I presume the decision by the U.S. Postal Service leadership didn’t sound like a difficult one, especially in 2022. In Montpelier Station, Virginia, a post office was operating in a building where signs reading “White” and “Colored” hung over two separate doors. The signs were a historical artifact, and were intended to direct visitors to an exhibit about historical racial segregation that was co-located with the post office, which had a separate entrance.
Earlier this summer, the Postal Service suspended operations at the building, where it had offered services since 1912. “Postal Service management considered that some customers may associate the racially-based, segregated entrances with the current operations of the Post Office and thereby draw negative associations between those operations and the painful legacy of discrimination and segregation that marked prior historical eras,” USPS explained to the Washington Post. The exhibit remains open, but about a hundred local residents in Orange County, Virginia now have to travel a bit further to get their mail.
Yet there was more acute indignation, and from a source likely surprising to the Postal Service. “It is crucial that the nation’s institutions ensure they are not tuning out the past,” declared a subsequent 19 August editorial by the Washington Post. “That’s why the U.S. Postal Service was wrong to close a stamp-size post office at a century-old former train depot in rural Virginia, a quaint building it shared with a small museum on Jim Crow segregation.” The editorial board censured the Postal Service for being “historically tone-deaf,” and being afraid of “a theoretical protest,” leading it to “ben[d] over backward to avoid a hypothetical controversy.”
Label me, and I presume USPS leadership nonplussed. For if I was a government bureaucrat trying to avoid any controversy that might provoke the ire of anti-racist ideologues, I would have thought distancing a post office from any possible connection, real or imagined, to segregation, would be welcomed with the appropriate woke applause. Moreover, it’s not as if the anti-racist crowd ever tire of finding new targets — not only have they vandalized and toppled statues, but they’ve pursued endless campaigns to rechristen roads, schools, and community colleges. And imagine the derogatory headline: “Post Office in Predominantly White Rural Virginia Still Has ‘White’ and ‘Colored’ Signs.” Sure, that would be a gross misrepresentation, but if we are talking about anti-racist activist messaging, most of their claims are misrepresentation.
I can anticipate a woke retort: in a museum, it’s acceptable to feature artifacts from the Jim Crow or antebellum eras, but it’s verboten in public places where one might interpret the artifacts as honoring the legacy of segregation, slavery, the Confederacy, etc. But even in the post office example, those lines weren’t perfectly clear — a federal office was located in a building with segregationist signage out front! That aside, the delineation still doesn’t hold — there are people regularly attacked by the anti-racist mob for doing things as innocent as handing a black child a piece of cotton during a tour of the Virginia governor’s mansion.
We are living in strange times, in which even public schools named after Thomas Jefferson and George Mason have been renamed because of their association with slavery. Earlier this year the Washington Post published an op-ed calling for George Washington University to be renamed. “Every day, hundreds of Black students walk on a campus named after an enslaver of men and study at a site named after dark parts of history,” the op-ed author claimed. In an era in which activists attack the brave, brilliant men responsible for securing our most treasured freedoms, nothing associated with our nation’s past is safe from repudiation.
An overwhelming majority of prominent American historical figures in one way or another are implicated in some way in segregation or slavery. Cities, countries, schools, streets, public buildings all venerate men that the liberal academy and media now detest as perpetuating “the patriarchy” and “white supremacy.” Anyone who resists this obsession with anti-racism, no matter how strong their credentials within liberal institutions, risks their reputation and career.
Just look at how quickly James H. Sweet, president of the American Historical Association, recanted his concern that historians were succumbing to presentism. “The allure of political relevance, facilitated by social and other media, encourages a predictable sameness of the present in the past,” Sweet warned. He quickly changed his tune, after the woke mob in the academy came for him: “Once again, I apologize for the damage I have caused to my fellow historians, the discipline, and the AHA. I hope to redeem myself in future conversations with you all. I’m listening and learning.” If there was any doubt that the academy has been overwhelmed by Marxist radicals, Sweet’s shameful self-recrimination should put that to rest.
In an ideological climate like this, no one should be surprised that the Postal Service sought to distance themselves from a historical artifact that could potentially be used as a cudgel with which to beat any white males currently in its senior leadership. America does its history via emotion, not reason or reverential humility towards our patrimony (even the word patrimony is a bit too patriarchal, don’t you think?). Today anyone can claim to be offended, or marginalized, or dehumanized by anything, even something as innocent as a street corner in an upper-middle-class suburb, rental listings, or the use of plantations as wedding venues.
There is no rational retort to accusations of racism in a paradigm defined by emotivism, as Alasdair McIntyre expertly explained in his epochal 1981 book After Virtue. In a society that has jettisoned a coherent conception of reason in favor of sentiment, the only acceptable response to such an accusation is only more intense emotive counter-assertion. Hence the risible character of so many contemporary controversies, where people seek to outmaneuver each other to secure “most victimized” status, which, counterintuitively, means you achieve the most accolades and opportunities (see the celebration of pseudo-historian Nikole Hannah-Jones).
The editorial board of the Washington Post called on the Postal Service to reverse its decision regarding the little post office in rural Virginia, demanding that USPS “squarely face history.” Yet the methods and narratives our elite institutions now employ to do history is anything but square. It is a confounding mess, an impenetrable maze, and an intellectual straight-jacket from which even well-meaning white liberals cannot escape, based as it is not on the search for truth (and a deferential respect for the past), but politicized grievance against “power structures.” Does it even matter what the Postal Service does? Either way, the ideologues will call it racist.
Note: The views expressed on abbevilleinstitute.org are not necessarily those of the Abbeville Institute.