wishes that you could get Black people out of the country forever. Yes, that's an easy score. But in terms of leveling the playing field for people of color, that's a harder one. And I think we have to understand that it's one thing to say that you don't like it, and another thing to actually be in a position to change it, in anything like we would consider all due deliberate speed.”

"I hope that we also realize that there's a more abstract kind of white supremacy."

On reimagining American democracy and policy 

Peniel Joseph: “I think that the strategy that we've seen over the last again, what I've been calling America's third reconstruction, is a multiplicity of strategies. On some level, when Barack Obama was elected in 2008, it was sort of an inside-out strategy. This idea that if we could elect the first Black president, we would achieve a kind of measure of racial justice that the country hadn't. And hence, when we think about language, the talk of post-racialism in 2009, it was a heady few weeks there where people thought that by electing Barack Obama, by having a first lady as brilliant as Michelle Obama, that things were good. We had basically solved the problem of anti-Black racism.

“Then when we think about both the backlash against Obama and Tea Parties and birtherism, when we think about the criminal justice system and the police murder of Black folks way before George Floyd, and we think about vigilante murder of Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland and Michael Brown in Ferguson, we saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and we really saw radical Black feminist organizers, queer Black feminist organizers really talk about intersectional justice that goes back to Maria Stewart, and goes back to Ida B. Wells and goes back to these Black women who helped secure the right to vote and helped reimagine democracy.

"We saw something different. We saw this Black Lives Matter movement have the most comprehensive public policy agenda in the history of the Black liberation struggle, saying that the criminal justice system was a panoramic gateway to multiple systems of oppression connected to racial segregation, connected to public school segregation, residential segregation, connected to poor maternal health outcomes of Black women. So when we see all those things, we see that something very special is happening. And it's not about wokeism or fragility. It's about, how do we reimagine American democracy in a policy sense for the first time in American history."

On what an American racial ‘facing’ would look like

Peniel Joseph: “The facing would consist of a few things. One, we've seen that we're not even able to agree on the facts. Think of the disagreement between the 1619 Project, the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning project, Nikole Hannah-Jones. And … there's no project that's perfect, but we're talking about facts versus the 1776 commission. The idea that facing racial slavery and facing the travails of American democracy disallow us from facing the grandeur of the country, and disallow people from leaving the country is really a very, very pernicious idea.

"So, one, really at the federal level, we need a national racial truth, justice and healing commission where we get people from all ideological backgrounds, but people who are interested in facts. To say, ‘Here's what happened and here's how we can share that story.’ The justice part is public policy. Not only do we have to get rid of the thousands of racist policies that really constrain Black life in America and the lives of other people of color, we have to make racial justice central to the American experiment and the American experience.

“And it's only once we do that, we can come to the healing because we do need a rapprochement. We do need a rapprochement with each other. But part of that is policies that desegregate, policies that provide equity, policies that don't marginalize and criminalize and punish. So part of that means investing in people and not investing in systems of punishment, reimagining public safety, reimagining Black humanity and centering Black citizenship and dignity to the American project."

If all that happened, would the facing be complete?

Peniel Joseph: “The facing is only going to be complete when we think about outcomes, when we see the equality of outcomes, and I'm not the person saying this. Lyndon Johnson said this in 1965 at his extraordinary Howard University commencement address. He said that equality would come not with opportunity, but equality of outcomes. So when we think about racism, Lyndon Johnson — who was really one of the most extraordinary presidents of the 20th century — and the vision of the Great Society and anti-poverty.

"Despite the shortcomings, despite the mistakes, Johnson called us towards an aspirational citizenship. And he argued that we'd have to find racial justice in the details of the outcomes. So when we see Black people no longer disproportionately overrepresented in all negative social economic outcomes in the United States, and disproportionately underrepresented in the positive, we're going to know we've made actual genuine headway in terms of finally achieving the country we all claim we want to be a part of.”

Do you feel some optimism in terms of how the nation might turn out of this inflection point?

Peniel Joseph: “Yeah, I feel tremendous optimism, really, based on not just [Amanda Gorman's inauguration poem] that was just read, but really the work of so many Black women and men and children and boys and girls in our own time who really work to reimagine democracy. … We need different policies and politics, but we do need to change minds and hearts. And we need what King called the 'revolution of values' to achieve a beloved community that's free of racial injustice and economic inequality. And we are moving in the streets peacefully, but we're also moving in state houses, nonprofits, systems of higher education K-12. So things are changing as we speak.”

From The Reading List

New York Times: "‘He Was Just Everywhere’: A Tired Country After Four Years of Trump" — "For four years, David Betras has been unable to escape Donald J. Trump. The president has visited Youngstown, Ohio, the seat of Mr. Betras’s home county. So have the president’s children. People Mr. Betras had known for years became in thrall to Mr. Trump. There was no getting away on Facebook, on Instagram, at the local bar."

Washington Post: "Inauguration Day is a milestone, but it’s not the destination" — "For the past year a lot of Americans have been obsessed, whether they knew it or not, with the idea of time travel."

New Yorker: "'A Broken Land': Biden and the True Costs of Unity" — "The Inauguration of Joe Biden as the forty-sixth President was the culmination of stories long and short; sixty years ago, the success of a fellow Irish Catholic, John F. Kennedy, inspired a teen-age admirer in Delaware to study the Congressional Directory in the school library, for clues into how he might achieve the ludicrous ambition to follow him."

Al Jazeera: "QAnon in disarray as reality of Biden presidency settles" — "As adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory face the reality of Joe Biden’s presidency – something they believed could never happen – the movement appears to be searching for a way forward as some cast aside their beliefs, according to researchers."

NPR: "After Sparring With Trump, Fauci Says Biden Administration Feels 'Liberating'" — "Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading immunologist who became a household name for his work on the White House coronavirus response team, described working under the Biden administration as 'liberating' from past fears of retribution from his previous boss: former President Donald Trump."

Politico: "Trump starts taking his second impeachment seriously" — "Donald Trump appears to be finally getting serious about his upcoming impeachment trial."

This program aired on January 22, 2021.


Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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