[NOTE: As I’ve explained elsewhere (for example, here and here), some of my “adventures in interdisciplinary land” came in response to requests from colleagues in other disciplines asking for help in dealing with an “historical” issue. Here is another example, a book by one Wilmot Robertson (real name, John Humphrey Ireland [1915-2005]), The Dispossessed Majority (1972), sent to rising seniors at my school, and other local independent schools, on at least three occasions (1983, 1987, and 1989) by an “anonymous donor.”
I’m not even sure I was aware of the “gift” in 1983 and 1987, but I certainly was in 1989, because my older son was a rising senior at the school. In June, he and a few classmates were enrolled in a senior New Testament summer school course, trying to clear a slot on their schedules for elective coursework during senior year. When Robertson’s volume began to arrive at their homes, several of the students in New Testament mentioned it during class. Because the work purported to be “history,” their instructor asked my son if he thought that I might be willing to address the book and its message for a few minutes in their class.
Cramming my “interdisciplinary” hat on my head, I agreed to undertake the task of explicating a truly wretched, allegedly “historical,” work for my son’s Bible class. What follows is a lightly revised version of my introductory and concluding remarks.]
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To read Wilmot Robertson’s The Dispossessed Majority is to be forcefully reminded of the staying power of ideas, even dangerous ones long since discredited by modern scholarship or rendered untenable by events of the twentieth century. I should state here that the fact no respectable scholar, and for that matter no thinking American, would accept either Robertson’s thesis or the assumptions on which it is based, probably does not bother the author in the least: Robertson apparently believes that a massive conspiracy has been operating for a very long time aimed at suppressing the supposed “truths” in his book.
Mr. Robertson writes not a work of history, but a polemical morality play, with clearly-delineated “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys.” He believes in a hierarchy of races, for example, with the “Nordic” at the top, the superior race. Robertson also adheres to the Aryan or “master race” concept, although he does admit in a few places that Hitler’s policies towards the Jews and other so-called “inferior races” have made it impossible for anyone to discuss this concept and expect to be taken seriously. Still, Robertson claims that only members of Northern European “races” managed to construct true “civilizations.” The American descendants of these various offshoots of the “Aryan race” Robertson labels “the Majority.”
These are Robertson’s “Good Guys,” the “true Americans” who have been “dispossessed” by the “Bad Guys,” whom he terms the “liberal minority.” The most dangerous elements among the so-called “liberal minority,” according to Robertson, are African Americans and Jews. In his mind, African Americans are mindless adherents to 1960s-style “Black Power” ideology. Robertson claims Jews control the nation’s wealth, communications media, and artistic life, and thus are at the center of that supposed gigantic conspiracy that has kept from “the Majority” the knowledge that they have been “dispossessed.”
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The Dispossessed Majority is a slickly packaged mishmash of bad anthropology and even worse history. Robertson’s notion of “superior” and “inferior” races draws heavily on a few works published by the same extremist organization that published his book and ignores virtually all of the findings of modern, mainstream anthropology.
What I know about American history does not agree with Robertson’s story in any important particular. It is not that Robertson lies consistently to make his points; indeed, there are “facts” in the book. No, it is what Robertson does with those “facts,” his fondness for outdated interpretations, penchant for distortion, and habit of cloaking half-truths with the appearance of Holy Writ.
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In short, The Dispossessed Majority has so little to recommend it that none of you would willingly have paid for the book; perhaps that’s why it was sent to you for free! Like you, I wonder why this school was selected by Robertson’s backers for this dubious distinction. Was it because we pride ourselves on being a “Christian school” and the misguided zealots who publish Robertson’s book assume that graduates of an institution like ours will find this work appealing? Or, has someone in the parent body, or perhaps an anonymous “friend of the school,” paid to have Robertson’s bizarre version of “the truth” put into your hands, maybe out of a conviction that the view of the past you receive here is simply part of the grand “conspiracy of silence” described by the author?
It seems to me that Robertson’s tome, as worthless as it is, raises questions in at least three areas. First, to what extent do we who teach History actually aid and abet people like Wilmot Robertson who argue that only the “superior” Nordic or Aryan “races” have actually created “civilizations”? So long as we focus in our teaching of the past on “Western Civilization,” “European History,” or a version of American History in which all important achievements are made by white males, just so long will we give Robertson’s narrow, twisted perspective a degree of plausibility it does not merit. Like the society we are still trying to build in this country, the history we teach must include everyone, must not be the exclusive property of any single “race” or group.
The second area that concerns me is that of public policy during the Reagan-Bush era. To what extent does the gutting of social programs by President Reagan reflect a mindset similar to that of Robertson? And what about recent Supreme Court rulings against affirmative action programs handed down by a court which, thanks again to President Reagan, now has a slim conservative majority? The jury is still out on President George H.W. Bush, but, if the campaign that won him the White House in 1988 is any indication, things may not improve very much. (Remember the infamous “Willie Horton” ad that exploited white fears of black criminals? The trashing of the word “liberal” until it became something of an obscenity?) What message do these things send about the nature of the society we are trying to build?
Finally, I wonder about the sense of community here at our school. This, it seems to me, is an especially appropriate topic for discussion in a New Testament class. We are a Christian school, but not all of us are Christians, and even among Christians there are honestly held differences of opinion about theology. So, what do we mean when we describe this institution as a “Christian school”? Most of us are white, but some are not, and even among what Robertson might call this school’s “Majority” there is a lack of unanimity on just about any political, social, or moral question you care to name. On what basis do we build our community? Robertson assumes he can identify an “American type,” at home or abroad; can we recognize a “type” here, on campus or off, by how individuals look or by what they profess to believe?
These are questions worth wrestling with, especially in light of what we read in the New Testament. I only regret that it took a despicable book like Wilmot Robertson’s The Dispossessed Majority to get me to raise them here.
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[Postscript, January 2018: Reading through this manuscript recently, I was struck by how the venom spewed in Wilmot Robertson’s book in the 1970s and 1980s remains sadly relevant to our nation’s present political and cultural strife. In our era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” of Steve Bannon and “Breitbart,” of our President labeling (and libeling) the press as “enemies of the people,” Robertson’s tome would no doubt find an eager readership among members of at least one political party, at least those in it who support the President.
Yet, considering the almost daily appearance of even more outrageous statements from our public officials (especially one of them), statements that then become chum for social media sharks out there before being displaced by yet another outrageous pronouncement, perhaps The Dispossessed Majority too might quickly disappear without leaving a ripple, a fate it would richly deserve.
Nearly three decades ago, however, when Robertson’s book arrived–for the third time in six years, remember–at the doorsteps of our rising senior class, my son’s New Testament teacher asked me to furnish perspective, context for that volume, and I could not ignore his request.
Finally, I admire how the president of our school described Robertson’s work in a letter to members of my son’s class, the Class of 1990:
“In my opinion, shared by some faculty colleagues and many [or our] graduates who received the book, The Dispossessed Majority contains racist trash written by a known extremist.”]
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: