Despite the revolutionary principles of unalienable rights and representative democracy in America’s founding, and later the legal, political, economic integration of black citizens, slavery remains the US’s original sin. Even after a four year war to end human bondage, attempts at reconstruction, the end of legal segregation, the civil rights movement and great strides in granting and extending political rights and opportunity to African-Americans and communities, the legacy of slavery and the double standards within American democracy remain.
Democracy in the US has been built alongside exclusion and racism. In recent times, in cases like George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, social media has been able to expose the violence and cruel differences experienced by citizens who, in theory, live under the same government, the same laws and the same political system as others.
Throughout US history, fearing the implications of real democracy, political elites and powerful stakeholders have often manipulated laws and policies to advance their own motives and to maintain power.
To be sure, how the US even got to this point has not been a straight line, but the long arc of the US’s race problem to quote Martin Luther King Jr. ‘bends toward justice.’
America’s political system was created in a way that, often intentionally, disadvantaged African-Americans over its white citizens. The US constitution, praised for its protection of citizen’s rights, both codified slaves’ humanity and their exclusion. The ‘three-fifths compromise’ born out of the Constitutional Convention, counted slaves as partially human in order to boost the representation of southern states within Congress. Almost a century later, the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857 determined at the federal level that slaves were indeed property and not entitled to the same rights as non-black citizens. The end of the Civil War, and with it the abolition of slavery, brought change but ultimately did not transform the structures and power relationships that allowed the subjugation of black citizens.
The years after the Civil War, known as Reconstruction, appeared to be the beginning of a new America as Congress passed a number of amendments to expand voting rights and grant equal protection under the law. Understanding the need for proper representation and the ability to use voting as a means to create real change, black citizens began to organize voters, electing 16 African-Americans to serve in Congress during the Reconstruction era.
But these early victories were short-lived when former US president, Rutherford B Hayes, agreed to withdraw federal troops to secure southern votes during a contested election. In this instance, the democratic transfer of power failed to protect its most vulnerable citizens. The absence of troops allowed local leaders to reassert their control through instilling fear and developing means, such as poll taxes and literacy tests to systematically marginalize African-Americans politically.
Double standards of citizenship extended past the polling booth. Cruel gaps left in broad social safety nets created after the Depression further expanded the divide between America’s white and black citizens. The passage of the Federal Housing Act in 1934 allowed for government approved redlining and segregation of neighbourhoods while the Social Security Act of 1935 overlooked many black citizens by not expanding access to farmers and domestics. The GI Bill, intended to help veterans after World War II secure mortgages and stipends, left implementation to local authorities, ignoring systematic, intentional exclusion that would deny many African-American veterans access to benefits.
Throughout all of this, voter suppression remained the main means through which those who jealously guarded their privilege denied equal representation that could bring meaningful political change. Through violence, intimidation and legal barriers, even history’s repressors understood the power of democracy to shift the balance of power through the vote and took steps to exclude African-Americans from its power. The pattern remains to this day as many politicians continue to rely on thinly veiled efforts to suppress the minority vote by raising claims that creating barriers to voter participation protect electoral integrity.
State laws that require photo identification at polling stations disadvantages lower-income minority voters who might not be able to access state approved IDs. At the national level, almost 25 per cent of black citizens of voting age lack an official state ID, compared to 8 per cent of America’s white voting age population. America’s mass-incarceration of African-Americans and state laws that bar convicted felons from voting disproportionately affect minority voters. Gerrymandering, initially designed to increase representation of African-American voters, has now been manipulated to concentrate voters in certain districts and limit their broader representation, at the same time that it fuels political polarization. More recently, the 9th June primary election in Georgia saw a lack of suitable polling places in majority black neighborhoods, leading to wait times of over four hours while majority white areas experienced far fewer issues.
Disenfranchisement continues to be a roadblock in the struggle for inclusion and structural change, leading many to look to other means. But today, the country, the world, and many of those in power are being forced to confront national and historic waves of social protests and civil disobedience. The demonstrations have not been sparked over just one death and not simply in opposition to a specific administration, but rather in objection to a system that has systematically excluded and denied citizens the rights and equalities guaranteed in the US’s founding document. Protesters are demanding their share of democracy – the fulfilment of the promise of that constitution written 244 years ago.
Already we are seeing tangible result to protestor’s demands, as charges against the main officer involved have been escalated to second-degree murder and arrests made on the other three officers involved. But at the same time, the temporary suspension of Habeas Corpus in New York and the over-policing of protests around the nation raises the question as to whether the state and US citizens are willing to reconcile with their past involvement with systemic racism. Legislators and policy makers should view these protests as an affirmation of American democracy and an opportunity to right past wrongs. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, ‘I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.’
America has ignored the double-standards and unequal treatment of its African-American citizens. But now is an opportunity to build on the real progressive successes of the past to make racial equality a legal, political and institutional reality – not just for the victims and the children of the US’s original sins, but for all of those who live or aspire to live in democracies the world over.