Race and the American Creed
Recovering black radicalism
Race in the United States is marked by a fundamental paradox. On the one hand, there has been considerable progress: segregation enforced by the rule of law is a thing of the past, and segregation at the level of mainstream culture, though persistent, is considered a scandal. On the other hand, today’s postracial America of Kimye and Pharrell is still the era of the New Jim Crow and entrenched black poverty. Diversity in elite universities exists alongside de facto residential segregation, and a black president administers a minority-dominated prison system.
The intensity of this paradox—of superficial equality amid widespread deprivation—has sustained a year of protest. It has drawn activists’ attention toward questions not of intentional bias—the Bull Connors of the 1960s, the Donald Trumps of today—but of structural racism. This turn to structure is evident everywhere. Where Ta-Nehisi Coates once presented Obama’s election as the culmination of the civil rights movement, completing the legacies of Martin and Malcolm, he now calls for reparations for slavery and presents white supremacy as constitutive of the republic. For Coates and countless others, racism is now about deep-rooted hierarchies, the living legacies of centuries of economic exploitation and state-sanctioned violence that have endured despite the end of legal discrimination.
Two rhetorical features made this story powerful. One is that it united the pursuit of racial equality with a defense of American power.Tweet
The emphasis on structure speaks to a remarkable development in American public discourse. Today, the “creedal” story of national identity—according to which the United States has been committed to the principle that “all men are created equal” from the time of its founding, and our history can be viewed as a steady fulfillment of this idea—finds itself in profound crisis. This story has been unmasked, not for the first time, by the problem of race. So has the vision for reform with which it is associated—the steady opening of equal opportunity to all. The creed is so central to American identity that it has become difficult to imagine an alternative, similarly grounded in a strong political tradition. Finding and defending such a tradition is the difficulty of the present moment, but also its promise.
During the time of the American Revolution, racially egalitarian views were extremely rare. The prevailing sentiment was that non-Europeans (and, to an extent, European Catholics) were unfit for citizenship. Though the creedal story is taken for granted as central to American identity, it only began to spread among whites with the onset of the Civil War. Following 19th-century abolitionists, Abraham Lincoln recast the Declaration of Independence not as a long list of grievances against a distant monarch but as a promise embodied above all in the single proposition that “all men are created equal.” For Lincoln, this statement expressed the ethical basis of the country. The immediate consequence of Lincoln’s rhetoric was to change the way many whites conceived of the Civil War. The war became more than a dispute about the ability of states to maintain and expand the reach of slavery; it became a struggle over whether a nation “conceived in Liberty” and “dedicated to the proposition” of equality could “long endure.” But while Lincoln did more than anyone else to introduce the creedal conception of American citizenship, he himself hesitated to extend these arguments beyond ending slavery. Up to the time of his assassination, Lincoln remained some kind of segregationist, suspicious of black voting rights and continuing to imagine black emigration abroad—the Liberia solution—as an answer to racial conflict.
It was Frederick Douglass who took the creedal story to its logical conclusion. In the aftermath of the Civil War and in the midst of Reconstruction, Douglass began to argue that the purpose of American history had been from the very beginning to create the first truly “composite” nation on earth. “Our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds,” he declared in 1869. As he saw it, different racial communities had been “gathered” together in the United States “from all quarters of the globe by a common aspiration for national liberty.” Their actions, motivated in part by the country’s founding tenets, its “organic structure,” created the promise of nothing less than the first truly universal polity—a “home . . . not only for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races,” but for all groups everywhere.
Our political leaders, when confronted by sustained institutional failures on race, can only respond by once more invoking the old story.Tweet
With the defeat of Reconstruction, these arguments returned to the margins. Most whites across the country enthusiastically reaffirmed white supremacy and the erection of Jim Crow laws in the old Confederacy to enshrine those whom Woodrow Wilson, in 1901, called the South’s “real citizens.” What ultimately turned public opinion in favor of the creedal story was the emergence of the US onto the global stage. The country became a world power at the beginning of the 20th century, at precisely the moment that Europe’s colonial empires were beginning to crack. As early as World War I, even die-hard segregationists like Wilson began to reclaim Lincoln’s arguments to explain what made America different from Europe. European powers may have treated foreign countries as sites of racial and economic exploitation, but the United States, Wilson argued, had always operated according to a principle of universal self-government, one that applied to all communities regardless of color. Although American elites were hostile to anticolonial movements and pursued brutal counterinsurgencies in places such as the Philippines, they recast these interventions in (spuriously) anti-imperial terms: the US was providing necessary tutelage in constitutional government before allowing for eventual self-rule.
The war with Nazi Germany pushed these creedal claims further to the political center, with politicians and commentators increasingly presenting antiracism and the open society as the heart of American identity, distinguishing the country from its totalitarian enemies. The Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal offered the most famous articulation, declaring in An American Dilemma that “the nation early laid down as the moral basis for its existence the principles of equality and liberty.” Myrdal argued that, although racist and archaic practices may have continued to persist in pockets—or entire regions—of the country, these practices were incompatible with national values. “The main trend” in American history was “the gradual realization” of what he called “the American Creed.” So pure were the country’s founding motives that America could be seen, at its core, as nothing less than “humanity in miniature.”
Two rhetorical features made this story powerful. One is that it united the pursuit of racial equality with a defense of American power. Because domestic politics were built on universal values, the defense of those values from outside threats and the projection of them abroad could be seen as a good beyond question. As Myrdal contended, Americans stood “warmheartedly against oppression in all the world.” The creed gave an account of the justness of American security prerogatives and provided the ideological foundations for the “American Century.”
Just as important, the creed went hand in hand with an image of reform that was expansive enough to speak to black civil rights leaders but narrow enough to appear nonthreatening to national-level white politicians and their constituents. This difficult achievement was possible because the creed recast political reform as fundamentally redemptive: it depicted racial equality as achieving a set of ideals present since the founding of the republic. This model of reform rejected the need for any fundamental break with the past, since greater liberty could be interpreted as a continuation of the arc of American history rather than a radical correction of its course. Rather than restructuring the fabric of American society, the purpose of reform became to make existing goods more broadly accessible—to end formal discrimination, to provide equal opportunity to worthy elements within the black community, to eliminate all glass ceilings based on race or gender.
Today, the idea of creedal reform still has real power. It is, for instance, bound up in the logic of the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, which explicitly conceives of the struggle for gay and lesbian equality as a project of inclusion—of extending to a previously excluded community a basic universal right. The Constitution, Justice Kennedy wrote, grants nothing less than “equal dignity in the eyes of the law” to all Americans, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. More than anything else, however, creedal reform has been tied to the idea of the inevitability of racial progress. For more than half a century, the proof that American history has a particular direction has been grounded in claims about the overcoming of both slavery and segregation.
But fifty years after the great achievements of the civil rights movement, the black condition continues to be one of “poverty amid plenty,” to use Martin Luther King’s words. This is a problem that the creedal redemptive agenda has shown itself unequipped to address. Our political leaders, when confronted by sustained institutional failures on race, can only respond by once more invoking the old story, a mantra to ward off scrutiny. In 2008, Obama famously declared in his Jeremiah Wright speech that it was a “profound mistake” to fixate too exclusively on the history of oppression and to believe that the country was “still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.” For him the whole arc of American experience pointed to the steady completion of its founding promise: “this union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.” In the face of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray—and the conditions in Ferguson and Baltimore—Obama continues to repeat the same refrain, as he did at Selma, where he described the civil rights movement as a “manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents”—one that linked King back to Thomas Jefferson and moved the country closer to “our highest ideals.” Obama’s narrative about race isn’t far removed from George W. Bush’s 2001 inaugural claim that, “the American story” is a “story of a flawed and fallible people, united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals. The grandest of these ideals is an unfolding American promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, that no insignificant person was ever born.”
The creedal story has hardly been this country’s only way to talk about race and reform. During and after the Civil War, many African Americans, particularly ex-slaves in the rural South, believed that effective freedom could not be achieved without a fundamental and wholesale re-founding. As the black poor of the South saw it, the war’s end would create a millennial rupture in which deliverance would come through explicit and revolutionary change. Rumors swept through the countryside in the fall of 1865 that Christmas would bring a “Jubilee” in which past wrongs would be made right and the land turned over to its legitimate inheritors. As with other millenarianisms, the dreamed-of future amounted to a political demand in the present. And what freedpeople demanded was a transformation in the structure of Southern society. They believed that through federal action or, barring that, armed black insurrection, ex-slaves could gain control of the land they had worked and lived on. In the words of one black farmer (quoted in Steven Hahn’s history A Nation under Our Feet), “Our wives, our children, our husbands, has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates on,” and for this reason, “We has a right to [that] land.” After all, “Didn’t we clear the land and raise de crops. . . . And den didn’t dem large cities in de North grow up on de cotton and de sugars and de rice dat we made?”
Twentieth-century black radicals thus imagined revolutionary reform in terms of decolonization.Tweet
Questioning the place Lincoln gave to slavery in his story of national identity, these freedpeople saw slavery not as a moral evil obstructing an otherwise just polity from fulfilling its founding principles but as an essential part of the country’s economic and political structure. In this view, the material progress enjoyed by white Americans was based on the coercion and control of the subordinated. Gradual civic inclusion through the creed could not solve the problem of American slavery; as long as governing relations of private property and sovereign power remained undisturbed, the United States would be free only in name.
No Jubilee came. But revolutionary reform persisted as a powerful language of black emancipation. Throughout the 20th century, black radicals and their constituencies argued that American society was based on irreconcilable conflicts between empowered and oppressed groups. Barring some kind of fundamental redistribution of power, they considered any aspirational identification with the nation and its institutions to be willfully blind to the nation’s true structure. This tradition—stretching from Hubert Harrison, Paul Robeson, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Claudia Jones to Malcolm X, James Boggs, and Angela Davis—held that African Americans owed their allegiance first and foremost to the subordinated group of which they were members, rather than to a suspect ideal of a coherent, harmonious, creedally unified national community.
As the 20th century progressed, the dominant language of this revolutionary tradition linked racial equality in the United States to anticolonial struggles abroad, presenting the black relationship to white society as akin to that of colonized peoples to imperial forces in the so-called third world. For black radicals, locating their own experience within global histories of colonialism directly challenged the creed. The idea of an untainted core identity, built on the claim of universal equality, did not make sense once one acknowledged the extent to which the US had always been an extension of European empire. The creed suggested that what made race the “American dilemma” was the way in which racial inequality contradicted the US’s postcolonial identity: its status, according to Seymour Martin Lipset, as “‘the first new nation,’ the first colony, other than Iceland, to become independent.” But for Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, writing in their book Black Power, all of this creedal mythmaking obscured the fact that there was “no ‘American dilemma’ because black people in this country form a colony, and it is not in the interest of the colonial power to liberate them.” America’s political institutions had been structured not around racial equality but hierarchy. Local participatory government and federal constitutional protections were designed to provide those racially included as “white” with economic and political self-government. To support this, the force of the state’s coercive apparatus had been imposed on native peoples and subjugated nonwhite groups to extract land and labor for whites. In this way, as black radicals recognized, the struggle of nonwhite groups in the American interior was much like the struggle of nonwhite groups around the world. As Carmichael and Hamilton put it, the “institutional racism” of the domestic United States ought to be known by “another name: colonialism.”
Twentieth-century black radicals thus imagined revolutionary reform in terms of decolonization. Independence movements in the third world were in the midst of fighting to transfer economic and political power from imperial elites to the historically colonized, and the same kind of transfer was necessary in the US. Black radicals recognized that the analogy did not fit perfectly: America was a settler colonial enterprise, in which European colonists had wrested political supremacy and land from native peoples, building a white society in a corner of the nonwhite world. This meant that unlike in most parts of Asia and Africa, American decolonization could not take place through the elimination of a relatively thin layer of imperial administrators. The different social positions of African Americans (with their history of enslavement) and native peoples (with their experience of expropriation and extermination) spoke to the real complexities of overcoming settler colonialism. Although caught up in the same colonial predicament, blacks and Native Americans were located in collective life in profoundly distinct ways—the former as a coerced labor supply and the latter as competing and separate polities on the same territorial land mass. Freedom necessarily entailed different things for each group.
Black radicalism didn’t simply recede, of course; American political elites confronted and defeated it by force.Tweet
Nevertheless, focusing on the similarities between the US and the third world was a conceptual breakthrough, promoting solidarity among oppressed peoples and allowing black activists to think through which decolonizing practices were appropriate to the American context. By the late 1960s, black radicals and their allies in the indigenous, Latino, Asian American, feminist, and student movements had coalesced around an agenda— creatively adapting the policies of Asian and African independence movements—that combined the language of decolonization with a concrete project of social reconstitution. Though varying from group to group, there were consistent calls across organizations and movements: for (1) creating commissions to uncover the truth about historic crimes against native and other nonwhite peoples and, in some cases, pursuing legal prosecutions; (2) imposing reparations, especially for the theft of indigenous land and the use of coerced labor; (3) universal economic rights and redistribution to the historically oppressed, including the provision of free food, housing, clothing, and medical care, as well as full employment and a guaranteed income; (4) constitutionalizing meaningful indigenous sovereignty (native control over decisions affecting their land and natural resources); (5) significant reforms to the criminal-justice system, including prison abolition and community control of the police; and, finally, (6) engaging in conscious acts of symbolic and institutional refounding, whether renaming localities and landmarks, creating new flags, or even, as with the Black Panthers’ call for a Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention, the writing of new governing documents.
Over the past four decades, this account of revolutionary reform—and its political presence—all but vanished from the mainstream political landscape. It did not disappear all at once: traces of black internationalism were visible at the edges of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s, and in the intense African American opposition to Reagan-era counterinsurgencies in Central and Latin America. Many members of revolutionary groups entered electoral politics and, of course, the academy.
Still, over time, the tradition receded. The identification between African Americans and the third world steadily dissipated. Previously hallowed figures like Kenyatta and Nkrumah turned toward authoritarianism, and wars broke out among once-friendly nonaligned and Communist nations, undermining the broader hopes associated with Bandung. For all its flaws, redemptive reform—and the mainstream creedal narrative—produced real legal and cultural change, even as it left American economic structures largely untouched. Through the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, despite the persistent disparities between black and white society, it remained plausible for many Americans—mostly whites, naturally, but many others as well—to see the gradual overcoming of race as the inherent truth of the American experience.
Black radicalism didn’t simply recede, of course; American political elites confronted and defeated it by force. Starting in the 1960s and escalating over the next decade, black radicals faced infiltration and an extreme crackdown from the state security apparatus, leaving their organizations decimated and engulfed in internal recrimination. Their leaders were assassinated, imprisoned, or forced into exile. For all the worries (then and today) over black militancy and violence, African American discourses of self-defense were above all just that—debates over self-defense, how to respond to a systematic state project of repression. And the reality of this repression underscores something deep about the radical tradition: it embodied a profound and explicit challenge to existing arrangements, and as a result faced the full brunt of state power. The pushback operated through violence and through the perpetuation in schools and public commentary of a specific, official retelling of the past—one built to uphold the creedal story and to defame its ideological competitors.
The creedal narrative thus persists in a country where historical memory has been fractured and the vibrant, radical imagination of the past forcibly shuttered. In addition to witnessing the birth of a new social movement, this last year of protest has revealed how ill-equipped our current national narratives are for engaging with the structural meaning of racial subordination. The main initiatives the Obama Administration has devised in response fall back on old creedal assumptions: they emphasize police training and greater professionalization in ways that would embody color-blind “law and order,” or turn to programs like My Brother’s Keeper that seek to give, as one White House official put it, “every young man of color who is willing to work hard and lift himself up an opportunity to get ahead and reach his full potential.”
What we are witnessing is one way that defenders of the creed are coming to grips with its internal crisis.Tweet
Given the hollowness of the creedal imagination, the growing radicalism of a new generation of activists feels inevitable. In everything from calls for reparations to attacks on the Confederate flag to arguments about mass incarceration, these activists are reconnecting to the black radical tradition—opening doors that have been closed for decades. This is a profound development, particularly for activists’ reengagement with a politics of national disavowal and revival of arguments against the carceral state. In many ways, the figure who has come to embody both positions in the current discourse is Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose political disillusionment is best exemplified in his stark statements to his son (“We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America”).
But one problem with Coates’s version of black radicalism is that at times—more in his book Between the World and Me than in his political interventions in the Atlantic—he depicts disillusionment in individual terms. That book in particular conveys little of the communities of solidarity African Americans belong to, or of how things like reparations ground a shared social vision of the future. Instead, Coates combines radical rejection of polite society with a personal notion of resistance, in which “struggle” is presented as the individual’s ethical refusal to comply with the totalizing injustice of racism and its structures. What is missing is a collective sense of action, let alone of the possibility of transformation through such action. We are left in the world of either overwhelming and oppressive institutions or isolated individuals of conscience.
The force of Between the World and Me can be too easily contained. Precisely because Coates imagines isolated individuals in the face of totalizing oppression, one can walk away from the book feeling that real change—rather than just window dressing—is out of reach. And for this reason, the book’s sensibility can have the odd effect of buttressing the very institutions it condemns. This form of creedal rejection can be neutered publicly through praise: treated by those like David Brooks as “hard truths,” but truths that by their very profundity may be too difficult to overcome. The consequence is a mainstream (especially liberal) culture that laps up the attack and even accepts the structural dimension of race at the same time that it abandons fundamental racial reform as ultimately hopeless.
What we are witnessing is one way that defenders of the creed are coming to grips with its internal crisis. Perhaps the problem is not with the creed at all, but with race itself—an issue so fraught and overwhelming as to be impossible to address adequately. Even the failures of the creed therefore speak to the heroism of the American project—which takes as its goal a truly Sisyphean task. In this way, racial pessimism can be absorbed into the narrative, and actually prop up a weakened creed. If getting from here to there is more or less beyond collective effort, and all we have is a position of ethical resistance and noble struggle, then political elites can feel guilt and torment at the continuing force of racial subordination. But they do not need to believe that their own practices have much effect, let alone make matters worse. Since this “union may never be perfect,” to use Obama’s phrase, maybe all that can be expected is to muddle along as best we can.
The hope for black radicalism today is that the present mood can develop into an account of state, economy, and society strong enough to counter the creedal narrative. Recent initiatives, like Campaign Zero, have put forward valuable concrete ideas for police reform—but these demands must be combined with a more expansive and prefigurative politics. Activists must do no less than imagine and present their policy prescriptions, as did earlier generations, as a competing ideal of liberation, solidarity, and renewal. Without a comparable ideal, it is incredibly difficult to counter even a weakened creedal story, let alone the patchwork of reactive policy initiatives proposed by liberal centrists—such as body cameras, a handful of high-profile prosecutions, and sensitivity training for officers.
What tangible changes, if achieved in the real world, would make it difficult for the existing social order to reproduce itself and provide supporters a fighting ideal? In the ’60s, for everyone from Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph to Huey Newton, the solution lay in reform tools that had the same irruptive capacities as the 19th-century call for an eight-hour day. Full employment, a guaranteed income: these were—and are—policies that would dramatically reshape the authority and independence that marginalized groups have over their economic lives. In calling for these changes, black radicals all linked race to capitalism and embraced economic democracy as a defining aspirational commitment. They did not fall into the old labor presumption that race could be reduced to a problem of class (revisited in the debates around the Bernie Sanders campaign). But they did recognize—as rural ex-slaves had all the way back in 1865—that black freedom would require a social transformation that would uproot American political economy itself.
Prison abolition is another irruptive reform tool. What black radicals saw at a more incipient stage is today full-blown: the penal system is not exclusively a matter of race but also the way that the American state deals with endemic problems of poverty. Against the backdrop of joblessness and intense structural inequality, prison is perhaps the central institution for the management of the poor: 70 percent of those in state prisons don’t have high school diplomas. Ending the carceral state not only challenges racial subordination but undermines the way that the state has evolved to contain economic dependency and dispossession.
Now is the time to reassert the full tradition of revolutionary reform.Tweet
And as for internationalism, this was not just a political accessory for black radicals, but went to the very core of their notions of community. According to the black anticolonial vision, as long as people of color continued to believe powerful white conationals somehow shared their interests, their movements would always face co-optation and eventual defeat. African Americans, they argued, had to form political alliances in ways that cut against ingrained and nationalist presumptions. This is what motivated the Panthers to demand that “reparations should be made to oppressed people throughout the world, and we pledge ourselves to take the wealth of this country and make it available” for colonized communities globally.
The feasibility of this call is less interesting to me than the underlying sentiment: a belief that national wealth belongs to marginalized groups regardless of citizenship. Such internationalism speaks to the present need to rebuild black and brown solidarities, especially in a context in which conservative elites pit these groups against each other, either through patriotic invocations of American global power or attacks at home on immigrant workers. It requires challenging American security imperatives in the “war on terror” and critiquing racial logics that have recast nonwhite communities (here Muslims and those of Arab descent) as suspect populations subject to systematic surveillance. More broadly, it means confronting how economic and state structures govern both African Americans and immigrants from the Global South.
In today’s New Jim Crow, it is nonwhite immigrants whose labor experience most closely mirrors that of African Americans under the old Jim Crow. Undocumented immigrants in particular often find themselves engaged in hard and exploitative work, with no legal recourse, under the continuous threat of legally sanctioned terror. More than 400,000 people annually cycle through the immigrant prison system. Penal and employment structures interlock to enforce the invisibility and powerlessness of nonwhite communities working on the farm or in the factory under dependent conditions. Like African Americans, immigrants from the Global South, especially from Central and Latin America, can be thought of as shaped historically by the forces of European empire; they also share many of the same basic interests in fundamental social transformation. This link is crucial: connecting the immigrant and African American freedom struggles cuts against false assumptions that black communities are either alone or have more in common with those in economic and political power than they do with other marginalized groups. And it yet again provides a way to join calls to end the carceral state with calls for fundamental economic change.
Now is the time to reassert the full tradition of revolutionary reform: to argue, as Martin Luther King did fifty years ago, for “a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society.” Such a restructuring requires that we break from fantasies about national redemption. But it also means extending arguments about racism into arguments about American power and political economy. This move is fundamental because it provides an alternative way to imagine collective solidarity and to think of black freedom as freedom for all—able to contest the creedal story on its own supposed ground. Only then, by embracing the full scope of the radical tradition, will the crisis of the creed offer a path to something fundamentally new.