A third Reconstruction remains distinct possibility
The United States has experienced two periods of Reconstruction – in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and during the 1950s and 1960s. During these two eras, the nation attempted to confront a history of racial injustice and exploitation, correct past wrongs and shift its trajectory towards inclusion and equality. Addressing the original sin of slavery and allowing black people full citizenship rights, however, have proven elusive.
The presidency of Donald Trump was made possible by the promise to "Make America Great Again" – a regressive mantra alluding to a return to the mythical glory days of White America. It was a repudiation of the first black president, and punishment for people of colour. Nearly exclusively white, male Cabinet members and judicial appointments under Trump have symbolised white restoration, along with policies designed to address white grievance such as the border wall, restrictions on immigration and attacks on civil rights – including voting rights. Policies aimed at curtailing immigration, including Trump's family separation policy, shutting the door to asylum seekers and Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, are efforts to stem demographic change and entrench white rule.
The 2020 presidential election is the most consequential in modern times, as the battle lines are drawn over whether America will allow space for a multiracial democracy to grow and thrive, or revert to whites-only rule and the authoritarianism of the plantation state. A third Reconstruction may be needed to address the persistent problem of anti-black racism, correct the historic injustices and inequities, and seek redress. The first and second Reconstruction eras sought to realise the promises of the 14th Amendment, yet failed to achieve this. A third Reconstruction would seek to bring true political and social equality that comes with citizenship.
In a nation where rights are conditional, provisional and never guaranteed, progress for black people has consisted of false starts and reversals, with two steps forward — as during our two Reconstruction periods — and one step back. White right-wing populism — based on racial animus and fear, and a desire to return to an old racial order — has remained the impediment to black aspirations.
The First Reconstruction (1863-1877) reintegrated the former Confederate states, and empowered and emancipated black people with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, civil rights laws, and the Freedmen's Bureau. Federal troops were sent to the South to protect black people. Black and white political coalitions controlled state legislatures and rewrote state constitutions, and 2,000 black elected officials served throughout the country.
White backlash paved the way for Jim Crow segregation and restored "a white man's government" under the old Confederate establishment and the violence of Ku Klux Klan terrorists to once again economically exploit and socially control black people, and render them civilly dead through wholesale voter disenfranchisement. The compromise of 1877, which resolved the 1876 election and made Rutherford B. Hayes president, withdrew federal troops from the South. The US Supreme Court eviscerated black rights with the Civil Rights Cases (1883), which ruled the Civil Rights Act of 1875 — which prohibited racial discrimination in public places — was unconstitutional, and determined the 13th and 14th Amendments did not bar racial discrimination by private actors. In Plessy v Ferguson (1896), the high court legally sanctioned "separate but equal" segregation in public facilities.
White pursuit of racial suppression always meant death. In 1898, a white supremacist coup and bloody massacre overthrew the government of black and white elected leaders in the progressive, majority-black city of Wilmington, North Carolina. During Jim Crow, Ku Klux Klan terrorists lynched black people and civil rights workers who dared attempt to vote or register to vote, and bombed their houses and churches. These practices extended well into the 20th century.
The Second Reconstruction — most commonly known as the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s — was an effort to halt a century of legal segregation and racial discrimination. A foe of black rights for most of its history, the Supreme Court was a force for justice and equality with the Brown v Board of Education decision finding segregated public schools unconstitutional and overturning Plessy, and the Loving v Virginia decision outlawing anti-miscegenation laws. Further, the movement bore tangible legislative fruit, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Great Society programmes such as Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start.
The gains of the civil rights era, earned through mass protest and the blood of martyrs, again prompted a conservative backlash. Through the Republican Party's Southern Strategy, the conservative movement capitalised on white resentment of black power, and attracted the votes of racists by avoiding explicitly racist language but promoting a narrative of tax cuts and small government. Republicans implied that these cuts would hurt black people more. White segregationist Dixiecrats began an exodus to the GOP.
White backlash guided the Republican Party in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, with the racialisation of welfare and crime, attacks on affirmative action and school resegregation.
Donald Trump built his political career through birtherism and rose to power on a new wave of white backlash sparked by the election of Barack Obama. Trump's politics is an evolution of the Southern Strategy, in which he stokes the white supremacist myth of white genocide — the "great replacement theory" that white people are an endangered species facing extinction because of multiculturalism.
This ideology has driven both extremist violence and official policies of racial suppression, including violence at the border, undercounting the census and a decimation of voting rights. Since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v Holder in 2013, state governments have enacted voter ID laws and conducted voter purges and voter suppression efforts. Trump himself has engaged in voter intimidation, most recently encouraging armed white supremacists to act as "poll watchers".
Understanding the unpopularity of its policy agenda and its failure to attract majority support, the GOP has exploited the undemocratic nature of the Senate and the electoral college — which grant inordinate power to rural, low-population areas — and employed voter suppression to cling to minority rule.
Unable to realise its goals through legislation, the Republicans have also orchestrated a takeover of the federal judiciary. After the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia 269 days before the 2016 election, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell left Scalia's Supreme Court seat vacant. This week, McConnell rushed to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, then adjourned the Senate until after the election without even debating a coronavirus relief Bill, playing into the perception that the victims of the coronavirus are disproportionately black, brown, poor and city dwellers, rather than the GOP's electoral base.
The results of this year's election will determine whether the United States will allow a third Reconstruction to root out systemic inequality, seek historical truths, reconciliation and reparations for slavery, and grant full citizenship to the descendants of the enslaved. As the black nationalist Malcolm X once said: "The common goal of … Afro-Americans is respect as human beings, the God-given right to be a human being. Our common goal is to obtain the human rights that America has been denying us. We can never get civil rights in America until our human rights are first restored. We will never be recognised as citizens there until we are first recognised as humans."
A new period of Reconstruction can make this possible.
• David A. Love is a writer based in Philadelphia, and an adjunct professor of journalism and media studies at the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information