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Obama presidency signals new era in America’s struggle with self-identity, says Vanderbilt historian

Jan. 8, 2009, 12:51 PM

America’s arduous struggle over competing visions of nationhood involving race is a giant step closer to resolution with the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, says Vanderbilt University historian Gary Gerstle.

Gerstle is the author of American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press), recently recommended by National Public Radio book critic Maureen Corrigan as one of the “Best Books for a Transformative New Year.”

Corrigan said on NPR‘s “Fresh Air,” “If I had to recommend one engrossing book that would give readers an informed awareness of the new civic movement we’re all living through, it would be Gerstle’s American Crucible.”

In the book Gerstle focuses on two sharply different visions that have shaped American society: civic nationalism and racial nationalism. Civic nationalism is a familiar concept to Americans who have taken any basic U.S. civics class. It’s the idea that America is a land of opportunity where anyone, no matter where he or she is from, can be successful through hard work and good citizenship.

“Equally potent through America’s formative years has been the tradition of racial nationalism, the belief that America was a nation designated for certain ethno-racial groups, especially people of European descent,” Gerstle said.

He noted that some of the ethnic groups who today are unambiguously considered part of the white majority, such as Irish Catholics and southern and eastern Europeans, were at one time considered racially inferior and suspect by some Americans.

“Perhaps the most important point of my book is that we can’t understand our history by regarding civic nationalists and racial nationalists as belonging to entirely separate and exclusive groups,” Gerstle said. “Frequently, these opposing principles existed in the minds of the same individuals, including those who considered themselves liberals and progressive on civil rights.” Examples of liberals who were conflicted by racial nationalism at times include Presidents Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, Gerstle said.

During the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Johnson refused to go along with the efforts of an alternate Mississippi delegation with African Americans who wanted to be recognized and seated. “When LBJ was confronted with a group of black citizens from the South who wanted representation, he said, ‘You’re going to have to wait because we know what’s best for you,'” Gerstle said. “Part of the message of my book is that racism was continually being re-inscribed into American life, even when we thought that we had moved beyond it.”

The author is hopeful that the Obama presidency will point the way toward a post-racial future, but he knows that serious racial problems remain. He noted that reconstruction is a term that has been used to describe major efforts in this country to correct racial wrongs. The first Reconstruction happened after the Civil War. Gerstle believes that a second Reconstruction happened during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

“The second reconstruction has been much more successful with middle class African Americans than those who are poor,” he said. “It is my belief that we will need a third reconstruction that addresses poverty issues raised during the ‘60s Civil Rights era but not yet solved.”

For more information on American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century, click on http://press.princeton.edu.

Listen to an interview with Gary Gerstle about the legacy of the Bush presidency on Philadelphia public radio station WHYY, at http://www.whyy.org/podcast/011409_100630.mp3.

Media Contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS
annmarie.owens@vanderbilt.edu

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