In a recent eulogy, President Obama saluted Rep. John Lewis as a “founding father” of a “fuller, better” America. That was fair, because the United States is still an unfinished project.
Alone among nations, America was conceived as an idea, based on political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. In school, we were taught that the expression of these principles in Revolutionary War Era documents created the founding. But like a ship, the American project must be built before it can be launched. And so until we fully live out our values, until we have prosperity with justice, there will be more founders and more foundings.
Early America was a work in progress. Only 13 of the current 50 states existed at the time of the first census in 1790. The population was just one percent of the current total, and almost one-fifth were chattel slaves. African Americans, Chief Justice Roger Taney later wrote in the Dred Scott decision, had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Some 620,000 Americans died in the Civil War to determine whether the United States would be free or slave. Historian Eric Foner titled his book on the Civil War and Reconstruction, “The Second Founding.”
It then took another 100 years for the U.S. government to become a force for good in the lives of ordinary Americans, and for the courts to become protectors of individual rights.
Take voting rights. The U.S. Constitution has never guaranteed the right to vote. Beginning with the first presidential election in 1788, expansion of the franchise to include all adult citizens stretched to almost 200 years. At first, only white men who owned property — about 6% of the population — could vote; then all white men by 1856; white women in 1920; Chinese immigrants in 1943; all Native Americans by 1948; residents of Washington D.C. in 1962; all African Americans by 1965; 18-20 year olds in 1971; “language minorities” in 1975; and the disabled in 1982.
Democracy for all is relatively new in the United States — only about 50 years old. According to the Varieties of Democracy Project, which has surveyed experts on the state of global democracies since 1900, the U.S. political system scored a 48 out of 100 in 1945 and a 59 in 1965. Only after the civil rights movement and the dismantling of Jim Crow in the South — the Third Founding — did America’s scores climb to the 70s and 80s of other successful democracies.
The purpose of our American project is not to have the largest economy or the most powerful military. Those are not moral achievements. We should instead pursue what civil rights leaders including Lewis called the Beloved Community, “a nation and world society at peace with itself.” A just society. That, or something like that, is the nation imagined in the Declaration of Independence.
Ironically, at the same time our president is the most undemocratic in U.S. history, we’re also having an intense democratic moment following the police killing of George Floyd. The New Yorker labels this “the long revolutionary summer of 2020.” Not since the 1960s have so many Americans been focused on racial equity. Could this lead to the Fourth Founding?
Finally defeating racism in America could take decades, maybe a century — or it may not happen at all. But it can be defeated, because racism is a social construct; it’s man-made, and so it can be unmade. It’s a choice, based on a purpose. The onus of change rests on the white majority. A revolution in awareness is required.
A keen observer of race relations, the writer James Baldwin pleaded with America to know its real history — the first step toward a reckoning. White Americans living today are “innocents” (none of us have owned slaves), he wrote in The Fire Next Time, “trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” African Americans will not be released from the yoke of racism until that happens.
American denial of its history isn’t new. It’s in our collective DNA — along with hypocrisy. The same man who wrote the words “all men are created equal” owned some 600 African slaves during his lifetime.
Bigotry is stronger than prejudice, and racism is stronger than bigotry because there is institutional power behind it. The history of racism in America extends back to the early colonial era in the mid-17th century, when powerful interests began building a wealth creation system in the southern British colonies based on the exploitation of African slave labor. Racist ideas of black inferiority were then created to justify this institution.
Since racism’s original purpose ended in 1865, it should have died with the Confederacy. But it didn’t. White advantage moved up and became the motive force of racism in America. In the South, Jim Crow institutionalized white supremacy, and Northern cities chose laws, planning, and practices that, in their net effects, discriminated against African Americans. Civil rights legislation removed the worst of those laws, but by the 1990s new sources of systemic racism — crime laws and over-policing, for example — were in place. Add to this the cumulative effects on black bodies from 400 years of harm.
This past week, The Salt Lake Tribune reported on Jeffrey Ryan’s appalling injuries caused by a dog under the control of Salt Lake City police. Being Black in his own backyard was apparently enough for the police to mark him as dangerous, and to justify inflicting extreme violence upon his body. A leg may have to be amputated. In the past two years, Salt Lake City police used force against Blacks at rates five times their percentage of the population.
A recent report found that 2017 juvenile justice reform in Utah had resulted in a reduction of the percentage of white children in the system, but the percentage of non-white children had actually increased. Black children are placed in locked detention centers at rates almost nine times their percentage of the school-aged population. A similar racial trend also occurred in the adult system after the Utah legislature passed criminal justice reform in 2015.
Systemic racism in the United States didn’t die in the 1960s, as many Americans like to believe. It lives, and will continue to burden every American until it is fully faced. Absent that release, the Fourth Founding will remain a dream.
David Burns has degrees in history and law. He lives in Salt Lake City.