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Race, Democracy And Civic Engagement In U.S. History

Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. is not now and has never been a democracy.

While some may dismiss such a claim as semantic hyperbole or ancient history, it's worth remembering that the "Founding Fathers" (all men) created a patrician republic that constrained rather than encouraged popular participation.

Indeed, the U.S. Constitution of 1787 replaced a previous, more inclusive system of state governments organized under the Articles of Confederation.

The new supreme law of the land made its purpose clear: it extended slavery, banished indigenous peoples, ignored women, disfranchised workers, planned for conquest, and - intentionally - awarded disproportionate power to Southern white agricultural businessmen.

More than two centuries of fine-tuning have not confronted these traditions in a meaningful way.

The antidemocratic composition of the Senate and the Electoral College are just the clearest testaments to our unequal past. White Southern and rural men still cast votes that count more heavily than those of urban, coastal voters.

With the nation's demographics in flux and open white supremacy resurgent in the body politic, any hope for a new multi-ethnic democracy in America must grapple with the nation's true history. Legislators must identify and root out inequities based on race, ethnicity, and other constructed forms of difference. Policymaking should not be color-blind, nor should progressive advocates limit their attention to universal appeals. Rather, only direct, open discussion of our racial past and present will allow us to create wide-ranging new measures to promote equity - the key ingredient that allows people of all backgrounds to engage in a functioning, multicultural democracy.

Counterintuitively, this sweeping work begins with building democratic relationships within and across ethnic lines, through countless individual conversations on doorsteps, in living rooms, and at local community centers. The current attacks on democratic institutions are but symptoms of a deeper disease: the lack of full civic participation by the nation's ordinary residents.

* * * * *

Voting is a start, but democracy requires sustained engagement. The hard truth is that the largest political party in the U.S. remains the non-voter. In the just-concluded midterm elections of 2018, the "historic" turnout included just 49% of the voting-eligible population, as tabulated by Michael McDonald of the United States Electoral Project. Subtracting overseas voters and adding domestic non-citizens and felons, just 45.7% of the voting-age population cast ballots. Turnout is slightly better for typical presidential elections (though not much, as Nate Silver shows), yet the fact remains that our current political system does not reflect the democratic will of the majority. Most people stay home. Whether it's Obama or Trump, presidents win with the support of about a quarter of the nation's populace.

It is little surprise, then, that the laws enacted by elected representatives skew in favor of the few residents who are politically active, and even more so in support of the very few who donate substantial sums to campaigns. As the great community organizer Saul Alinsky and his disciplines posit, politics is fundamentally about power, that is, power in a neutral sense - the ability to do something (or, in Spanish, the verb poder). There are two ways to exercise power, they add, through organized money or organized people.

Corporations and subterranean Super-PACs represent examples of the former. Unions, voluntary associations, civil rights groups, religious institutions, neighborhood councils, and other community organizations are all ways of organizing large numbers of people to act. So, too, are political parties and clubs, though they tend to do so poorly, focusing on getting people to cast votes in the next election rather than building capacity for the long haul.

Much of our current mess is attributable to the fact that organized money steers our collective ship, while few institutions in our communities have enough well-organized people to provide a counterbalance in favor of democracy.

Those who wish to create a multi-ethnic democracy must come to grips with these facts. Our system doesn't work, by design. Voting isn't enough. Political parties fail to inspire the masses. And we have, for most of our history, lacked the organizational infrastructure to mount a substantive resistance.

* * * * *

Yet the building blocks for a new order exist within us - "We, The People." Throughout American history, ordinary residents have come together in small groups, developed a heightened sense of collective self-confidence, organized massive social movements, and upended the power relations of their times.

In the mid-19th century, formerly enslaved African Americans fled the South and joined with white progressives in countless local communities to make abolition the central issue in U.S. politics.

Neither political party cared about slavery, or at least, it was the "third rail" that threatened to divide their electoral coalitions. Yet a relatively small group of community activists, black and white, mobilized enough people and financial resources to transform the debate and, ultimately, to upend the entire political system of the era.

They gave birth to a new party and transformed Lincoln's goal of suppressing the South's rebellion into a sustained war to end slavery. African Americans abandoned the plantations en masse, gutting the Confederate economy and joining the Union war effort. After carrying the Union to victory, they joined with sympathetic whites to rewrite the South's state constitutions and to create, for a brief time, the closest thing to a biracial democracy that the U.S. has ever seen.

In this age of Reconstruction, freedmen and women steered regional and national politics and gave Dixie its first public school systems and social services. They also gave all us the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the greatest leaps toward democracy in American history.

Tragically, much of their work was reversed. State-sanctioned terrorism forcibly overthrew the biracial democratic governments. The plutocrats of the nation's two geographic sections reconciled their differences by agreeing to extend market capitalism to new territories.

In the South, the former Confederate planters and urban businessmen launched a new slogan, which they called simply "white supremacy," to win the allegiance of poor and working-class whites, whom they urged to prioritize their common racial identity over their distinctive class position.

When ordinary appeals failed, they used violence to quash dissent. Southern elites then made good on their campaign pledge by inventing Jim Crow, a new system that bestowed real privileges on white workingmen, reserving for them the best jobs, schools, housing, and services while also shoring up patriarchy.

Meanwhile, in the nation's Northern industrial core, big business took advantage of near-open borders to import millions of cheap laborers from across Europe.

In the American West, settler-colonists organized extractive industries and large-scale commercial farms, all but eliminating the indigenous population and then reaching south to Latin America and west across the Pacific for low-wage, racialized labor.

(Of course, "push" factors also contributed, as the poor, huddled masses of the globe exercised agency by leaving their homes, traveling thousands of miles, and carving out space for survival in the U.S.)

These migrations transformed the nation's ethnic and racial mix, but they did so on unequal terms. Asians were barred from naturalization, Native Americans were confined to reservations, and Latinos/as were subjected to "Juan Crow" and deportation.

The convict-lease system and sharecropping attempted to restore slavery in the South, and even in the North, African Americans confronted segregation.

By the 1920s, a few progressive reforms notwithstanding, racial capitalism pitted ordinary U.S. residents of all colors against each other and kept the vast majority of them in poverty - and outside the political system.

* * * * *

In the mid-20th century, a pair of insurgencies organized by ordinary citizens created the modern American state and exposed, but did not eradicate, its deep-seated racial inequities. Together they popularized the idea of a true, multi-ethnic democracy even as they proved unable to create it.

First, workers of all colors joined the labor movement of the 1930s, challenging decades of autocratic rule by corporations both on the shop floor and in their communities. They carried FDR into office and provided the muscle for his New Deals. Their votes allowed the liberals in Washington to create Social Security, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (cash assistance or "welfare"), and countless government agencies that propped up different sectors of the failing economy.

On the ground, black, latinxs and other workers of color - women and men - voted with their feet, flocking into the new unions and building vibrant community organizations as part of a larger assault on both white supremacy and economic insecurity. They flexed their political muscles and fought in World War II and on the home front.

Yet people of color benefited little from the largesse of the postwar order. By the 1950s, most of the good union jobs still went to "white" men, a category that now included the former "white ethnics" from Southern and Eastern Europe.

Federal FHA and G.I. Bill loans, along with state and local policies, subsidized the creation of lily-white suburbs that created wealth for the ballooning (white) American middle class while redlining black and latinx neighborhoods.

People of color did not receive Social Security or the other new welfare benefits available to white workers - as agricultural and domestic workers, often in the South, some 87% of black women were categorically excluded from the key supports established by the New Deal.

As political scientist Ira Katznelson and others have shown, the new federal programs amounted to affirmative action for whites. The birth of the modern American state ended up exacerbating rather than alleviating racial disparities.

The second insurgency, the civil rights movements of the 1950s to 1970s, challenged not just the segregation of public accommodations but the entire system of white supremacy - and the unequal privileges it bestowed.

African Americans, latinxs and other people of color demanded the extension of New Deal liberalism to the long-excluded. Civil rights activists sought economic justice and independent political power, the ability to not just sit next to a white kid or buy a hamburger, but to own the restaurant and have a voice on the school board. They canvassed their neighbors, built freedom schools, and held mass meetings in churches, fending off white terrorists, state repression, and federal indifference to finally bring a Second Reconstruction to America. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 ended legal discrimination in public spaces and even in private employment and housing. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and its extension ten years later, enforced the 15th Amendment for the first time in a century.

Still, winning formal rights did not translate into equity. Indeed, as activists sought to expose the effects of decades of Jim Crow and Juan Crow - built on top of centuries of genocide, slavery, and conquest - they hit a brick wall.

The newly enriched white middle class defended their privileged access to education, housing, and other services. They marched further into the suburbs, hoarded their tax dollars, and voted to restrict the gains of the civil rights movements. Afraid of racial unrest, they supported the bipartisan War on Crime that has since created a new era of U.S. white supremacy, what Michelle Alexander calls "The New Jim Crow." Too many "rights" for "minorities" threatened many whites' often unconscious position of relative privilege. There was a limit, it turned out, to how much democracy many Americans really wanted.

* * * * *

So where does that leave us today in the Age of Trump?

"Make America Great Again" depends on a healthy dose of historical amnesia. To create a multi-ethnic democracy, we must start by taking a clear-eyed look at the past.

This could take many forms, from rewriting the social studies and English/language arts standards of the nation's school systems to creating a broad-based Truth and Reconciliation Commission that builds upon the South African model.

Public spaces, monuments, and museums could tell the real tale of U.S. history, warts and all, instead of a triumphalist, settler-colonial narrative.

The nation could take seriously the decades-long calls for reparations for slavery and Native American removal. We could create an immigration system that recognizes the nation's historic need for immigrant workers and offers a speedy path to citizenship for anyone who wants it. We could combat sexual assault and remedy employment discrimination based on gender and sexuality. We could restore workers' right to organize unions.

All of these proposals may seem, at best, pie-in-the-sky, or, at worst, painfully academic in a moment of government assaults on basic civil liberties and rights (side note: such attacks are not at all unprecedented, but that is for another blog post). They are indeed impractical in a legislative sense. Yet viewing the history of American policy-making through the lens of race remains critical to our hopes for a democratic future. Most important, the successful true stories of ordinary people coming together to make our nation more equal offer a practical path forward for all of us.

Those who wish to foster a multi-ethnic democracy in America need to hit the streets, talk to their neighbors, build new voluntary associations, and yes, vote. They need to organize people, to create a new counterbalance to the organized money that has steered us into this ditch. Progressive advocates with resources should get out their checkbooks and support community organizing efforts in their own backyards. They should listen to and take their cues from the most vulnerable, most targeted people in their cities and states. Join Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights, labor, and other justice and solidarity organizations.

By coming together, we can pool our resources and canvass every house, building relationships across lines of difference that allow us to recruit and develop more leaders of all colors - the people who will hold the politicians and parties accountable to all.

If we don't, the non-voter will continue to dominate American politics, leaving us susceptible to demagogues who promise privileges for the few at the expense of the many.

Max Krochmal is the author of Blue Texas: The Making of a Multiracial Democratic Coalition in the Civil Rights Era (University of North Carolina Press) and teaches at Texas Christian University.


Comments welcome.


1. From Steve Rhodes:

Yet the building blocks for a new order exist within us - "We, The People." Throughout American history, ordinary residents have come together in small groups, developed a heightened sense of collective self-confidence, organized massive social movements, and upended the power relations of their times.

Isn't that what the Trump movement did? There's always a presumption among progressives that "the people" are on the left. I've long said, though, that if you want to know who "The People" are, go to Taste of Chicago. That's "The People." I don't mean that in a snobbish way (well, maybe), but I mean to say there isn't a bunch of sleeper lefties out there just waiting to be activated (any more than the black vote is progressive; it's largely on the conservative side of the Democratic Party, right where Bill Clinton, the Daleys and Rahm Emanuel found them.)


Posted on December 22, 2018

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