Historian Laureate

By Selle, Robert R. | The World and I, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Historian Laureate


Selle, Robert R., The World and I


As America enters the twenty-first century, race relations is still the "great question"--and the solution is intermarriage, according to Pulitzer Prize--winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

The tensions and conflicts between ethnic groups, and especially between blacks and whites, have the potential to split the country into internecine camps, a fact Schlesinger noted with concern in his 1991 book The Disuniting of America, updated and reissued two years ago.

But the 83-year-old historian, in an interview with The World & I, notes statistics showing that more Japanese Americans marry Caucasians than marry other Japanese Americans, and that so many Jews marry non- Jews that some observers fear that the Jewish community in America will eventually shrink to near zero. (In his own family, his Jewish grandfather emigrated from Germany in the 1860s, settled in Ohio, and married an Austrian Catholic girl. Then, in an unusual compromise, they both converted to Protestantism, a tradition that has been maintained in the family--his parents were married in the Congregational Church, and he himself was raised in the Unitarian Church.) There is also a trend toward Latinos wedding non-Latinos.

"And black-white marriages have quadrupled in the last generation," he says. "So I think that sex--or love--will arrest the disuniting of America."

Schlesinger hails the "great progress" that's been made in race relations in his lifetime, noting that 60 years ago it was impossible to imagine black justices on the Supreme Court; a black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; a black governor of Virginia; black mayors in Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas, Birmingham, and many other southern cities; and even blacks playing in the major leagues.

"But we still have a long way to go," he observes. "And America's still in many respects a racist nation." The evidence is daunting: timid affirmative action laws, discrimination in the law enforcement and corrections systems, whites' lingering attitude of superiority toward blacks, and the pain and self-hate inherited from three and a half centuries of slavery and a century of stifling Jim Crow laws.

GOD AND THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

The existence of racial injustice is one reason Schlesinger is an agnostic. The problem for him is the same that has spurred disbelief in any number of other thinkers, namely, how a God who is at once good and all-powerful could allow evils like war, genocide, corruption, and slavery.

As he was growing up, he was thoroughly trained in the Christian faith through regular Sunday school at his Unitarian church in Cambridge, Massachusetts; through attending chapel at Phillips Exeter Academy, a nationally prominent prep school in New Hampshire; and through reading the great twentieth-century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Schlesinger admires Niebuhr's Christian analysis of human nature and respects and appreciates religion's historical role.

"But when the supernatural comes in," Schlesinger says, "I pass. Maybe there is the supernatural, maybe there isn't, and I've never seen any evidence that there is, looking at human life--that is looking at the disorder and cruelty and so on."

Quoting Niebuhr's famous statement that "man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, and man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary," he says, "God should have done a better job" of creating human beings.

Schlesinger studied history largely because his household was steeped in the subject: His father was a professor of history and a pioneer social historian, first at Ohio State and then at Harvard, and his mother was a history writer. Both were keenly interested in the history of women. His mother wrote articles about neglected nineteenth-century women, and his father founded a women's history archive at Radcliffe, a women's college that has since merged with Harvard. After his father's death in 1965, the college named the archive the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. …

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