Historically Speaking, Part 4: Protests, Inequality, and California Nationalism

By Will Bellaimey with Elizabeth Gracen:

If you'd like to start at the beginning of Historically Speaking, click here.

This is the fourth part in our series of conversations with Will Bellaimey, a history teacher and creator of the All The Presidents, Man podcast. In this conversation, I asked him to try to help put what has been happening with the coronavirus into historical context.

Elizabeth Gracen: So, Will, last time we were talking about individual rights and people’s trust in government, and now we’ve got all these protests happening here in California and around the country with people refusing to wear masks and demanding that we reopen the economy. Is the social contract falling apart?

Will Bellaimey: Well, it’s definitely being strained and rewritten right now. And you’re seeing the effects of a federal government that has been really chaotic and unclear; so state and local leaders are having to figure it out on their own. And there are advantages and disadvantages to that model. On the one hand, there is a huge difference between the actual medical situation in New York City and in rural Iowa, so it makes some sense that they’re going to handle it differently. But also, the different political cultures in different places can lead to wildly different policies in the absence of a clear directive from above; like in Orange County where way fewer people are wearing masks, that’s leading to conflict between different levels of government.

EG: Governor Newsom was really upset after those pictures came out with the crowded beaches.

WB: Yeah, he doesn’t seem quite so much like "President Newsom" as he did a few weeks ago. But this is the reality of governing right now. You’re trying to thread a really difficult needle because people are losing some patience with the stay-at-home orders, but the fundamentals of the situation haven’t really changed and don’t seem likely to change any time in the future. So how do you keep the loyalty of the people, on whom the social contract depends? That requires a careful dance of demonstrating flexibility while also keeping the most important orders in place.

EG: What about those counties up north where they are not following the orders?

WB: Well, ultimately, the governor can issue orders or the state can pass legislation to force certain areas to comply, and then you can send in the state troopers to enforce it. But you don’t want to get to that point. So it becomes a negotiation between different levels of government about what they can and can’t accept, but that can be really messy.

Democracy is a lot messier than authoritarian systems, which is ultimately a feature not a bug. And that mess in a moment like this can come at the cost of people’s lives. And the people who pay the price are usually those who were already suffering.

EG: I’ve seen a lot of stories with statistics about African American people who are disproportionately affected by our current health crisis and how that is a result of a very long history of racism and inequality.

WB: It’s certainly not a coincidence. People of color, undocumented people, people in prison, all are at a much higher risk both in terms of the virus and in terms of economics because of systemic issues that long predate the pandemic. And it’s a stark reminder that racism is not just a matter of individual prejudice, it’s built into the structure of our society. In the 90s, when I was in school, I think it was fashionable for everyone to talk about racism in terms of there being certain people who are “racists.” And as long as you could identify those people and you weren’t one of them, then problem solved. And the whole idea that Obama being elected meant we were in a “post-racial” society was tied into that narrative.

EG: Do you think what's happening now will change any of the basic dynamics?

WB: Well, I hope that it will make it harder to deny what’s been going on for a long time. Perhaps it can be sort of like cell phone videos of police violence. The kinds of police shootings of unarmed people that launched the Black Lives Matter movement, those had been going on for a long, long time. But the clear evidence provided by cameras helped bring attention to the issue. The gaps in basic wealth and access to resources along racial lines in this country, those won’t change without big shifts in the basic structure of society. But perhaps this can be a starting point. It took the Civil War to end slavery and pass the 14th Amendment.

EG: The country is still really divided right now, between different states and regions and political parties. Do you think we’re in danger of our own Civil War?

WB: Probably not literally. The main reason being that the geography is not as clear cut as it was back in the 1860s, where the real divide was North vs. South. You could say that the divide now is between the coasts and the middle of the country, but that’s not really true either. In most red states, the cities are blue and in most blue states, the rural areas are red. So it’s not as clear who would be breaking away from whom. I did find it interesting that Gavin Newsom referred to California as a “nation-state” the other week though.

W.E.B. Du Bois

EG: Yes, what do you think he meant by that?

WB: I mean, I think he mostly was just trying to make a point that California is a huge state with a powerful economy. But in political science, the word “nation” has a very specific meaning that has to do with deep philosophical questions about identity. German philosophers such as Hegel talked about the idea that certain groups of people share a common spirit or destiny (the same idea that W.E.B. Du Bois would later apply in thinking about black nationalism). So when Newsom claims that California is a “nation-state,” he’s gesturing at the idea that we might be fundamentally a separate people from other Americans. And, ahem . . . historically speaking . . . that’s often been the kind of idea that leads to civil war.

EG: We’ll just have to wait and see what happens next?

WB: I really can’t predict.

Will Bellaimey teaches U.S. Government and Politics at Flintridge Prep School outside Los Angeles where he is also the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Geography, which is staffed entirely by seventh graders. His podcast, All the Presidents, Man, is available here.