Asian American Studies Program students and staff gathered Nov. 9 in Rockefeller Hall for a catered Indian lunch and a talk on the U.S. election results with program director Derek Chang, associate professor of history.
Chang put the election results into a context based on his research into the years during and after Reconstruction. “After Emancipation was a moment of great hope and opportunity in America,” he said. “But during Reconstruction African-Americans also expressed fears that slavery would come back, and in fact we did get a system that looks a lot like slavery: sharecropping and Jim Crow.
“As historians, we try to disabuse people of the notion that steady progress exists,” he added. “We have a myth about America that frames the American past as a steady march of progress. Last night’s election results were a wake-up call that certain kinds of progress are never assured.”
This election either resulted from or caused deep divisions in our country, said Chang, and what should happen is an effort to identify the source of the division. “But it’s impossible to disentangle economic causes from race and gender,” he said. “If the divisions are about institutional forms of hierarchy and inequality, how do you overcome that? The stakes are big.”
A historian who researches race and racial relations in America, Chang said he finds hope in the examples of people and groups of people who have come together to make change, such as activists in the civil rights movement. “Progress doesn’t just happen,” he emphasized. “Progress is made through struggle. The notion that work can be done is a hopeful one. People have faced grim circumstances throughout our country’s history: Remember that folks overturned slavery and segregation.”
After his comments, Chang opened the floor to discussion. This was important, he said, “because one of the lovely things about being at Cornell is that when major events happen, there are spaces like this where you can sit and think together with other people and figure things out.”
Commenting on the surprise they felt about the election results, several students reflected on the problem of existing in an “echo chamber” of social media, where they hear only from people who think like they do.
One student from Hong Kong said that if he had been white working class, he might have voted for Trump. He could understand their feeling that they had no future and that the system was unfair, he said.
The recovery since 2008 has been very uneven, said Chang, and Trump has tapped into disaffection among white and working class people. He cited one Nov. 8 interview where a Trump voter announced, “We’re taking back our country.”
Policies since the 1960s have seemed to set up this us-them dichotomy that Obama and Clinton in certain ways embodied, Chang said. People who were already struggling felt that they were having more things taken away from them by elites and immigrants. “Affirmative action is an example of something that these voters saw as benefitting someone else by taking opportunity away from them,” he said.
Chang closed by reminding attendees that conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “The nonviolent protests of the civil rights movement were about conflict and struggle and not just about changing minds,” he said. “We need to at least allow for the possibility that those things are part of how changes get made in this country.”
The Nov. 9 talk was the final session of the Asian American Studies Program’s Wednesday Lunch Series, which presents faculty, staff and visiting speakers speaking on Asian-Pacific Island research or diversity issues. The series will resume again in the spring semester.
A version of this story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.