Symposium | The State of Black America

Past and Present: The Dueling Constitutional Visions

By Lester Spence

Tagged Civil LibertiesConstitutionRacism

On Tuesday, January 5, 2021, Georgia voters cast their ballots in two high stakes Senate races to determine who would represent the state of Georgia, which political party would control the Senate, and the Democratic Party’s chances of implementing its legislative agenda. The two parties poured more than $500 million into the races with the hope of activating the same level of enthusiasm that drove the presidential election (and turned the state blue for the first time in decades). 

A large chunk of this went into mobilizing Black voters.

On Wednesday, January 6, both houses of Congress gathered to certify the presidential election results. With rare exceptions this act has been symbolic, with the most notable instance being the 1876 Hayes-Tilden election (which ended the Reconstruction era). Two hours into the certification debate, armed Trump supporters forcibly entered the Capitol building, causing members of both chambers as well as journalists and support staff to lock themselves into the basement. In the effort to remove protestors, one woman was killed, and later one Capitol Police officer died because of injuries (two other participants died through heart failure as a result of the protests). Despite these events, well over 100 Republicans voted to reject the will of American voters. 

January 6 marked the beginning of a new political moment. To say this moment is a fraught one is an understatement. If, as some suggest, we should think of democracy as a process rather than a pre-existing state, it seems as if we’re moving away from democracy rather than toward it, with severe consequences for the country and the world. But I think that part of the reason we’re moving away from it is that we haven’t paid quite enough intellectual and political attention to the importance “the Black vote” and the role Black voters play in American democracy. To be fair, during the last few election cycles, pundits and political officials alike have focused on Black voters and the Black vote itself, but I’m suggesting that we go a bit deeper. I’m going to point briefly to two moments when we took the Black vote a bit more seriously, and then use these moments to reflect on where we are now. In sum, we’ve been in a long-term struggle between two different conceptions of democracy, one emboldened by the Second Amendment, one intimated by the Fifteenth Amendment. America has a choice to make, between affirming the ballot or enabling white nationalists to turn to the bullet.

Let me take you back in time.

Within a three-year period in the 1960s, the civil rights movement advanced three different arguments with regards to the Black vote. In 1964, Malcolm X delivered “The Ballot or the Bullet,” a speech that would go on to be one of his most important. In it, he argued that Blacks in America (and America itself) were faced with two choices. It is important to note that, up until that point, whenever Malcolm X wrote about revolution in the United States—with an eye on newly decolonized African nations—he explicitly connected revolution to bloodshed.

This speech was different. 

In this 1964 speech, given a year before Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, he took a different stance. Instead of suggesting that violence was the only means of revolution, he suggested that Blacks in America had the ability to pursue a different route. While they could engage in a violent revolution, using the gun, they could also engage in a non-violent revolution, using the vote. Blacks were politically situated between the two parties. If properly organized and mobilized, they could turn the tide and have a significant effect on the state. 

About one year later, activist and organizer Bayard Rustin published “From Protest to Politics” in Commentary, arguing that given the passage of civil rights legislation (including the right to vote), Blacks should use their newfound political power to change the terrain of American political and social life by working with liberal whites to create broad support for a range of new positive rights. And less than one year after that, James and Grace Lee Boggs published “The City is the Black Man’s Land” in The Monthly Review, arguing that Black working-class men and women in soon-to-be Black majority cities like Detroit were perfectly situated to use the vote to take political control of them and, through that control, the United States as well. Although Malcolm X and the Boggses disagreed with Rustin in critical ways, they all pointed to the critical role that Black votes could potentially play in reorienting American democracy, in ways that would benefit not only Black citizens but Americans more broadly. 

But let’s not stop at the sixties. The movement that generated the Voting Rights Act was directly sparked by 1950s-era protests, but we can locate the deeper origins some 60 years earlier in the successful attempt to disfranchise Black voters, and even all the way back to Reconstruction. It’s important to remember the political effect of Reconstruction, which was not simply to grant Blacks the right to vote. It radically altered the state in two different ways. First, it worked to cement the very idea of a federal government that stood over state governments, granting them leeway while also exerting rule over state behavior in critical respects. Second, it advanced what we would go on to call “positive liberty” in the United States—that is, a set of rights to public goods such as education. Once elected to office, Black political representatives worked to build some of the first public schools and supported some of the first attempts to tax wealth for the purpose of the public good. 

When we think about Jim Crow and disfranchisement, most of us tend to think of it as happening directly after the end of Reconstruction in 1877, even though this isn’t the case. After the Republican Party acceded the South to the Democratic Party in exchange for the presidency in the Hayes-Tilden Compromise, although fraught as I note below, Blacks were able to vote for approximately a dozen years before attempts to legally disfranchise them began in earnest. 

After the Republican Party left the South, the Democratic Party (alongside other white supremacist organizations) stepped in to end this experiment, deploying violence and fraud in an attempt to keep Blacks from the polls. One reason they did this was to prevent the growing populist alliance between Black and white agricultural workers in the South. Such an alliance, given the populist desire for reforms such as a progressive income tax, direct election of senators, and making both railroad and telegraph lines public rather than private, would have had the consequences of radically destabilizing the growing power of robber barons across the country and of the planter regime in the South. But this isn’t all. In perhaps the best modern book about the period, Michael Perman’s Struggle for Mastery, the author quotes Senator James Z. George about what George called “the great problem” at the beginning of Mississippi’s constitutional convention in 1890:

“Our situation is without parallel in human history,” for “hitherto free government has succeeded no where, except among homogenous peoples willing to fight for and capable of harmonious political co-operation.” Yet, he continued, the “aspirations” of “our race” to “self government” have been “impeded by the presence of a race which, though possessing many virtues and many excellent qualities have [sic] never yet developed the slightest capacity to create, to operate, or to preserve constitutional institutions.” Especially deplorable therefore was the situation in Mississippi, where “the incapable race” constituted a majority that was actually increasing. 

But for George and others, the attempts to use fraud and violence to keep Blacks from voting was insufficient for two specific reasons. It was inefficient—as proven by the fact that Black people still were able to elect representatives to office, and one couldn’t guarantee that any attempt at fraud would actually be effective. But more to the point, stealing Black votes that were lawfully cast corrupted the system and the people participating in it. Once such a process was started, it could easily lead to a dynamic that threatened democracy itself. If people started threatening Black votes, why wouldn’t they eventually threaten any votes from their opponents simply because they were opponents? The best option would be to simply legislate Black votes away—to use the law itself to make Black votes illegal.

The 2nd and 15th Amendments promote two very different projects, one defensive and exclusive, the other offensive, inclusive, and productive.

A faction of the Republican Party still valued Black votes and Black voters, if for no other reason than the fact that they needed these votes and voters to maintain any semblance of Republican Party power in the South. Even during the Redemption period, members of this faction brought up election legislation in Congress to protect Black votes from Democratic Party practices in the South. In 1888, after the GOP gained both the presidency and Congress, Massachusetts Representative Henry Cabot Lodge sponsored a measure that would, among other things, appoint federal supervisors to oversee elections if a certain number of citizens in a given congressional district requested it. The bill passed the House with Republican Party support (fewer than five Republicans opposed the bill, and no Democrats voted for it), but it was stymied in the Senate for two reasons. Many have written about one of the reasons—the Democratic Party filibustered the bill in the Senate. But few have written about the other reason—the Republican Party itself made it difficult by prioritizing economic bills, the McKinley Tariff and the Silver Act, over the election bill. 

While Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, and James and Grace Lee Boggs were all intimately familiar with Black voter disfranchisement, I don’t think they were familiar with the Lodge Bill. But, given the events of the past few years (culminating in the January 6 coup attempt), I find it helpful to think about that bill. 

But it is also useful, given Malcolm X’s specific argument about the ballot and the bullet, to think about it in relationship to the Second and Fifteenth amendments.

I’d suggest that the Second Amendment, as practiced now and as practiced even during the time Malcolm X give his famous speech, is a reactive rather than a productive form of power—in fact when most people who support the Second Amendment talk about it, they talk about it as an amendment designed to defend individuals from state encroachment. 

It is this negative form of power that the Republican Party and the National Rifle Association have wielded with increasing success since 1970, fusing this with their Southern Strategy. Amongst reactionary conservatives, the Second Amendment has become the most important amendment in the Bill of Rights. Yet I’d argue the growing rise in inequality, the declining power of labor unions, and the seemingly increasing racial conflict, is correlated with growing support of, and concern for, the Second Amendment. It’s this negative power that Donald Trump and his supporters have turned to over and over again, and it’s arguably this negative power, this negative liberty, that was at play in the January 6 insurrection. They chose the day of election certification on purpose, not simply because Trump told them to, but because at base they believe the election was stolen from them. 

It is against this backdrop that I want to juxtapose the Fifteenth Amendment, an amendment that, alongside the Nineteenth (women’s suffrage), is the closest thing to a right to vote that we see embedded in the Constitution. If the Second Amendment has been, over time, infused with white supremacism and used to promote and defend the turn toward neoliberalism, the Fifteenth Amendment was used at the outset to promote what W. E. B. Du Bois has called an “abolitionist democracy”: a set of ideas and policies that worked to create some of the nation’s first public schools, as well as progressive attempts to use taxation to provide for the public good. 

If the Second Amendment was used to defend private property and the individual liberty of white men (and eventually women), the Fifteenth Amendment was used to articulate and defend the existence of a broad public and, through that public, the humanity of Black men and women (and through them white women—it is difficult to imagine the Nineteenth Amendment without the passage of the Fifteenth). The increased use of the Black vote did significantly transform both the South and the North. Further, we can argue that the rise of the white supremacist right over time has consistently reacted to the use of the Black vote. 

The Second Amendment, in other words, became more important to one segment of Americans in the wake of attempts by another segment to assert its full rights under the Fifteenth Amendment. The Second Amendment is intimately connected with the defense of private property (and by extension, capital and capitalism, to the extent that both are deeply connected to institutional regimes of private property). The Fifteenth Amendment is intimately connected with the expansion of the public sphere (which can include but is not limited to capital and capitalism). 

The Second Amendment and the Fifteenth Amendment promote two very different political projects, one largely defensive and exclusive, the other offensive, inclusive, and productive. However, over the last five decades, while we see an express willingness to use the Second Amendment to organize and mobilize citizens, through lobbying (the NRA’s lobbying arm begins in 1975) in order to extend and protect Second Amendment rights, we see the Fifteenth Amendment inconsistently and indirectly used. 

Indeed, while the population most associated with the Second Amendment, white gun owners, has been aggressively sought after, politically speaking, the population most associated with the Fifteenth Amendment, Black men and women, has not. Writing about this phenomenon, the political scientist Paul Frymer has argued that Black voters are in effect a hostage population, a population the Democratic Party simultaneously relies on yet does not actively mobilize (except rarely). 

This appears to be one of those rare moments. I write this just days after Ketanji Brown Jackson becomes the first Black woman justice in the Supreme Court (fulfilling an explicit campaign promise from Joe Biden), and several months after the President signed the most progressive piece of legislation in decades in the bipartisan infrastructure bill. However, I also write this after the Democratic Party refused to modify the filibuster and pass voting rights, inaction eerily reminiscent of decisions the Republican party made approximately 130 years ago.

What do we do in this fraught moment? The type of work put into registering and mobilizing Black voters, the type of work that saw Georgia elect Raphael Warnock its first Black Senator (and several years earlier, saw the nation elect Barack Obama), is rare, for three reasons. First, because “first ever” candidates like Warnock and Obama are themselves rare. Second, because, to the extent that such attempts have an ephemeral infrastructure, it’s simply hard to sustain them. And third, because there is only limited interest in mobilizing voters in general and Black voters more specifically within the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party finds it convenient to register and mobilize these voters in specific electoral contexts. For example, while Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms is intensely interested in making sure Atlantans turn out in high numbers for the Senate election, she is less interested in making sure Atlantans turn out in municipal elections—unless she faces a white challenger. In the case of Atlanta and many other major cities with large numbers of Black voters, Black interests (and relatedly, working-class interests) are often too unwieldy for political officials to meet. Better to have a low-turnout election that makes sure that the number of claims made on government is also low.

This dynamic puts Black populations in a quandary. Black populations are the ones most in need of positive government and are the population most likely to save the nation from itself politically speaking (both in the negative sense of showing the country where it fails and in the positive sense of showing the country what it needs to implement politically). Yet, they are mobilized only in rare circumstances.

Given this, and given the stakes, what should we do?

One argument is that we should do more within the Democratic Party to help ensure recognition of the role Black people play and get the party to shift its priorities to make voting and voting rights more critical. As someone on the left who is usually forced to vote for the Democratic Party candidate in national elections by the lack of a powerful left alternative, I understand this inclination, but given my political position and the way that the Democratic Party is still held hostage by capital (even Abrams, who worked with billionaire Michael Bloomberg in his failed candidacy for the presidency, isn’t without sin here, although it is possible and maybe even likely she worked with him to help raise money for the New Georgia Project and Fair Fight), an insiders’ approach is unlikely to work here. 

I’d turn back to Malcolm X—he suggested that Blacks would serve as a politically important bloc primarily because of their ability, at that moment in time, to work between the two parties. That political moment did not last long—when the GOP embraced the Southern Strategy, Blacks were taken hostage by the Democratic Party. But since the Democratic Party at the national and local level has a vested interest in mobilizing Black voters only when it meets their interests, it makes the most sense for Blacks to create an infrastructure that, while connected to the Democratic Party, is independent. 

We need to create an independent apparatus that has two primary functions—registering Black voters and organizing them. Note that I didn’t write “mobilize.” I didn’t do this for a reason—while mobilizing voters can be effective at garnering political victories (Georgia doesn’t turn blue without Black voters) mobilized voters tend to only be deployed in certain circumstances and, with exceptions, don’t tend to disrupt the status quo operation of the Democratic Party. Further, they tend to lie fallow between election cycles—awaiting the next mobilization call. We need something more than this. We need something that will organize Black voters and keep them organized. Something that can function as the bulwark of democracy in inter-party competitions, but can also push the party to fulfill the material interests of Black voters in intra-party competitions. As it stands, there are a number of civic organizations committed to registering Black voters and turning them out. However, while interest is growing, there is as of right now no organization committed and invested in organizing Black voters and developing them (us!) into a 24/7/365 political force, the type of force imagined by folks like Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, and James and Grace Lee Boggs.

From the Symposium

The State of Black America

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Lester Spence is a Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University.

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