Thursday, May 3rd, 2007

Wisdom From Dr. Leon Litwack

The great Cal history professor Leon Litwack retires this week. With his retirement and that of the magnificent Ling-Chi Wang last year, some might say we’ve reached the end of an era.

Characteristically, neither chose to go quietly. Here’s Professor Litwack and his students in today’s Chron on the “messiness of history”, which he and Professor Wang taught us is always pouring over into the ugliness of the now:

Timothy Simmons said he attended a college alumni event in Maryland where all the guests were white and all the hired help was black. “No, I can’t be seeing this,” he recalled, “but I was.”

This is what Litwack means when he says history is messy. “At some point,” he said, “students have to confront the fact that we’re founded by slave-owning champions of liberty. We’re not the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

He believes the regression on race he has noticed since the 1970s can be explained by the theory that the impulse to integrate has been more economic than social. In his view, gains such an integrated Army and integrated schools in the 1950s were the result of post-war prudence.

“We would not be the leader of the free world” and maintain a segregated America,he said. “That had to end for the first time. The reason we had some advances is, for the first time race became a matter of national security.”

Litwack was asked how Don Imus’ comment about the Rutgers women’s basketball team fits into America’s racial narrative.

“It was kind of an offhand remark,” he said. “Is it more racist than people who talk about their belief in black equality but whose actions or indifference suggest something else? There’s a great deal of hypocrisy in how we dealt with Imus.

“We react with such fury about what he said about the Rutgers basketball team and yet we absolutely seem to be indifferent to the decay of our public schools — the fact that every day blacks, and whites as well, are cheated of a decent education in this country,” he said. “That to me is obscene. That’s racist and obscene both.”

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