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Overcoming the Existential Threat of Racism

National solidarity can help address the effects of racism in the United States, writes the Brennan Center’s Theodore R. Johnson.

Published: June 10, 2021
Overcoming the Existential Threat of Racism
Michael B. Thomas/Getty

In Theodore R. Johnson’s new book, he reckons with the legacy and persistence of racism in the United States while narrating the multigenerational story of his family against the backdrop of American history. When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America goes on to chronicle the sweeping achievements of Black Solidarity, both for Black Americans and for the country as a whole — and describes how it can serve as a template for a broader national solidarity that can help substantively address the effects of racism in the United States.

One of the themes that reverberates throughout your book is the idea of the American Promise and how the United States has consistently fallen short of it.

In the book, I argue that we should think about “the United States” and “America” separately. We have to think about the United States as a geopolitical entity, a nation-state that is driven by its interests. America, on the other hand, is the embodiment of our sacred values, of the ideals that are inscribed in the Declaration of Independence — that all are created equal and are endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  

In other words, “America” is the professed aspiration of the nation-state, the United States. America is a state of being that the United States has not yet achieved. The United States has proven over the course of its history that it can live quite comfortably with racism coursing through the country. America, on the other hand, in terms of its ideals, has always been incompatible with the idea of racial hierarchy, with structural racism, enslavement, Jim Crow, and illiberalism writ large.

I argue that that the “more perfect union” is when the United States becomes more like America, when those professed principles actually govern the actions and behaviors of the nation-state. Now, will the United States ever fully close the gap between itself and that American ideal? No, that’s very unlikely. The point, though, isn’t to achieve a utopian state, but rather to always be working towards it, to close the gap just a little bit more between who we are and who we profess to be.

What is national solidarity and how can it help confront racism in our country?

Two of the core premises of the book are one, that racism is an existential threat to America, and two, that national solidarity is the way to overcome the effects of that racism. I reference the scholar Sally J. Scholz’s work on political, civic, and social solidarity to define national solidarity as what happens when people unite together across difference in pursuit of a just and moral cause against a nation-state in critical breach of the social contract. It involves the connection among people over a moral cause — like equality, like life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness — and then holding the state accountable for preventing the people from realizing these rights. 

Within this framework, racism is not about the way individual people feel in their hearts but about the way our society is structured. As such, I call racism a crime of the state. Structural racism means that when we enter into society, our ability to benefit from our own work, ingenuity, and talents is heavily influenced by the way structures are set up. So, if racism is an existential threat to America and racism is a crime of the state, national solidarity refers to people coming together to hold the state accountable for falling short of America’s professed ideals.

You write that “solidarity among Black Americans is the most powerful and enduring force for racial progress ever to be unleashed in the United States.” Can you talk more about that?

Throughout the book, I point to the ways that Black America has embodied this kind of solidarity since before the nation’s inception. I talk about how in slavery, Black folks from different parts of Africa — with different languages, religions, cultures, and customs — were grouped together and found a common identity under the oppression of slavery and under Jim Crow. The African American is a creation of this reality, leading to a solidarity that was a survival tactic and also provided some sense of humanity in a wholly inhumane system. I talk about how this shared history creates a solidarity among Black Americans. It’s cultivated in us because of our lived experiences in the United States.

I also argue that Americans, writ large, can learn from the solidarity of Black Americans by applying some of the best attributes of Black America observed over the nation’s history that has forcibly pushed the nation closer to being the America that it professes to be. Black folks were active agents in the ending of slavery. It wasn’t a gift to us. Black folks were active agents in ending Jim Crow. It wasn’t a flood of white epiphanies across the country that suddenly recognized our humanity and dignity. And all the gains since the civil rights era that Black Americans have seen — and indeed, that America has seen — are not just a result of Black work; they have helped push the country closer to what it professes to be.

Black Americans, of course, don’t exclusively hold the answer. Every group that has ever been marginalized in this country — Native Americans, immigrants, Black Americans, women, et cetera — all have stories to tell about the way the nation has fallen short of its promises.  And they all have lessons to teach us about how to hew more closely to our ideals. 

You’ve written about the nationwide protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. What can we learn from that mobilization about national solidarity? 

First, let’s make it clear that what happened to George Floyd was that agents of the state abused their power and unnecessarily took the life of a person in a way that absolutely was a product of structural racism in the United States. I think that was pretty clear to the vast majority of the American people. What happened was so grotesque and so clearly an infringement of his constitutional rights — and our professed beliefs and values — that it mobilized a lot of people to speak up and take action, to demand that the state be held accountable.

Floyd’s murder happened right after Ahmaud Arbery’s death by vigilante folks in Georgia became public, right after Breonna Taylor’s killing became public. It happened during the earlier months of the Covid crisis. People were losing their jobs and their economic security, and the government was really slow to respond adequately. 

So, during last year’s summer of solidarity, we saw racial justice protests across the country — even in places where there are little to no Black people — in all 50 states and in the District of Columbia. But they weren’t just protests for racial justice. People were upset with government’s lack of responsibility, accountability, and action in a year of turmoil. And Floyd’s murder proved to be the tipping point that led to a summer of these protests that went on for weeks and months. That summer gave us a small glimpse what national solidarity could look like.

The bad news is that the summer of solidarity — and a high-turnout November election — were followed by a Capitol insurrection on January 6. The solidarity we saw last summer was too thin for it to endure. In the book, I argue that we need a thicker, more resilient version of the national solidarity we witnessed last summer if we are to build the society that lives up to our professed values.

How would democracy reform contribute to building national solidarity?

If we sit around and wait for people to find civic friendship among one another, it’s probably not going to happen, even in the face of a catastrophe. The pandemic was as good of a chance as any to find national solidarity in the wake of a disaster — and we didn’t. Instead, we argued about things like whether or not to wear masks.

So, I’ve outlined five ways to foster the conditions favorable to the creation of national solidarity. Democracy reform is one of them because it uses our institutions and processes to make our democracy more inclusive. It brings more people into the system of democracy so that we all feel vested in that system and so that government will be more responsive to these newly included participants in democracy. What democracy reform does is address some of the vulnerabilities and weaknesses such that we can have a more participatory democracy and be more capable of finding connections across difference.