Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of law at New York Law School and a professor of history at Rutgers. She earned a place in history with her first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, which had an acclaimed but stormy reception when published in 1997, and which The New Yorker described as “brilliant.” She is recognized as one of our country’s most distinguished presidential scholars.Gordon-Reed spent her early career as an associate at Cahill Gordon & Reindel, and as Counsel to the New York City Board of Corrections. She speaks or moderates at numerous conferences across the country on history and law-related topics. Gordon-Reed is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, where she was a member of the Law Review. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and son.
Question: Was Jefferson a racist?
Gordon-Reed: Well, for one thing she was mixed race. He also says in the note on the [IB] white blood improves black people. So, right away she’s not in the category of an African. The other thing too is I know white people who are married to black people who don’t want their children to play with other black kids. They want their kids to identify with white. Now, that, there must be something there. I mean, they’re married to a black person but they have children who are half-black but they don’t want them to be in the black world. They prefer them to be in a white world. So, you know, the nature of relations between couples, between men and men or women and women or men and women is very, very strange territory. I mean, a lot can be reconfigured to make people, to put people in situations where on the outside it doesn’t look like it made sense, but to these two people, to the person it make sense. So, I think it’s possible to be racist and like individual black people, I know black people who don’t care for white people in general, but like individual white people because everybody, every human being recognizes that there are exceptions. So even if you have a general view about a group of people, there are always [what room] to fit, you know, Betty or Bob in here because they’re not really like those other people, you know, and it’s, and you seat back and you look at it and you go, wow, that’s… don’t you understand the sort of practical affect of what you’re doing how illogical that is. But, you know, I don’t think that being a racist means that either a black racist or white racist doesn’t mean that you can’t see a person in another race and form some kind of connection to them.
Question: How far have we come since the 1780’s?
Gordon-Reed: We’ve come a long way but we haven’t come this far as we like to think that we have come. If you’re looking at the newspaper these days on that question of race and people’s attitudes about blacks, I think, I view it as and this may be my rationalization, Jefferson is born in1743 and his understanding of race and lots of things was primitive. I mean, it really was, I mean, I can be astounded by how he felt in the kind of the things that he expressed and I talked about him and John Quincy Adams and other people who, you know, said these incredibly racist things, but I much more… my mind boggles more at people today who after all that we’ve learned, I mean, there is this wonderfully expressive statement about Jefferson that someone made when some sort of commemoration of his death, maybe 10 years afterwards and it may have been more than 10 years ‘cause the person said, you know, he was the man who never saw a train and you get a sense of what you’re dealing with here. You’re dealing with someone, they don’t know what causes yellow fever. I mean there all kind of things that they just don’t know. And so, I can put him in perspective on race given the state of knowledge about things at that time. There were some people who were racially enlightened but there were, you know, we can pick out the 6 or 7 people that you can find to do that, but I’m worried about, I mean you think about people in the 21st century who have the same kind of attitude no matter, I mean, despite all that we’ve learned between Jefferson’s time and our. So, I don’t, I mean, I don’t know that we’re in that much of a position to really look down on him on that point because we haven’t overcome this yet and we’ve had far more opportunities than he had in order to do that.
Question: Does racism follow geography?
Gordon-Reed: It’s interesting, I mean, I grew up in the South. When I take my kids down to Texas, East Texas, which is very much of the South. They’re New Yorkers and so they have a whole set of preconceptions about this and they’re nervous and so forth. I don’t think it’s geographic. I don’t think it’s… I think it can exist anywhere, I mean, their problems with race anytime that apparently if the problem tends to be the numbers of blacks that if the numbers of blacks get to a point where people feel threatened or whites feel threatened, it can be a problem. I think that’s more geographic where there’s North or South it’s really demographics. How many blacks are on a given place? I mean, you noticed that with the election when their, during the primaries when Obama did very, very well in states where there were almost no black people, he did well in states where there were lots of black people who could deliver black voting. He did the poorest when there was a good number of black people but not enough to black vote to affect the outcome. So, it’s really not North or South, it’s whether how many black people are in a particular area do you see if there’s likely to be racial tension and likely big problems.