David E. Kaiser — The Case against "The Case for Reparations"


In this episode of The Glenn Show, I’m talking to David E. Kaiser, author of many books about American and international political history. As a distinguished professional historian, David has seen many changes in the way history is written both inside and outside the academy, not all of them for the better. In this conversation, David talks about why Ta-Nehisi Coates’s highly influential 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations” and the view of race and American history it represents leaves out many crucial facts about how we came to be where we are.

We begin in a slightly counterintuitive place, with a discussion of how many historians’ views of the Cold War changed after Vietnam. In David’s telling, it became more and more common to see historians placing blame for escalating hostilities on the U.S.’s foreign policy rather than the U.S.S.R.’s. David sees a similar sort of revisionism at work in contemporary historians’ perspectives on the New Deal, which is now sometimes described as a purposefully racially discriminatory enterprise. David pushes back against this interpretation, pointing to the South’s pursuit of industry and cheap labor as a better explanation for the New Deal’s flaws than racial animus. We also discuss statistics indicating that, while blacks did earn significantly less money than whites, the years after World War II saw tremendous economic growth in black communities. And, while redlining policies certainly did have a negative impact on the ability of blacks to acquire wealth, those policies alone only tell part of the black economic story. Finally, David ends our discussion by reading from a fascinating 1940 editorial in the black newspaper the Chicago Defender that endorses FDR for a third term.

I truly enjoyed this conversation, and I hope you will as well!


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0:00 Intro

2:35 The post-Vietnam reevaluation of the Cold War

13:12 David: Academic historians largely have abandoned the idea of objective truth

18:23 Were black people really excluded from the New Deal?

32:06 The fortunes of black veterans after WWII

40:19 Why redlining doesn't tell the whole story about the racial wealth gap

49:49 Why the Chicago Defender endorsed FDR in 1940

Links and Readings

David’s memoir, A Life in History

David’s book, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War

David’s book, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War

Glenn’s conversation with Daniel Bessner, “American Empire before and after 9/11”

Ira Katznelson’s book, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in America

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay, “The Case for Reparations”

The Chicago Fed’s paper, “The Effects of the 1930s HOLC ‘Redlining’ Maps”

Andrew Fenton’s article, “WTF happened in 1971 (and why the f**k it matters so much right now)”

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