Take Care and Protect Democracy are pleased to present this symposium on building a truly inclusive and multi-racial American democracy.
By Theodore R. Johnson | Senior Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice | @DrTedJ
Racism is an existential threat to our democracy and the American idea. At first blush, such a claim may seem alarmist – after all, framing an intractable issue as a threat to our existence has become so common in our political rhetoric that it borders on cliché. But the dangers that racial inequality pose to the stability of our system of government and the principles which undergird it are clear, present, and well-chronicled.
At the inception of the United States, racist views of the enslaved black population threatened to derail the American experiment before it got off the ground. Racial hierarchy was at the core of the only event to successfully break the Union – a civil war that resulted in more than a million casualties. And racism explains the historical oppression and exclusion experienced by racial minorities in the United States, from the violent removal of Native Americans and the internment of Japanese Americans to anti-black Jim Crow laws and racial profiling of Hispanic and Arab Americans.
The nation has undoubtedly made steady and significant racial progress, so much so that explicit racial prejudice is now socially unacceptable and a political taboo. But a closer examination of the more commonly discussed contemporary threats to our democracy – hyperpartisanship, economic inequality, and illiberal populism – reveals that racism is a common thread.
Racial sorting has accompanied the extreme polarization of our political parties, an electorally expedient occurrence due in large part to the implicitly racialized political rhetoric used to divide the citizenry into white and non-white blocs. This phenomenon is facilitated by playing on the fears of white citizens anxious about the nation’s changing racial demographics, a development perceived as a threat to their status in society and their attendant access to resources. Racial anxieties create conditions conducive to the rise of illiberalism and serve as an effective distraction from expanding economic inequality.
Overcoming racism, of course, does not mean that these other issues will simply fade away – they will require substantial attention on their own. Leaving racism unaddressed, however, does mean there is little hope that these other threats can be met successfully.
Racism, then, is a cudgel that beats back notions of a fully inclusive democracy responsive to the public, thereby clearing the path for political and economic elites to hoard power. It presents white America with a Faustian bargain in which maintaining its place in the racial hierarchy is exchanged for a government that is not truly of the people, by the people, or for the people – simply because more of those people are of color. In this way, though the United States may indeed endure as a geopolitical entity, racism reduces our democracy and the American ideals of liberty and equality to be little more than hypocritical doublespeak.
Given this present state of affairs, what can be done? Our best hope is the formation of a national solidarity. The word solidarity can sometimes be troublesome since it’s been used to describe several disparate concepts, from sympathy and friendship to labor protests and social unity. National solidarity is distinct; it is a combination of what philosophy scholar Sally Scholz describes as political and civic solidarities. In its civic interpretation, solidarity refers to “the obligations the state as a collective has to each citizen,” under the premise that a society suffers when some of its individuals are denied basic rights and necessities. The political conception of solidarity is characterized by the unity of individuals that arises in response to an injustice or oppression. As such, national solidarity is the political unity of a democratic people demanding, on moral and principled grounds, that the state address wrongs suffered by some of its members so that liberty, justice, and opportunity are equally accessible to all.
National solidarity is especially suited to the challenge of mitigating the impacts of racism in the United States. Properly functioning democracies require trust and a sense of mutual obligation to exist among citizens and between the state and the citizenry. Such trust can be more difficult to establish in multiracial and multiethnic societies, especially when historical and extant racial hierarchies erect barriers and ignite tensions within the citizenry. In her book Race and the Politics of Solidarity, political scientist Juliet Hooker notes that race creates physical and moral distance between citizens in a racialized polity such that the perspectives of groups are harmfully divergent. She argues that solidarity can be realized in these instances only when political obligations transcend the limits established by racial hierarchies. National solidarity is oriented toward this aim. It creates solidarity bonds between citizens across racial stratifications in order to ensure that a fuller, more complete experience of the American ideal is available to all.
The problems with creating national solidarity, however, are immediately evident: solidarity requires sacrifice by everyone in the constituency, both those subjected to injustice and those who benefit from it. Moreover, the incentive to establish this solidarity is inextricably tied to who is deemed responsible for redress and reconciliation. This latter point is instructive for the first. Today’s divisive racialized political rhetoric exploits the ruinous frame that racism in America is deliberately and maliciously perpetuated by white citizens against racial minorities, casting Americans of color as victims while shifting the sole responsibility of “fixing” racism to white people. In this construct, a gaping fault line emerges between white and non-white Americans—with the former feeling unfairly maligned for historical actions and the latter taking umbrage that those harmed by racism should be responsible for its eradication. Assigning blame is often a prerequisite for assigning responsibility, but this exercise is often so contentious and divisive that any notions of solidarity are blotted out by tribal bickering.
National solidarity enables a two-pronged attack on this blame-burden quandary. First, national solidarity declares racism is a crime of the state against the citizenry, and as such, the state is responsible for the remedy. It reframes racism from a white infraction of the rights and opportunities of people of color to one where the state is culpable. This shift moves the divisive debate of responsibility out of the citizenry and into the social contract space between the state and the public. In a political sense, it pronounces the whole of the American public has been exposed to the crime of racism and adversely impacted, to widely varying degrees.
But how, exactly, have white Americans been victimized by racism? This is explained by the second feature of national solidarity, which asserts that a united citizenry compels a more responsive democracy. As long as racism is permitted to set citizens against one another, everyone in the polity is harmed. There is little incentive for government to facilitate better schools, more affordable healthcare, more economic and employment security, more advanced and secure infrastructure, or any of the public’s costly policy priorities if they can be averted by simply exploiting racial divisions.
Various studies have noted that government is much more responsive to political elites and corporate interests than to the general public. So public policy tends to favor the former at the expense of the latter, which means the majority of white Americans’ expectations of government are largely unmet, too. Racism, however, mutes this dissatisfaction by reassuring white citizens’ of their relative position in society while also placing the blame for all that ails the country at the feet of citizens of color. National solidarity disrupts that sleight of hand by exposing the injustice and the losses that racism causes each of us to experience and that national power structures exploit.
There is one last major hurdle that must be cleared if national solidarity is to have a chance at creation: exactly what is the unifying principle that will establish bonds of kinship between citizens across racial lines? Being opposed to injustice is insufficient – there must also be a vision for the future.
Sociologist Robert Bellah’s exploration of an American civil religion fills this void. Civil religion is a sociological theory that suggests there’s a religious dimension to American civic and public life expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, sacraments, and rituals that serve to bind unlike people together. In effect, by each of us agreeing to become parishioners of sorts of the American civil religion, we have agreed to fight for a common vision of the future. The high-minded ideals of equality, liberty, justice, and opportunity become the basis for a shared identity consecrated in American cultural cornerstones – in documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; in rhetoric like Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech; in observances like Independence Day and Memorial Day; and in the political rituals such as the peaceful transfer of power on Inauguration Day.
As in traditional religions, civil religion is aspirational. It doesn’t require that practitioners adhere to every tenet without fail; only that each of us is oriented to the same goal and that we engage in collective action to move steadily in the same direction.
This is a lot. National solidarity demands a level of honesty, commitment, and forbearance that can feel unnatural to American sensibilities grounded in individualism, self-determination, and a bootstrapping work ethic. And it is far from straightforward – sociologist Philip Gorski notes that solidarity and civil religion can be hijacked for nefarious purposes. He cites radical secularism and religious nationalism as two especially dangerous variants that remove shared purpose and compassion from our liberal democracy and excuse violent and exclusionary ethnocentrism, respectively. We can certainly see this in our current political environment, from the use of public policy to deny rights and dignity to racial minorities to an increasingly visible current of white nationalism.
But racism is a wicked problem. There is no easy way through it or away from it. If left to fester, it will ultimately consume the nation and us along with it. Either we devise a way to achieve national solidarity, or our chapter in history will be a fable about the ephemerality of multiracial liberal democracies and naiveté about human nature.
Whatever the future of the United States holds, we have our say in what its next iteration will be. The nation does not benefit from permitting racial revanchism to take root and blossom along its political landscape. The work ahead is substantial, but the prospect of proving the possibility and viability of a multiracial, multiethnic democracy – as much for posterity as for our mark in the annals of history – should energize the nation’s continued progress toward overcoming the effects of racism.
Theodore R. Johnson is a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and author of the forthcoming book When the Stars Begin to Fall: Race, Solidarity, and the Future of America.