In April 1873, violence erupted in the small town of Colfax, Louisiana. The federal government’s Reconstruction-era policies compelled Louisiana to rewrite the state constitution to safeguard the rights of African Americans, including the right to vote. Newly enfranchised black voters elected a slate of Republicans officials, including 137 black state legislators. Embittered ex-Confederates chafed at the election results and armed themselves to resist the new government. A reign of terror ensued: Black and white Republicans were intimidated, beaten, and killed. In March, black Republicans occupied the courthouse in the center of town, and a month later, 165 white men attacked the courthouse and set it on fire. The white men slaughtered the black men as they tried to surrender.
There is a monument in the Colfax cemetery that was built to honor the three white men who died during the massacre. The “heroes,” the inscription notes, “fell in the Colfax riot fighting for white supremacy.” The monument gets this second part right—they were indeed fighting for white supremacy—but it also fails to note the 81 black people who were murdered that day. Their deaths have been purposely forgotten. No memorial stands in the Colfax cemetery to honor their lives.
Almost 150 years have passed since the massacre at the courthouse in Colfax. Yet the inhumanity of what occurred on Easter Sunday in 1873 appears eerily similar to the inhumanity that we are witnessing right now in our own time. No historical moment is entirely new. Shards and fragments of the past inevitably sediment into the present.
In addition to the racist fervor, today’s frightening levels of political corruption, economic inequality, and voter suppression also hark back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This period was termed the “Gilded Age” by Mark Twain because it glittered on the outside but was riddled by political dishonesty, incompetence, and scandal. Historian Richard White, economists Thomas Piketty and Paul Krugman, and many other scholars have written that we are living through a second Gilded Age as we watch the stunning rise of the 1 percent, stagnant wages, soaring corporate profits, and unprecedented concentrations of wealth, and of course increasing inequality. As Piketty writes, “Wealth is so concentrated that a large segment of society is virtually unaware of its existence, so that some people imagine that it belongs to surreal or mysterious entities.”
Now, as then, the inequality was itself unequal: African Americans lost far more of their wealth than whites during the Great Recession. Gillian B. White observed that in 2013, the net worth of white households was 13 times greater than that of black households. By 2031, median black household wealth will have decreased by almost $100,000 as a result of the Great Recession. These statistics remind us of a saying that is often used to describe the racial divergences in the economy: “When white folks catch a cold, black folks get pneumonia.”
The Reconstruction-era ambition of extending equal rights to African Americans was not achieved. Instead, it was trampled by racial violence and extinguished by the underlying indifference of the federal government that implemented those laws. In 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina, a thriving black community was destroyed by a race riot that drove black officials out of office and left 25 African Americans dead. Between the years of 1890 and 1917, two to three black Southerners were lynched each week.
Today, with our own eyes, we have seen black men and women brutalized and murdered by the police. Last July, we witnessed two deaths over two days: Alton Sterling was shot after being pinned to the ground, and Philando Castile was shot while sitting in his car with his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter in the backseat. No federal charges will be filed against the police officers who killed Alton Sterling. Jeronimo Yanez, the police officer who killed Philando Castile, was acquitted of all charges. Between March 16, 2014 and April 4, 2015, Mother Jones counted 13 fatal police shootings that were caught on video. Most of the victims were black and unarmed.
Yet in this climate of violence against black people, President Trump made comments that not only condoned, but actively encouraged police brutality in a recent speech to police officers gathered at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood, Long Island:
Please don’t be too nice. Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody—don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, O.K.?
Political violence likewise intersected with the physical violence that African Americans endured during the Gilded Age, leaving blacks with no vehicle for redress. Mississippi adopted a state constitution in 1890 that included provisions to disenfranchise blacks. Other states quickly followed Mississippi’s lead. A wide range of efforts to suppress voting, including registration requirements, literacy tests, and poll taxes, led to a dramatic decline in the voting population across the country. Even the “Dean of American Letters,” novelist, playwright, and Atlantic editor William Dean Howells was not able to vote in the election of 1896 because he missed the registration deadline. These laws were not designed to keep a man of his stature away from the polls, but they were so far reaching that this was one of the unintended consequences.
In response to Barack Obama’s election in 2008 and the increasing numbers of people of color taking part in the political process, there have been hysterical accusations of voter fraud that elected officials, election administrators, and experts from both sides of the political aisle have denied as false. Across the country, state lawmakers have introduced measures to suppress the vote through voter identification laws, the decision to relocate polling places at the last minute, the redrawing of district boundaries, and the removal of names from voter rolls. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law notes that, since 2010, 20 states have put some form of voting restrictions in effect. Ten states have more limited voter identification laws, and six states have strict photo identification rules. Restrictions on registration have been adopted in seven states, while six states limited early voting opportunities, and three states made it more difficult for people with past criminal convictions to vote. The 2016 presidential election was the first time that 14 states (including Texas, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin) had more restrictive voting procedures in place than for the prior presidential election.
Countless assaults on America’s most vulnerable populations—travel bans against Muslims, horrifying raids in Latino communities by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, the constant threat and the reality of deportations that tear families apart, a proposed ban on transgender service members in the military, plans for the Department of Justice to challenge affirmative action policies on college campuses—have left many Americans worrying about the future of democracy, particular one that is equal for all. Americans who lived through the Gilded Age had similar fears but they held fast to a belief that true democracy would prevail. As reformer Jane Addams wrote, “Democratic government, associated as it is with all the mistakes and shortcomings of the common people, still remains the most valuable contribution America has made to the moral life of the world.” Our democracy will survive, but we do not know yet how long lasting the damage of this period will be. As poet Claudia Rankine has written, “Just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.” But for now, it is.