Historian Eric Foner: Broken promises of Reconstruction relevant to today’s racial justice movement

Historian Eric Foner said misconceptions about the Reconstruction era helped uphold white supremacy in the South, and a greater understanding of the period can provide context for the economic demands of Black protesters today.

Foner told Hill.TV that Reconstruction was portrayed by early 20th century historians as a corrupt era, and that the advent of Jim Crow laws helped restore governance in the South. But a reexamination of the period — and the economic promises to African Americans that went unmet — can help explain some of the disparities seen today, in which the assets held by Black family assets are, on average, 10 percent that of white families.

“That’s the legacy of history,” Foner said. “Family assets are what is built up over time. It’s not like income from a job, which comes in every week or every month. And our society has never allowed African Americans to accumulate money and assets the way white families have.”

While the Reconstruction era included an expansion of voting rights to African Americans — albeit largely unenforced — economic justice was not pursued.

And while the civil rights movement about a century later yielded equal access to opportunity, Foner said much of the racial injustice protests today are centered around the economic component of freedom.

“Nothing is going to happen until after the election, I’m sure,” Foner said. “And depending on who wins the election, the government may or may not be in a position or have the desire to address deep economic inequalities in this country.”

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