An American Conception of Justice

An American Conception of Justice

Historians have amply demonstrated how central racism has been to the formation and reformation of the United States. But many of those same ideas and institutions have also been vital to combating white supremacy.

Illustration by Molly Crabapple

This article is one in a series of arguments on U.S. history in our summer issue.

For the past several years, I have been writing a history of the Democratic Party. Perhaps the most important question to answer about that institution is how it switched from being a bulwark of a profoundly racist society to an ally, if always a conditional one, of the Black freedom movement in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and even Franklin D. Roosevelt would be shocked—and the first two quite dismayed—to learn that future leaders of their party enacted the landmark civil rights bills of the 1960s, endorsed last year’s massive protests against police murders of Black people, and consistently win the overwhelming support of African-American voters.

The Democrats’ turnabout was due to a variety of factors—including the growth of the Black electorate in the North, the emergence of an interracial labor movement, and competition with the Soviet Union for the allegiances of people in the Third World who had recently liberated themselves from European empires. But in opposing racism, Democrats also drew on the stated principles of their party and nation, despite how their predecessors had betrayed those values in expanding the empire of slavery, opposing Reconstruction, and erecting the Jim Crow order.

In 1963, outlining what would become the Civil Rights Act, President John F. Kennedy asked rhetorically, “Are we to say to the world—and much more importantly, to each other—that this is the land of the free, except for Negroes, that we have no second-class citizens, except Negroes, that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race, except with respect to Negroes?”

A quarter-century later, Jesse Jackson, the first African American to run competitively for the presidential nomination of a major party, evoked both the Black freedom struggle and the party’s populist traditions in a speech to the Democratic National Convention. He began with a tribute to organizers who had died to win the right to vote, then uttered a sentiment that could have appeared in an address by Andrew Jackson, or Wilson, or FDR. “We believe in a government that’s a tool of our democracy in service to the public, not an instrument of the aristocracy in search of private wealth.” By combining these two appeals, the activist-turned-politician joined the fight for Black equality to a mission that might appeal to the majority of Americans, whatever their race.

Historians have amply demonstrated how central racism has been to the formation and reformation of the politics, economy, and popular culture of the United States. But many of those same ideas and institutions have also been vital to combatting white supremacy.

Over the past two centuries, Black leaders and intellectuals have made excellent use of that legitimizing dialectic. On the eve of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass maintained that the Constitution, despite all the slaveholders who helped draft and ratify it, did not endorse human bondage and could be employed to abolish it. “If the South has made the Constitution bend to the purposes of slavery,” he declared, “let the North now make that instrument bend to the cause of freedom and justice.” In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. evoked the Cold War (although he was a fierce opponent of the hot one in Vietnam) and the First Amendment when he rallied Black sanitation workers in Memphis to defy a court injunction: “If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions,” he said in the speech given the night before he was murdered:

Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.

The revolutionaries who created the Black Panther Party disagreed with King about both the strategy and tactics for achieving their goals. But the Panthers’ founding Ten-Point Program concluded with an Americanist crescendo: the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.

The main author of that founding document was a man who owned hundreds of men, women, and children. However, as the political theorist Danielle Allen has cogently argued, the Declaration views equality as inseparable from freedom. After all, it begins with the first ideal as a way of justifying a war to free the colonies from British rule. “It is out of an egalitarian commitment that a people grows—a people that is capable of protecting us all collectively, and each of us individually, from domination,” Allen writes. “If the Declaration can stake a claim to freedom, it is only because it is so clear-eyed about the fact that the people’s strength resides in its equality.” Perhaps Thomas Jefferson understood as much when he later acknowledged that slavery was immoral: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

In his book American Crucible, Gary Gerstle provides a sweeping interpretation of the conflict between two species of nationalism—racial and civic—that has run throughout the course of U.S. history. Liberals and leftists who upheld the civic kind that promised “economic opportunity and political freedom to all citizens, irrespective of their racial, religious, or cultural background,” did not always practice what they preached, of course. But without that ideal to shoot for, the struggle against racism would have been far more difficult; it may have been impossible to win even limited victories.

One cannot defeat a collective evil without having an inspiring conception of the good. And the most practical place to find that is usually within national ideals and structures themselves.

Many leftists, in and outside the Movement for Black Lives, would prefer a transnational conception of justice, one that does not refer with any hint of approval to figures whose statues we might like to topple. This is particularly true among young people in general—a big change over the past two decades. But the Americanist kind is the only politically potent mode we are likely to have, at least for a while. So we ought to explain how it has functioned in the past and figure out how to make it work better in the future.

Michael Kazin is emeritus co-editor of Dissent. His next book, What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party, will be published next March.

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