Freedom and Race | 17 January 2018

Freedom & Race: 5 Questions for Tyler Stovall


Tyler Stovall is a distinguished professor of history and Dean of Humanities at UCSC, as well as the current president of the American Historical Association. His work centers on questions of race and class, blackness, and postcolonial history.

On Tuesday, January 30, Dean Stovall will take part in Questions That Matter, an annual public forum presented by The Humanities Institute. This year’s discussion (tickets here) will focus on the relationship between freedom and race that continues to vex the United States and the larger world. We reached out to Dean Stovall to pick his brain and get a preview of the event.

What can the work of history bring to bear on questions of race and freedom?

The idea that America is a free nation has been a running thread throughout our history. It’s how we’ve justified wars, social programs, and our position throughout the world.

Looking at the history helps to illustrate why we’re still in a place where freedom is not universal in this country, and in many parts of the world as a whole.

For example, we’re supposed to have the right to select our leaders, but not everyone has the right to vote in this country. Through voter suppression, the Republican Party has restricted the right of people of color to vote.

Looking at the history helps to illustrate why we’re still in a place where freedom is not universal in this country, and in many parts of the world as a whole.

With rampant police violence, we can see our right to equal protection and safety is also racially distinct.

Our ideas about freedom have always been racially constructed. Right now one of the issues I’m most interested in is the articulation between Americans and class. Why do people talk about the white working class?

History is very useful, because you can contrast. For most of the 19th century, people of color had no rights. We are nowhere near the kinds of challenges America has faced in the past, but we still have many problems to be resolved and clearly the past informs the present.

In Charlottesville, someone literally died over disagreements over history and key facts about history.

Remember when President Obama was elected and people talked about a post-racial society?

We tend to lurch towards extremes of racial perception. Even during the Obama presidency, you had the whole birther controversy with people insisting he couldn’t really be an American. Now a birther is president and he talks about “both sides” with regard to white supremacists.

The desire to achieve post-racial America was built on a fantasy that you could ignore these problems. When it became clear the election of black president didn’t bring us to racial nirvana, some became disenchanted and began to despair, asking, “what have we achieved?”

History reminds us we’ve come far, but we’re not done traveling. Many of us want to eliminate complexity, to think things are all good or bad. Getting to the essential truth is really vital in terms of how we study our own society.

Is there a moment in the past few months that brings this together for you?

It would have been hard five years ago to imagine someone like Steve Bannon would take a turn as a major figure, or our president would retweet a video from British white nationalist group. But that stuff has always been there. The GOP since the civil rights movement has adopted a fundamentally anti-black agenda as a way to become a majority party in the United States. There’s a real continuity that goes back over a century. There is a relationship between the alt-right and the established right. For all the horrors you had the GOP establishment expressing, they still backed Roy Moore. They still endorsed a man who was not only an accused pedophile, but who expressed nostalgia for America before slavery was abolished. Many people said they were horrified, but still voted for him. That’s a real problem.

Recently you have real anger towards black athletes, and this goes back to Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion who was exiled for being in love with a white woman. Black athletes are supposed to be heroes but keep their mouths shut about being black. The word “ungrateful” is really key. They’re highly paid, they should do what we want politically. It applies also to entertainers in general—they’re not supposed to have opinions about their own lives.

The fact that Trump uses this as a sort of wedge really speaks to the racial politics of that administration.

Why are the Humanities important? What can people do do ensure this work continues?

The Humanities cultivate critical skills, like critical analysis, and above all they’re about stories. We’re all products of the stories we tell and the stories that are told about us. It’s important to understand how those stories are constructed and it matters how we see those things.

I really want to get across the idea that racism—and the exclusion of racial groups from society—is essential to understanding freedom in America.

The Humanities help us understand our world and where we want to go.

Many people are afraid that without a solid STEM education, you won’t get a job or survive financially. That fear is really the basis of where this country has gone politically. We live in a world that is so unequal people with jobs at Google can barely afford a house in San Francisco. So there is a fear that the Humanities are a luxury, when in fact the opposite is true.

If you want to support the Humanities, get involved politically. Fight for a world where the extremes aren’t so pronounced you can’t feel secure.

On January 30, you’re leading a discussion on freedom and race. What do you hope the audience will come away with?

Hopefully they’ll come away with appreciation of freedom and how important that idea is. I really want to get across the idea that racism—and the exclusion of racial groups from society—is essential to understanding freedom in America.

Join Tyler Stovall, Jennifer González, and Nathaniel Deutsch for Questions That Matter: Freedom and Race on January 30 at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. Doors open at 6pm for wine and hors d’oeuvres. Tickets here.