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Biden's meeting with historians over threats to democracy draws criticism


Earlier this month, President Biden brought a small group of historians together to help advise him on the crisis facing our democracy. The problem for some - the experts were all white. NPR's Sandhya Dirks reports.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: The story of the meeting made the rounds on media. Here is Michael Smerconish on his Saturday CNN show.


MICHAEL SMERCONISH: Is American democracy teetering on the brink? That's what President Biden was warned by a group of esteemed historians in a private meeting at the White House.

DIRKS: The screen flashes to five faces, those invited - all white faces. But the criticism around who got a seat at the table goes a lot deeper than just a lack of diversity. It's about what that lack can lead to.


SMERCONISH: The historians compared the threat facing America to the era leading up to the Civil War and to the pro-fascist movements that preceded World War II.

DIRKS: Those comparisons are missing something, says Kenneth Mack.

KENNETH MACK: We don't really have to look outside the United States nor do we really have to look all the way back to the Civil War to think about things like voter suppression, demagoguery and fascist tactics.

DIRKS: Mack is a professor of law and history at Harvard. He says post-Reconstruction America was deeply undemocratic.

MACK: We've had the death of democracy in this country. African Americans experienced this directly.

MANISHA SINHA: The United States has already experimented in authoritarianism.

DIRKS: That's the University of Connecticut historian Manisha Sinha. She lists things that were happening - the rise of domestic racist terrorism, laws and political checks to disenfranchise the Black vote, a conservative Supreme Court restricting freedoms.

SINHA: It was primarily a racist authoritarianism. It's exactly what is happening now.

DIRKS: We don't really know if the historians talked about that with Biden. The basis of what we do know comes from a Washington Post story as well as from two of the historians who were in the room, who went on TV to talk about it. On MSNBC, presidential historian Michael Beschloss talked about the parallels of our current moment to the '30s and '40s. Here he is speaking to host Jonathan Capehart, who - just note - is Black.


MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: So if we were living in 1940, you and I would have said there's a serious danger that America will not be a democracy because, A, there are people from within who want to make this an authoritarian system and, B, the Nazi Germans, the Italians, the Imperial Japanese were living in a world where fascism is on the march.

DIRKS: It's telling that Beschloss says we. A Black person in 1940 might already feel that America wasn't a democracy. As for the rising fascist movements Beschloss mentions, many historians have pointed out those movements actually borrowed heavily from Jim Crow and from America's brutal treatment of Indigenous people. Princeton historian Sean Wilentz also didn't really talk about race in American history when he spoke on CNN. He did mention another historical moment he thinks parallels our current one - right before the Civil War.


SEAN WILENTZ: The basic institutions of the country - the legitimacy of those institutions is being called into serious question. That certainly happened before the Civil War. It led to secession.

DIRKS: Across American history, Black people and people of color have had a justified, deep distrust of American institutions. But those aren't the crises of legitimacy that Wilentz is centering.

JELANI COBB: In having an all-white room, you kind of replicate the kind of gaps in perspective that we've seen that have facilitated this problem in the first place.

DIRKS: That's Jelani Cobb, dean of Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. He says he's also troubled by Wilentz's problematic past thinking on race, including once saying Barack Obama ran the most racist campaign in modern history.

COBB: Here we have this crisis which is shot through with racial elements. And that's the person in the room. Yeah. That's a problem.

DIRKS: Who is in the room with the ear of the president matters, says historian Manisha Sinha. Because we've seen the death of democracy, we've also got a blueprint for its rebirth - a massive civil rights movement led by Black people and people of color, people who maintained a stubborn belief in America's promise and pushed the government to attempt a second Reconstruction.

SINHA: The only time in American democracy that it has been protected has been when the federal government has responded in forceful ways.

DIRKS: Earlier this year, President Biden met with another group that included Harvard's Annette Gordon-Reed, a Black scholar who studies race, law and history. In a statement, White House Director of African American Media Erika Loewe wrote, since Day 1, President Biden has regularly engaged with diverse stakeholders and community leaders who offer different perspectives on a variety of issues. Jelani Cobb says still, it's concerning this all-white historians meeting happened at the same time there is a massive movement by Republicans to censor and silence the histories of Black and brown people in America. He says excluding the perspectives of scholars who study race is a kind of willful blindness.

COBB: Like, there's a map that will help us understand the moment we're in, and we're plunging ourselves into complete darkness at that moment.

DIRKS: The path out can only be seen if people in power are willing to look squarely at the role racism plays past and present. I'm Sandhya Dirks, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NU SHOOZ SONG, "I CAN'T WAIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.

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