Can American political thought be a resource for improving race relations in the U.S.?

President Bill Clinton said in his first inaugural address: “Our democracy must be not only the envy of the world but the engine of our own renewal. There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” This invites the question, what is right with America?

As this pertains to racial injustice in the U.S., we can be thankful that what makes racism appear so obviously wrong to most Americans is precisely the fact that it contradicts the fundamental basis of our regime: namely, human equality. So, the first resource I would turn to is the formative document of our national heritage, the Declaration of Independence. Of course, America’s political development tracks the debate over the meaning and application of the equality principle found in the Declaration (“that all men are created equal”). This means that a quick reference to the document will be a necessary but not sufficient means of addressing current racial inequities.

Important thinkers in American history, specifically folks who interpreted the Declaration so as to apply it to their social and political problems, can be enlisted in an effort to understand why race remains a problem for our republic and how we can return the noblest American aspiration to its rightful place in the public mindset—as Lincoln phrased it, “a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”

Insofar as exceptions are made to the principle of human equality, and therewith “equality before the law,” we will remain a divided nation, and the color line will continue to exist.  In the words of Frederick Douglass, speaking for the sake of black American progress, “it is better to regard ourselves as a part of the whole than as the whole of a part.” Only as we commit ourselves to viewing our racial problem as an American problem, and then devise solutions with that same mindset, will we be able to break through the prevailing logjam on this problem.

So there you have it, with quotes from Clinton, Lincoln, and Douglass to get the ball rolling.

Lucas Morel


There is, to be sure, much in what Professor Morel writes with which I agree. And it is difficult, dare I say impossible, for Black Americans to get on with the business of calling the United States home if they reject the possibility that those with whom they share the polity can deal a fatal blow to white supremacy and the racial inequality it produces. To do so does require us to return to that founding document that lays out the moral vision of the country–the Declaration of Independence. It requires us to recognize, as Lincoln rightly noted, that the Declaration contemplates “the progressive improvement in the condition” of all people. This insight–the idea that humans are capable of being morally improved–is something to which African American intellectuals and activists held on to as a condition of their political engagement.  For this reason, the Declaration is a moral document having practical use and we must hold to this lest we lose faith and heart. This I understand from Professor Morel and on this we agree.

And yet, one important condition for us addressing the continued problem of white supremacy and racial inequality–a problem that is very much alive today and that either finds its home in the one who occupies the highest office of the land or those from whom he takes counsel–is to recognize how fundamental these features are to our way of thinking. As Hosea Easton explained in his 1837 Treatise, the substantive meaning of one’s racial designation as a Black person is an “auxiliary” to slavery and legal codes of exclusion, following “its victims in every avenue of life.” Now today, we might refer to this as racial stigma because it shapes the social epistemic context that we rely on to make judgments about our fellows, especially our Black fellows. The negative connotations that we continue to associate with being Black, as Easton understood, are located in “public sentiment” and biases the observing agent.

The downstream result of this, even today in 2017, is to influence the life chances of Black Americans–the jobs they seek, the places they live, the quality of the markets from which they shop, the education they receive, the health services they need, and the security they rightly deserve. Many Black Americans rightly believe that the demeaning qualities attached to them as Blacks persist through institutional transformations and, as such, retain ideas of hierarchy and domination. Chattel slavery has long since disappeared in the United States, and yet its logic continues to cast a long shadow that leaves one’s civic and ethical existence precarious.

I say all of this because although I think there is a basic common sense in Clinton’s claim that “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America,” it does not yet confront the attraction and seduction that white supremacy represents. This was what James Baldwin in all of his writings was trying to convey to white Americans and why, for him, the virtue of honesty was so central to American democracy. So Clinton’s claim does not yet deal with the challenge white supremacy poses to the Declaration of Independence, for we ought not to forget that this founding document was developed alongside the founding sentiment of white supremacy. And to the extent we do not yet confront this issue, we lose site of the security white supremacy provides to those who benefit from it. With such security, free from the precarious existence one readily sees in the lives Black people live even when they seem to enjoy material success, who would give it up?

So the question we must ask, if we are going to rightly approach possible resources that may exist within American and African American political thought to address racial inequality, is whether white supremacy generates far too many psychological, libidinal, cultural, political, and economic goods to be sufficiently destablized? Alternatively, we might ask, are the goods that seemingly come from a racially inclusive society that affirms the equal dignity of persons as outlined in our reading of the Declaration sufficient to create an ethical society that can find institutional and long-term cultural support?

I end with these questions because, as I see it, the issue of what resources may exist to address on-going racial injustices and how successful those resources will be depends on the willingness by those who most benefit from racial inequality to reject the goods they readily gain as a result of racial inequality.

I apologize that I have not addressed the problem in a helpful way (as the structure of the question demands). But I am trying to get clearer about the source of the problem.

Melvin Rogers

Melvin Rogers photo

By way of resources, I add a few sentences that immediately precede my first Lincoln quote: “They [the Declaration authors] did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.” As long as enforcement depends upon the consent of the governed (and consent will always be the flip side of the equality coin in a just regime), then true or complete equality under the law will rest upon the soundness of public opinion.  Free people have no alternative. The protection of equal rights depends upon a conviction in the citizenry that each individual possesses rights simply because of his humanity. So white supremacy or some other arbitrary value or prejudice will lose its hold on the public mind (i.e., the majority’s mind) to the extent that each individual constituting that majority comes to believe that security for his own individual freedom is more secure when based upon what we all possess equally as humans rather than arbitrary traits.

There was a time when white bigotry was explicitly part of some constitutions and laws in the U.S. In 1861, a palpable attempt was made to enshrine slavery explicitly and permanently in the South. We’ve made progress on this front, which may be obvious but bears noting. That progress had everything to do with the principle of equality taking hold over more and more Americans—most of whom were white. There were no black Senators when the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed; ditto for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and precious few black Representatives (certainly not a majority) in either case. There were no black justices on the Supreme Court that decided Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. If white supremacy were pervasive and immutable, then none of these landmark advances in the laws and decisions of the federal government would have occurred. The question is, if not the principle of human equality (i.e., the equal rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), then what principle—American, African-American, or otherwise—could one propose that would be more effective in promoting progress in securing equality under the law that would also be consistent with the freedom one seeks to achieve for all?

If not human equality—equal, individual rights—as the declared basis of civil government at the Founding, what else could have combatted, chipped away at, and steadily eroded in the public mind “the founding sentiment of white supremacy”? Hear Lincoln in 1859:

“This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.

“All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression” (emphasis added).

Imagine if that eloquent, philosophical slaveholder had not mentioned human equality as the basis for Americans’ separation from England. Lincoln believed “the sentiments which originated” in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, “were given to the world.” The success of the U.S.A. was a success for the principles he believed were timeless and universal.  As Obama observed in his Farewell Address, they may have been “self-evident,” but they are not “self-executing.” Hence, the necessity of every generation of free people to know and understand these principles, and dare to apply them—to trust that they really are the just and fair way to secure the rights possessed by all.  Rule by white supremacy (or any other arbitrary numerical majority) would simply be the rule of might in place of right, a situation where race would stand as the measure of one’s constitutional rights.

And yet, we have not rejected race as a gauge of one’s rights under the Constitution. A color-blind constitution remains an aspiration at best, if that.  We’ve simply permitted the Court to decide when it is alright to factor race into public decision-making. I don’t see how to do this in an effort to combat white supremacy without reinforcing white supremacy in the public mind. Which reminds me of a NY Times editorial (January 14, 2017) by Khalil Gibran Muhammad (“No Racial Barrier Left to
Break (Except All of Them)”). He argues that “we must confront structural racism and the values of our institutions,” but never cites specific structures that enshrine white supremacy or what values must be removed from what institutions in order to eliminate racism.

What exactly is “structural racism”? Furthermore, what specific institution should replace the current structurally racist ones, what specific laws should replace current racist laws? What “systemic change” exactly is being called for here? Moreover, what principles inform these reforms? Racism continues to be expressed, but what institution not yet in existence could remove it in a manner consistent with one’s freedom? What system should be in place instead of the current one? “Make it plain,” I say.

Lucas Morel


It is true we have had a number of political transformations that permit Black Americans to achieve a level of success previously denied to them. And it most certainly appears from where we stand relative to the 19th century, that white supremacy is no longer a pervasive feature of the society to which we belong. But this, I think, unfortunately installs the exception as the rule. This often treats specific expressions of white supremacy, let us say, slavery, Jim Crow, and formal exclusion, as tantamount to the meaning of white supremacy.

After all, since the founding of this country, white supremacy refuses to be confined to specific practices. It mutates, adapts, and evolves to frustrate the effort of Black people to achieve equality. It thus finds a new life after the death of each of its recognizable forms. Consider the history. In the wake of Black Americans’ participation in the American Revolution, this nation witnessed a slow denial of their standing and contribution to the polity. As Alexander Keyssar documents in his magisterial book, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, Northern states such as New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania slowly began to rescind rights previously extended to Blacks, effectively joining their Southern counterparts in constructing a subclass of persons. Although the Civil War amendments sought to recognize the equal status of Blacks, that recognition was effectively denied by the ascendancy of debt peonage, economic exploitation, lynching, and Jim Crow. The Civil Rights movement killed Jim Crow, but the policing and subordination of Blacks was reconstituted through the rise of the carceral state, the underdeveloped welfare state, and unfunded public education system.

To be sure, throughout each of these periods we have witnessed a positive, even if uneven, rearrangement of our political institutions, but those advances have been contained and constrained by a persistent and stable social inequality in which care and concern for Black Americans has been insufficiently extended. In paying exclusive attention to political equality as an indicator of racial advancements, we have ignored the social differential status of blacks and the way in which that differential status highlights the afterlife of white supremacy. The recent police shootings of unarmed Black men that go unpunished are merely the visible display of a culture in which Black life is devalued and overexposed to violence.

This social inequality along racial lines has played a recognizable role in the ways in which the basic structure of society is organized, creating stable, race-based inequalities. This is what structural racism denotes. There is no institution that has escaped this logic, hence Khalil Muhammad has rightly found no need to name any specific institution (although his own historical work on the attribution of black criminality and its shaping of the status of blacks proves to be another area of differential treatment where blacks and whites are concerned and focuses on the institution of criminal justice). Still one might look at the quantitative and qualitative data from social scientists to get the full picture–that is, were one in need. Here I have in mind Michael Dawson, Cathy Cohen, Vesla Weaver, and William Darity just to name a few.

But the real issue at hand–what started this conversation–was what resources might we draw on to deal with this ongoing issue? I have already suggested that part of it requires us to take seriously the seductive and appealing quality of white supremacy that frustrates recognition of the good human equality provides. The motivational context, you might say, appears to incentivize those moving through the basic structure to reproduce racial inequality. As such, we must not be seduced into believing mere legal transformation means a transformation of ethos. And I have asked us to think about the generative goods of white supremacy as moving across domains of human life–institutionally as well as psychologically. And I have done this so as to try and bring the entire life of persons in view as the target for transformation.

I would also like to suggest that even amid the problem of white supremacy, African American thinkers always held out hope that the polity could be something more than what its racism suggests. And hope is about possibility, not certainty. They have often underwritten this hope by the belief (not an unjustified one) that our rational and affective states might be moved–that is, that we may yet be drawn to, fall in love with, be moved by the picture of a just polity. The very form in which the tradition of African American political thought is executed is that of rich and detailed story-telling, from, to pick arbitrarily, David Walker’s 1829 “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World” to James Baldwin’s 1968 “Tell me how long the train’s been gone.” Theirs has been a perfectionist impulse–a pushing and prodding of one’s fellows through the horror of lives on display to take up noble forms of ethical and political interaction. And they have paired this orientation with the hard work of activism–to perform the political and ethical rectitude they mean to elicit from and cultivate in those with whom they share the polity.

Can we be moved by stories today? Can we come to take up an ethical and political position of equality from the detailed narratives of lives that are without equal standing? If one is looking for resources that keep one working here rather than elsewhere, one must say yes to these questions as a presumption of the struggle. But in saying yes one must not lose sight of the very real possibility that defeat may be our fate.

Melvin Rogers

Melvin Rogers photo

      Lucas Morel is Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University.

      Melvin Rogers is the Scott Waugh Chair in the Division of the Social Sciences and Associate Professor of Political Science and African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Can American politic…

by Lucas Morel and Melvin Rogers time to read: 15 min