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Q&A

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.