How To Save Democracy Guide – Step #1: Learn the History of Systemic Racism and Inequality That America Was Founded Upon [Before Republicans Finish Banning/Burning All the Books About It]
‘America Rises’ Post #13: Tuesday, September 26th, 2023
Before we get into all the things we can do to help save American democracy in 2023 and beyond—we need to understand how we got to the present moment—in which it is on the precipice of collapse at the hands of:
The Republican Party, which is now a fascist personality cult led by a failed former reality TV host and lifelong criminal, and
A mainstream media that, in its pursuit of ratings, clicks, and money, is hell-bent on devoting equal coverage to “both-sides” of the political spectrum, despite the fact that only one side (the Democratic Party) has any interest in governing, legislating, or continuing our system of representative democracy while the other is a criminal enterprise that wants to end it, terminate the constitution, and implement an authoritarian state that outlaws any and all attempts to publicly criticize them (starting with the free press)
While we tend to think of democracy as a constant; a descriptive term for our republic that has existed since the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and has endured all attacks from those who’ve sought to destroy it and will inexorably continue to do so; this is perhaps the most insidious and dangerous of all misconceptions that continue to proliferate to this day. In order to fully understand the present moment, we need to truly comprehend the history of our democratic system, including how long it was in no way democratic at all.
Here are the three most crucial things to understand about American democracy:
American democracy has never been guaranteed; certainly not for all (and this was by design)
American democracy has never been—and still is far from—perfect/representative; and
America wasn’t a democracy until Black Americans succeeded in making it one
The most important factor in any democracy is who is allowed to vote and what ballots are counted. This is actually where I was initially planning to begin this piece. However, it was immediately clear that simply recapping the dates when people of color [Men: 1870] and women [White:1920; Black: 1970] attained suffrage in the U.S. was not sufficient to convey the centuries of struggle that these groups relentlessly fought to gain this most fundamental and quintessential right. And as much faith as I have in my own understanding of and ability to accurately and impartially summarize my knowledge of historical events, my recognition of my own place of white privilege has compelled me to draw from the work of other authors who have described it better than I likely ever could.
As Nicole Hannah Jones wrote in her essay for the 1619 Project, which examines the legacy of slavery in America:
The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4th, 1776, proclaims that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights. Without the idealistic, strenuous, and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.
As Jones describes, at the time the Declaration of Independence was written, one-fifth of the population within the 13 colonies that comprised the United States was not only denied the “inalienable rights” of voting, equality [of work, pay, marriage, social status, ability to own property, etc.], and anything even remotely resembling “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”; they were relegated to literal subhuman status based on their skin color and designated the property of white land-owning men. And while today’s Republican “leaders”—like failed 2024 Presidential candidate and disgraced governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis—would like you to believe otherwise, there were no benefits to being enslaved.
Here’s a good exercise for people like Ron DeSantis. Read the following passage from Jones’ essay and list all the “enslaved benefits” you can find [Spoiler Alert: There aren’t any]:
The system of Chattel slavery that existed at this time was brutal and unlike any that had been seen before it. It was not conditional, but racial. It was heritable and permanent, not temporary, meaning generations of black people were born into it and passed their enslaved status’ onto their children. Enslaved people were not recognized as human beings but as property that could be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold, used as collateral, given as a gift and disposed of violently. Jefferson’s fellow white colonists knew that black people were human beings, but they created a network of laws and customs—astounding for both their precision and cruelty—that ensured that enslaved people would never be treated as such. Enslaved people could not legally marry. They were barred from learning to read and restricted from meeting privately in groups. They had no claim to their own children, who could be bought, sold and traded away from them on auction blocks alongside furniture and cattle or behind storefronts that advertised “Negroes for Sale.” Enslavers and the courts did not honor kinship ties to mothers, siblings, or cousins. In most courts, the enslaved had no legal standing. Enslavers could rape or murder their property without any legal consequence. Enslaved people could own nothing, will nothing, and inherit nothing. They were legally tortured, including by those working for Jefferson himself. They could be worked to death, and often were, in order to produce the highest profits for the white people who owned them.
An honest accounting of American history is fundamental to our understanding of our nation today and its current system of government. And yet, the reality of systemic racism and the critical element of slavery itself in both the founding of this nation (which many historians argue—correctly—was a slavocracy rather than a democracy) continue to be sanitized of these atrocities for students across the country; to the detriment of us all. So this is where we must begin in order to make sense of where we currently find ourselves.
America was founded on a horrific system of racial subjugation, one that would continue unadulterated for another nine decades until half the country decided their “right” to own other human beings was a greater necessity than remaining a part of the Union; and even the North would only engage in the war in an effort to prevent the Confederate states from successfully seceding and splintering the nation and its economy in two. And even after the Civil War ended with the defeat of the Confederacy and slavery was abolished in 1865, ubiquitous racial subjugation, mutilation, segregation, and inequality would continue to the present day and be blamed on people of color at every step, just as Lincoln himself—while opposing slavery, never embracing racial equality—cast them as the obstacles to national unity.
As Jones wrote:
[Lincoln] believed that free black people were a “troublesome presence” incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people. “Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals?” he had said four years earlier. “My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.” With independence, the founding fathers could no longer blame slavery on Britain. The sin became this nation’s own, and so, too, the need to cleanse it. The shameful paradox of continuing chattel slavery in a nation founded on individual freedom, scholars today assert, led to a hardening of the racial caste system. This ideology, reinforced not just by laws but by racist science and literature, maintained that black people were subhuman, a belief that allowed white Americans to live with their betrayal. By the early 1800s, according to the legal historians Leland B. Ware, Robert J. Cottrol and Raymond T. Diamond, white Americans, whether they engaged in slavery or not, “had a considerable psychological as well as economic investment in the doctrine of black inferiority.” While liberty was the inalienable right of the people who would be considered white, enslavement and subjugation became the natural station of people who had any discernible drop of “black” blood.
The Supreme Court enshrined this thinking in the law in its 1857 Dred Scott decision, ruling that black people, whether enslaved or free, came from a “slave” race. This made them inferior to white people and, therefore, incompatible with American democracy. Democracy was for citizens, and the “Negro race,” the court ruled, was “a separate class of persons,” which the founders had “not regarded as a portion of the people or citizens of the Government” and had “no rights which a white man was bound to respect.” This belief, that black people were not merely enslaved but were a slave race, became the root of the endemic racism that we still cannot purge from this nation to this day. If black people could not ever be citizens, if they were a caste apart from all other humans, then they did not require the rights bestowed by the Constitution, and the “we” in the “We the People” was not a lie.
By the summer of 1865, the Civil War was over and four million black Americans were suddenly free. In diametric opposition to Lincoln’s view, the majority of them felt no inclination to leave. They agreed with sentiments of black leaders who had congregated several years earlier in New York, who stated: “This is our home, and this is our country. Beneath its sod lie the bones of our fathers…Here we were born, and here we will die.”
Jones underscores how the fact that the formerly enslaved did not take up Lincoln on his offer to abandon our nation is a true testament to their belief in its founding ideals:
As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “Few men ever worshiped Freedom with half such unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries.” Black Americans had long called for universal equality and believed, as the abolitionist Martin Delany said, “that God has made of one blood all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.” Liberated by war, then, they did not seek vengeance on their oppressors as Lincoln and so many other white Americans feared. They did the opposite. During this nation’s brief period of Reconstruction, from 1865 to 1877, formerly enslaved people zealously engaged with the democratic process. With federal troops tempering widespread white violence, black Southerners started branches of the Equal Rights League—one of the nation’s first human rights organizations—to fight discrimination and organize voters; they headed in droves to the polls, where they placed other formerly enslaved people into seats that their enslavers had once held. The South, for the first time in the history of this country, began to resemble a democracy, with black Americans elected to local, state and federal offices. Some 16 black men served in Congress—including Hiram Revels of Mississippi, who became the first black man elected to the Senate. (Demonstrating just how brief this period would be, Revels, along with Blanche Bruce, would go from being the first black man elected to the last for nearly a hundred years, until Edward Brooke of Massachusetts took office in 1967.) More than 600 black men served in Southern state legislatures and hundreds more in local positions.
Yet even after:
1.) The 13th Amendment formally abolished slavery in 1865
2.) The 14th Amendment granted African-Americans the rights of U.S. Citizenship in 1868, and
3.) The 15th Amendment FINALLY granted African-Americans the right to vote in 1870, stating:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
States still found ways to circumvent the Constitution and prevent black Americans from voting, including:
Implementing “poll taxes,” which required any person of color to pay an additional fee in order to exercise their right to vote. State legislatures understood that this would effectively disenfranchise a majority of black voters due to existing socioeconomic disparities that disadvantaged African-Americans.
Instituting “literacy tests,” requiring any person of color to demonstrate their ability to read in order to exercise their right to vote. State legislatures drafted these kinds of measures to exploit the existing educational gaps they knew disproportionately affected black Americans (especially considering that slaves had literally been forbidden from learning to read).
Routinely trying to intimidate black people from voting all across the country through public threats, hangings/lynching, and other displays of racist coercion.
Citing the completely fabricated “grandfather clause” as a way to keep the descendants of slaves (essentially all black people) from voting. Until finally struck down by the Supreme Court in 1915, states continued to cite this made-up “clause” which allegedly stipulated that “people of color could not vote unless their grandfather had voted.” This was super convenient for racists trying to keep black people from voting since it was more or less an insurmountable criterion for people whose ancestors were slaves and had the added benefit of being totally impossible for them to prove even if somehow they had been the grandchild of a voter.
Due to the perseverance and efficacy of these obstacles in keeping black people from voting at the state level, the fight for African-American suffrage continued well into the 1960s. It was not until then when many brave and passionate Americans protested, marched, were arrested, or even killed in their efforts to advance voting equality for people of color and eliminate Jim Crow laws that sought to keep them from exercising their most hard-fought and deserved constitutional right. In 1963 and 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously brought hundreds of black people to the courthouse in Selma, Alabama to register them to vote. When they were turned away, Dr. King organized and led protests that managed to turn the tide of American political opposition and pave the way for:
1. The 24th Amendment of 1964: Which prohibited the use of poll taxes across the country, and
2. The Voting Rights Act of 1965—the seminal Civil Rights law that served as the foundation of American voting rights law; dismantled most of Jim Crow; prohibited states from using literacy tests or other methods of racially targeted exclusion to disenfranchise voters of color; and appointed the Attorney General of the United States and the Department of Justice as arbiters to help ensure the right to vote for African-Americans was not infringed upon at the state level
The easiest way to understand how the Republican Party has waged war against American democracy over the last 58 years is to look at their incessant efforts to weaken and eradicate the protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Here's a thread that outlines the current ‘Chief Justice’ of the Supreme Court—John Roberts’—personal role in eviscerating its safeguards over the entire course of his career.
The success of Roberts’ and the GOP in undermining the Voting Rights Act’s protections against racist voting laws are what has effectively brought us to the present moment, in which our democracy hangs precariously by a thread, and we have a major political party (Republicans) unwilling to even accept the outcomes of elections and a Fourth Estate (GOP-owned mainstream media) that is determined to do everything possible to ensure its fall/demise through “both-sides”-ism and false equivalencies to confuse the electorate.
The good news is that:
1.) The fight isn’t over yet (far from it)
2.) Today’s Republican Party may be the party of racist voter suppression, gerrymandering, and disenfranchisement, but today’s Democratic Party is the party of protecting and expanding voting rights/equality (and it’s a battle we can win decisively in the next few years)
3.) House Democrats in the last Congress passed two critical measures to restore the portions of the Voting Rights Act that have been neutered by the GOP in their hostile capture and weaponization of the judiciary to literally rewrite the laws on—and circumvent the Constitution regarding—what is legally permissible in terms of restricting access to the ballot box on the basis of race. These included the ‘For the People/Freedom to Vote Act’ and ‘The John Lewis Voting Rights Protection Act.’ While these bills couldn’t pass a senate filibuster at the time, we can pass BOTH OF THEM when we retake the House (we will) and add ONE MORE SENATE SEAT in 2024 (we can).
4.) Democrats have an increasingly good chance of presiding over full control of both the legislative and executive branches of government for another few years beginning in January of 2025. If they are able to continue their current momentum, they can achieve this and undo the incalculable damage that the GOP has done to SCOTUS, Voting Rights, Women’s Reproductive Rights, and more in one fell swoop by:
Ending the godforsaken filibuster and allowing us to have a functional senate that can actually legislate on behalf of the majority of the American people that they represent
Expanding and rebalancing the Supreme Court to restore its legitimacy and end its capture by Federalist Society-implanted religious extremists (overturn Dobbs/Restore Roe; overturn Shelby County v. Holder/Restore the VRA)
Implementing term limits and a binding ethics code for all current and future Justices (Bye-bye, Clarence Thomas!)
Putting an end to money in politics (overturn Citizens United)
Ending partisan gerrymandering/racially-disenfranchising electoral maps
Granting statehood and congressional representation to the over 750,000 American citizens living in Washington, D.C. and the nearly 4 million living in Puerto Rico
Now that we’ve connected the dots from the past to the present, the next section of the Guide will help lay out everything you can do between now and the 2024 election to ensure that Democrats (and Democracy) both win big. Stay tuned!
Thanks for reading and have a great week!