Decentering Whiteness Narrative

In today’s Salon, the excellent Chauncey Devega has an informative interview with Annette Gordon-Reed, a member of the Harvard Law faculty, Pulitzer Prize winner, and America’s most foremost authority on Thomas Jefferson.

The conversation settles on the Jan. 6 Insurrection and the threat white conservative nationalism poses to democracy in the United States. For Gordon-Reed, black people have had a fundamental role in the development of American democracy:

“African Americans have from the very beginning been the people who tried to make the promise of America real. They believed in the words of the Declaration of Independence. African Americans have tried to uphold those words, in the face of other people who did not seem to take those words and the values as seriously as they did. African Americans have long tried to uphold the values of the Declaration and the notion of equality in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, which brought Black people into citizenship and represent the idea that people should be treated as equal citizens.

“Equal citizenship” for black people makes the U.S. a “multiracial democracy” in the sense of equal responsibility for the primary Constitutional goals of “a more perfect Union,” “Justice,” “domestic Tranquility,” “the common defense,” the “general Welfare,” and the “Blessings of Liberty.” In striving to uphold the Declaration and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the black population has been the primary force for creating multiracial democracy in the U.S. To the contrary, the refusal to recognize black people as having full citizenship meant that the United States was not a democracy at all.

That’s the back story for Gordon-Reed asserting that “we are a young country and we’re an even younger full democracy.” The U.S. did not become a ” full democracy” until black people were recognized nationwide as having the right to vote with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But if the U.S. did not have democracy from the establishment of the federal government in 1788 to 1965, what kind of government (and society) was there?

In my opinion, the U.S. was a “White Republic” with republican self-government, representative political institutions, and individual liberties AND a system for limiting rights and benefits to prosperous whites while excluding blacks, other non-whites, women, and gay people. In this sense, the Civil Rights Era of the 1950’s and 1960’s set in motion a transition from the White Republic to Multicultural Democracy in the United States. White conservatives could be relatively content with the dismantling of legal segregation and recognition of political rights for African-Americans as long as integration was more tokenism than symptomatic. But conservatives underestimated the changes under way and even underestimated the impact of Barack Obama’s election as the first black president in 2008. But Obama’s defense of Henry Louis Gates, sympathy for Trayvon Martin, position as a black President/celebrity made his “blackness” uncomfortably real for conservatives and sealed in a resentment that went well beyond the Tea Party and Birtherism. As racial resentment dug even more deeply into conservative culture, the Backlash that resulted in Trump really took root.

A note on the Juneteenth holiday. Chauncey DeVega asks Gorden-Reed about the significance of the Juneteenth being made a federal holiday and she responds that it “has the potential of starting a conversation or continuing a conversation, about the issue of slavery and freedom, the nature of emancipation and voting.” This is true enough, but I also believe that the Juneteenth holiday has symbolic and substantive significance as part of the iconography of multicultural, multiracial Democracy in the U.S., and should be seen in relation to the Martin Luther King Birthday holiday, black history month, the observance for the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre, George Floyd observances, and the Obamas as a cornerstone of multicultural culture in the U.S.

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