Birth of an Activist: How A Historian of 30 Years “Woke” Up

If anyone had told me thirty years ago, when I was earning my master’s degree in history from California State University, Fresno, that someday, I would be starting an online petition to try and save the newly erected statue of Gandhi in the Fresno State Peace Garden, I would have thought they were crazy would have thought you were crazy because that’s not the kind of guy I was. I wasn’t a rabble-rouser, an instigator, or an activist of any kind. I didn’t go to demonstrations. I didn’t challenge the system. I certainly didn’t question the cultural narrative, whatever it might be, at least not openly. I mean, who had the time? I had spent most of the 1980’s graduating high school, working wherever I could, and trying my best to educate myself so that I could get a job, support myself, and live an average, ordinary, middle-class life. My dreams were actually quite simple. I wanted a job that paid enough for me to not be a burden to my loved ones and that would enable me to enjoy some degree of economic independence and a little bit of leisure. I thought that was the American Dream. And I thought that the way one achieved that was to work, keep your nose clean, and most of all, not rock the boat. As the child of a widowed mother and the oldest of four siblings, I was expected to set a good example.

As it turned out, though, achieving even that relatively simple dream was easier said than done. For the next six years, I devoted myself wholly to establishing a career teaching history at the community college level. I became known as a “freeway flyer.” I worked for two different community college districts in California’s Central Valley. I taught every class I could get my hands on to help fill out my resume. No campus was too remote and no subject matter too obscure. At one point toward the end of my career as an adjunct instructor, I commuted over 800 miles per week and put 40,000 miles on my car in a single year. All the while, I maintained the job that had helped put me through college. I had worked for a retail pharmacy chain since my second year of college and, while I hesitate to say the name (for those of you who live in the western United States), let me just say that I scooped more ice cream in those fourteen years than most people will ever see in their lives. Weekends and vacations were extremely rare during those years, and summers were non-existent, but in the end, it paid off. In 1996, one of the full-time history instructors at one of the many campuses I had taught at decided to take a sabbatical. I wanted that interim position so badly—I could taste it. And besides, I had spent more than half a decade proving myself as a history instructor. Between the two districts, I was already teaching a full load of classes as well as holding down another job. I was ready!

The following year, that interim position led to a full-time, tenure-track position of my own, as the district I was working for had begun opening campuses at some of the more isolated, rural campuses in the area. I became the first full-time history instructor for two campuses collectively known as the “North Centers.” It was still a fair bit of travel, as I worked on multiple campuses each week and sometimes on the same days, but I had achieved my portion of the American Dream: a good job, a decent salary, and the ability to take care of myself for what would hopefully be a long if not particularly distinguished career. I certainly had no plans of upsetting the apple cart, making waves, or any other colorful phrase one might use to describe the activities of a person intent on challenging the establishment. I simply wanted to educate my students, and hoped to open their eyes to the wider world as mine had been opened many years before. And for nearly the first two decades of my career, everything seemed to be going to plan. As an instructor who worked almost exclusively on relatively isolated, rural campuses, I had a degree of academic freedom that would have been envied by many. I flew largely under the radar and was free to teach my students American history the way that I had been taught it by my teachers, which primarily consisted of looking at the totality of the American experience: the good, the bad, and the ugly, realizing that we were a nation founded on some of the best ideas to ever come forth from the mind of man, ideas that have been imperfectly implemented. And that while we struggle to correct the flaws and inequalities of our society just as our ancestors did, we are making progress. In 2008, America had elected its first African-American president—if that wasn’t progress, what was?

But in the last decade, things have started to change, and not for the better. Instead of moving forward as a nation and a people united by our ideals, our values and, yes, our history, we seem to be slipping backward. Today, we are more divided, more suspicious, and more distrustful of one another than at any other time that I can remember. The founding principles of our government and our society have become an anathema to many, especially the young, and those who espouse them must be purged from our collective memory, their monuments destroyed, and their memories erased. In fact, the entire system has to be scrapped and rebuilt from scratch, as it is irredeemably evil, created and upheld by generations of Americans intent on oppression, exploitation, and the degradation of their fellow human beings. There was nothing noble or admirable about America or its history beyond those few who had struggled in vain against a government and its institutions that were completely rigged against them. And so I began to wonder, where did this come from?

I first noticed something was amiss back in 2014. In that year, two things happened that caught my attention. The first was almost comical, or at least it seemed so at the time. The University of California chancellor’s office sent a guide on how to recognize “microaggressions” on its campuses, as well as what they mean to minority students. The first example of a “microaggression” was an instructor asking a student where they were from. The implication, according to the UC guide, was clear. Anyone who asked this was questioning the validity of the student’s citizenship and inferring that the student was not a “true” American. For someone like me, whose ethnicity was described by my grandmother as “Heinz 57” (a little bit of everything), asking someone where they’re from or how they got here is as reflexive as breathing. Some of my earliest exposure to history as a child was listening to my grandparents tell stories about my ancestors—where they came from, what they did, and where they went. As an adult, I dabbled some in genealogy and discovered a range of ancestors, from settlers at Jamestown to a great grandmother who arrived at Ellis Island in 1905, a scant sixty years before I was born. To me, asking where someone was from or how they got here showed interest and enthusiasm in learning about a person’s heritage, culture, and customs. Could the question be asked in such a way that the person being asked might be offended? Of course, but part of the wonder of American history is that so many people from so many different places, times, and cultures came together as one, in such a way as our national motto describes: “E Pluribus Unum,” out of many, one. Today, it seems that we are doing the opposite: taking the one and dividing it into as many different tribes and cultures as possible, each with its own set of grievances and complaints that need to be rectified immediately. I might have been able to laugh it off as academic political correctness run amok if it had not been for what came next.

In August of 2014, a young African-American man by the name of Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in the town of Ferguson, Missouri. This was a tragedy under any circumstances, but was one which captured the public imagination and dominated the media in a way that seemed almost sinister as time went on. Now, rushing to judgment is a human failing as old as time, but as time passed and more of the story was revealed to be patently false, the narrative clung to by the media and those who believe they have an axe to grind still proclaims, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” Why cling so fiercely to a story not supported by the facts unless it was to change the perception of what was obviously a tragedy into an atrocity? Michael Brown’s death was used as further proof that America was a racist country built on racist institutions which need to be torn down, by force if necessary, and rebuilt from the ground up. Thus, Black Lives Matter was born. BLM committed itself not merely to righting a wrong, but to the wholesale destruction of everything in America that supposedly propped up its continuing oppression and exploitation of people of color, putting in its place some kind of Marxist utopia where the oppressed become the oppressors and the oppressors pay the price for the evils of a dozen generations. Talk about making the children pay for the sins of their fathers…

As I talked with my colleagues about these events, I found that many if not most of them were quite comfortable with the narrative that was being put forward. Common consensus seemed to be that slavery was America’s original sin and that no price was too high to redeem ourselves from the dark stains of the past. After all, we were going to be part of the solution, weren’t we? Equity was the solution, by which we meant the elimination of the “systemic racism” that had been built into the system of higher education long before there was a United States, European colonization of the Americas, or really anything having to do with our present society. Social justice was coming to California community colleges with the force of a thousand avenging angels and would wipe the slate clean. All barriers would be removed and all outcomes would be equal. Who could ask for anything more than that? (If my rhetoric sounds a bit hyperbolic, know that I’m merely mimicking their enthusiasm). However, there were a few of us who were concerned. Could this go too far? Was there a possibility that, in our zeal, we might throw the baby out with the bathwater, metaphorically speaking? After all, the French Revolution of 1789 began with an attempt to limit the powers of the monarchy, which degenerated into Robespierre’s Reign of Terror and eventually ended with Napoleon’s empire. The Russian Revolution of 1917 started with Alexander Kerensky’s democratic republic and ended with the tyranny of Stalin’s gulags. The road to hell and all of that.

From those humble beginnings in 2014, the BLM movement quickly gained steam and adherents. In 2015 and 2016, it seemed like hardly a day went by without some new outrage that further cemented the public’s perception that America was racist, has always been racist, and would always be racist until such a time when the righteous would lay waste to its institutions and implement a new order. Agreement was no longer enough. Loyalty was required. You had to prove your commitment, whether you were a white professor zealously guarding a black protest by telling a student reporter to get lost and asking the crowd for some “muscle,” or a young African-American woman berating a white professor for defending his wife against charges of racism and for failing to create a “safe space” for her. I could only imagine what my professors at Fresno State would have said thirty years earlier if I had asked for a “safe space” at college where I would never be subjected to the pain of dealing with anything controversial or unpleasant. And when Donald Trump came down the escalator at Trump Tower in New York City to declare his candidacy for president…Fuhgettaboutit! It was proof positive that white supremacy was about to infiltrate the highest levels of government, with a little help from the Russians, of course. And all of a sudden, everything was in code. Any word he used was a “dog whistle,” a secret signal to the hordes of Aryan warriors about to sweep down from their hiding places to overrun the country. America, the flag, the founding fathers, and the Constitution were all suspect. Freedom of speech? That was just license for the oppressors to talk amongst themselves about their plans for domination. “Hate speech” has to be regulated, controlled, and even eliminated if possible, and all those who stood in the way are enemies to be given no quarter. Freedom of assembly? Well, it depends on who is assembling. We need to differentiate between good and bad assemblies. If an assembly is deemed good, then have at it. Neither wind nor rain nor dark of night, not even a pandemic straight from Pandora’s box should stop it. A bad assembly, however—that’s a different matter. Rabble-rousers, gun nuts, and those who would question the government’s ability to lock them down indefinitely and deprive them of their livelihoods can’t be allowed. And the examples keep mounting and mounting and mounting…

So, how did I become an activist in the twilight of my career, you ask? Or maybe you didn’t, but to close the circle from where I started, there are a couple of answers to that question. First off, I have learned by example. I am lucky enough to have had colleagues both past and present who have been willing to stand up for what’s right, who have asked for definitions of words like “equity” and “social justice” in meetings and documents, who have questioned the data, and who have demanded to know whether we are talking about equal opportunities for success or simply equal outcomes in terms of grades and graduation rates, no matter what. Brave men are all who have been willing to question, to probe, and to think critically about the complexities of higher education, the issues facing minority students, and the desire to make sure that all who want it have access to a high-quality liberal arts education (in the best sense of the word liberal.) Their bravery has given me the courage to speak out against the erasure of parts of my own discipline, history, simply because they’re uncomfortable, inconvenient, or don’t fit into the current narrative. Secondly, there is my mom, who, although she has been gone for some years now, often told me that, at the end of the day, it didn’t matter what other people did or said—I had to be able to look at myself in the mirror and know that I had done the best I could, win, lose, or draw. And finally, there was the attempt by a local high school student to circulate a petition to bring down the Gandhi statue in the Fresno State Peace Garden a few weeks ago. Even before that, as I watched mobs of protestors bring down innumerable works of art commemorating historical figures (of both good and bad character,) I promised myself that, when they came for history in my hometown, let alone my alma mater, I would do what I could to defend it. When I came across the article about the statue, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to look at myself with any sense of conviction if I didn’t act. So far, that hasn’t involved chaining myself to Gandhi or fighting my way through an angry mob intent on his destruction, but who knows what the future brings?

Lastly, speaking of the future, I wonder how generations not yet born will judge this particular moment in time. Every fall, when I teach my Ancient Western Civilization class, I make it a point to talk about the Greek idea of “hubris,” the sin of overweening pride, and how it was the worst of all sins to that civilization. It strikes me that we have an overabundance of this now: We don’t need the past anymore. It has nothing more to teach us. Thanks to Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, we now know that we are all “a**holes” who have been complicit in the “systemic racism” that has plagued our economic, governmental and educational systems since time immemorial. Thanks to Critical Race Theory, we also know that there is no cure for society’s ills short of the wholesale destruction of everything we have ever known, followed by a societal rebirth formed around a set of principles that have failed consistently in every country and at all times that they have ever been tried. We have the final answer—everyone and everything who dare to question it must be swept away before the healing can begin. Greek mythology is full of stories about human beings who challenged the gods because they thought they were more talented, knew better, and had all the answers. Suffice to say, it never ended well. Unless those of us who understand what Socrates is believed to have said—“Admission of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom”—start to stand up and push back against the rising tide of absolute surety that threatens to wash away all the collective civilization of the last five thousand years, we will lose much, maybe all. Our history, our ideals, our values, and even our religion can and will be laid waste. At best, future generations will be too ignorant and barbarous to know what we did or failed to do. At worst, they will never forgive us.


Image: Grant Porter, Public Domain

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David Richardson

David Richardson has a M.A. in History from CSU, Fresno and has taught history in community colleges for 30 years.

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