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“America Never was America to Me”:
The Problem of Race between Past and Present

Aaron Thomas

«O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe»

(L. HUGHES, 1936)

Writing in 1903, the great sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois charged that «the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line»[1]. And he had good reason to believe that it was and would be. As the «peculiar institution» of slavery had made abundantly clear, the class of men that the Declaration of Independence had envisioned to be «created equal» and «endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights» did not include blacks. These truths, apparently, were not as self-evident as some of the Founding Fathers thought or hoped them to be, and it took a bloody, four-year civil war and the intransigence of the civil rights movement for them to come more fully into focus.
The initial attack on racial exclusion was directed at the legal system itself. Just a few years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, Chief Justice Roger Taney, writing for the Supreme Court’s majority, had infamously held in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) that the Declaration’s «general words» expressing the equality of men do not «embrace the whole human family». In the Court’s opinion, slaves and their descendents were not included nor intended to be included «under the words ‘citizens’ in the Constitution» and could therefore claim «none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States». The Court’s confidence in its interpretation derived in part from the observation that opinion in the «civilized and enlightened portions of the world» had held for a century or more that blacks «had no rights which the white man was bound to respect». The amendments to the Constitution written and ratified in the aftermath of the Civil War – the Thirteenth (1865), the Fourteenth (1868) and the Fifteenth (1870) – aimed to eliminate such egregious offences to formal legal equality, and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act (1866) and the Reconstruction Act (1867) in an effort to give some substantive direction to the general principles adumbrated in the amendments.
But unapologetic racists, primarily in the South, obstinately dissented from such attempts «to form a more perfect union» – to recall the inspiration that animated the Founding Fathers – and promptly obstructed Reconstruction policies by passing so-called Jim Crow laws that required the separation of whites from persons of color in schools, parks, restaurants, theatres, hotels, cemeteries, courtrooms and public transportation. When the Supreme Court was called upon to account for such statutes, its rulings offered little solace to the oppressed, for it often interpreted the matter of civil and political membership in highly exclusionary ways. After a series of disastrous decisions regarding problems of race, in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which is perhaps the most glaring example of the moral and legal schizophrenia that characterized this period, the Court concluded that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment – which stipulates that no person within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be denied «equal protection of the laws» – permitted racial segregation, provided that the conditions obtaining for blacks were largely equal to whites. This, of course, was rarely if ever the case, and the doctrine of «separate but equal» ended up sanctioning a system of racial apartheid that forced most blacks into conditions of grinding poverty, subservience and public humiliation.
With such a vast discrepancy between the nominally universal and egalitarian norms proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and the singular failure to secure the right to «life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness» in any meaningful way for great numbers of people, there is little wonder thus that African-Americans have felt a profound ambivalence with regard to American institutions. As the former slave and anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass famously exclaimed in a speech in New York City in 1847, «I have no love for America, as such; I have no patriotism. I have no country. What country have I? The Institutions of this Country do not know me – do not recognize me as a man[2]. Du Bois later captured with remarkable efficacy the tension between the promise of American ideals and the harsh reality of race relations when he said of the black experience that, «one ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder». The African-American «simply wishes», he continued, «to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face»[3].
The doors of opportunity were shut roughly, however, and in more than one sphere: blacks were relegated to manual labor, blocked from enrolling in universities, prohibited from intermarriage, and disenfranchised politically through a variety of legal and extralegal means, ranging from poll taxes and literacy requirements to intimidation and physical violence. Such forms of legal discrimination were often buttressed by cultural expectations and interaction rituals intended to show blacks their place in American society. And thus, even as blacks gave proof of their commitment to their country fighting in two world wars – in the belief that, as the poet Langston Hughes wrote in 1931, «our dark blood would wipe away the stain / Of prejudice, and hate, and the false color line – / And give us the rights that are yours and mine»[4]– the panoply of citizenship rights proclaimed on paper remained largely a dead letter until the civil rights movement turned race into a pitched political problem in the 1950s and 1960s. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and the Supreme Court guided by Chief Justice Earl Warren (1953–1969), responded to the race problem with considerable effect, invalidating Jim Crow laws – as in the famous decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which rejected the doctrine of «separate but equal» in public schools – and passing new legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act  (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). The former gave rise to government agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and programs such as affirmative action, which even the conservative President Nixon felt compelled to continue. The color line denounced by Du Bois a half-century earlier had begun to fade, at least in its formal, institutional contours, if not always in its cultural figurations.
Much progress has been made in the inclusionary process since the good old bad days of Jim Crow prejudice and errant knights of the Ku Klux Klan riding under the moonlight for the cause of white supremacy, and who left hanging from the southern trees so much of that “strange fruit” – bloodied and twisted – that Billie Holiday sang about with such icy emotion. Yet, that the problem of race is still palpable was made evident as the world witnessed the incredible exodus of persons, mostly black, who were trapped or forced to flee from the flooding in the wake of hurricane Katrina in August 2005. These ghastly events have prompted many to ask whether the great problem of the new century upon us will be, as Du Bois had said of the twentieth, the problem of the color line. But even before the ravages of the hurricanes in the Gulf States forcefully brought the perduring problems of color and class to the public’s attention, in the eyes of many, the new millennium got off to an inauspicious start with regard to matters of race – and through no fault of Mother Nature.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore, which ended the recount of ballots in Florida and in effect decided the presidential elections of 2000 in favor of George W. Bush, was rife with racial implications. While the Left was generally angered by the Court’s biased intervention, blacks were particularly outraged, for the election itself had been marred by fraud, intimidation at the polls, and the disqualification of thousands of ballots cast by African-Americans in Florida – and this, little more than three decades after the Voting Rights Act (1965) had sought to secure the effective participation of blacks hitherto excluded from the political process. In fact, the report issued by the United States Commission on Civil Rights, the agency charged with investigating cases of discrimination according to race, ethnicity, sex, age or religion, found many instances of voter disenfranchisement in the elections of 2000, and that these infractions penalized black voters disproportionately compared to other ethnic groups. More striking still, however, was the silence of Democratic senators as members of the Congressional Black Caucus rose one-by-one to contest the certification of Florida’s electoral votes, only to find that none of their putative political allies was willing to co-sponsor the objections of their colleagues who represented a segment of the electorate that cast the vast majority of its ballots for Gore (Bush garnered a meager 8% of the African-American vote).
While signs of an impending conservative backlash were already visible in the Republicans’ Southern strategy in the 1964 presidential election – adopted precisely at a moment of significant civil rights gains – it was not until the 1980s that this movement achieved full momentum. During these years, the Right was strikingly successful in recasting its long-standing indifference to questions of racial justice in the purportedly neutral terms of free market ideology. A general prejudice for the mysterious mechanisms of the «invisible hand» was thus allied to – and provided a moral and political rationalization for – the particular hostility that the Right has often displayed toward government actions aimed at redressing racial inequality.
The Clinton years may have slowed this reactionary movement, but they did not stop it, for by this time the Supreme Court was headed by the Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a jurist who, as a young clerk for Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson in the early 1950s, authored a memorandum arguing that the «separate but equal» doctrine of Plessy ought to be upheld. Rehnquist’s opposition to civil rights legislation, advanced under the banner of “federalism,” further legitimated conservative views and emboldened the movement to push for an even more reactionary jurisprudence. Thus while the commitment to federalism often served – at least since the Dixiecrats’ defection in the name of “states’ rights” during the 1948 presidential election – as an ideological subterfuge for local prejudice and the defense of white supremacy, its appeal on the Right eventually superseded this original intent, as fundamentalist Christians found it useful in their cultural war against any civil rights legislation standing in the way of their theocratic aspirations. With George W. Bush firmly installed in the White House in the aftermath of the elections of 2000, the conservative counter-revolution could resume from where the elder Bush had left it at the beginning of the Clinton parenthesis.
But while the Republican Party’s Southern strategy seeks to exploit white resentment at the progress of blacks and ethnic minorities, the policies assumed by Republican presidents since the 1960s could never be so openly bigoted and had to eschew the symbolic forms of racism that are so pervasive during electoral campaigns. Thus the various efforts to dismantle civil rights programs have been couched invariably in the universalistic language of free enterprise and a “colorblind” society. “Reaganomics” may be the term originally employed to describe this veiled retreat from racial justice in the service of (generally white) upper-class interest. But as Reagan’s policies buckled under their own contradictions – even the first President Bush had dubbed them «voodoo economics» – and augmented the (generally black) ranks of the disadvantaged underclass, another moniker had to be sought to make such a laissez-faire approach more broadly palatable.
For the younger Bush, this sort of politics would be described as «compassionate conservativism» and would combine drastic cuts in federal social programs and welfare provisions with an expanded reliance on “faith-based” organizations to provide for the poor. The full impact of these policies on the poor was not widely evident until Katrina’s waves thrashed the conservatives’ article of faith that Christian charity could substitute for the universal commitments of the welfare state. Despite the initial outrage these events unleashed, Bush continues the relentless march backwards initiated in 2000 by cutting taxes for the rich, scaling back social spending and welfare provisions, seeking to privatize public programs, waging legal assaults on affirmative action and following a blindly punitive approach to crime and punishment which is premised on a deceptively simple application of the Biblical morality that would pursue justice by exacting «an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth». But as the prison population swells with African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, and the ratio of those felled by the death penalty is ever more skewed against persons of color, it is becoming increasingly clear that the lex talionis does not strike in a colorblind way in America and that the conservatives’ answer to the old “social question” is dubious at best.
None of this portends well for race relations in America, much less for the goal of African-Americans to become more fully members of civil society. Worse still, in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the conservatives’ call to rally tightly around the flag in support of America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has made criticism of the Bush administration’s misguided policies increasingly difficult, for Republican politicians and their conservative attack dogs in the media are ever-ready to pounce and denounce – with Pavlovian punctuality – any dissent from the Right’s reactionary agenda.
In the conservatives’ ideology, all politics has become subsumed under the demands of the presumed “state of exception”, for which the president requires carte blanche in all affairs, both foreign and domestic. In this atmosphere thick with political conformism and the nearly obsessive attention devoted to terrorism, the pursuit of racial equality seems more than ever a distant dream for the many who still seek it. Indeed, a number of indicators tell the frightening tale of history turning backward, repelled more by a climate of indifference than by the explicit legal provisions common during the Jim Crow period: schools, universities and city neighborhoods are once again segregating according to race; the increasing gap between rich and poor over the last decade has been particularly pronounced among blacks and ethnic minorities; discrepancies in criminal sentencing in the “war on drugs” continue to treat blacks more harshly than whites; and the consensus that had been developing in the 1990s regarding the need to eliminate racial profiling seems to be slowly crumbling as vast numbers of people – blacks included – are now apparently more willing to countenance this practice when employed against anyone with Arabic traits.
Yet as the “war on terrorism” ensues, anyone concerned about the fate of American society would do well to keep in mind that the strength of a nation cannot be measured by the impregnability of its fleets, the sturdiness of its armies, or the compactness and conformity of the citizenry to a particular program or party. Today’s plutocrats who so assiduously demand sacrifice from the poor and urge us to fight enemies abroad and at home do not seem to grasp that the “we” in whose name they are calling up arms must extend beyond the ranks of the white and wealthy to embrace the whole human family, otherwise the very concept of political obligation risks losing its meaning.
The paladins of patriotism ought perhaps to reflect upon the superb words of Langston Hughes who, in a poem of remarkable civic spirit, punctured the hypocrisy of such demands for sacrifice – made invariably by «those who live like leeches on the people’s lives» through «the rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies» – and accentuated the discrepancy between the imperfect reality of America and the utopian potential of its universalistic norms. «There’s never been equality for me, / Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free’», he stated roundly. And yet, even as Hughes declared that «America never was America to me»[5], he refused to renounce its promise of liberty, justice and equality or surrender to the powers that would seek to subjugate the powerless. In light of the scenario sketched, the story of racial inclusion in the United States remains regrettably unfinished and Hughes’ plea still rings with great urgency today:

«O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine – the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–»


[1] W.E.B. DU BOIS, The Souls of Black Folk, Penguin Books, New York 1989, p. 13.

[2] F. DOUGLASS, The Right to Criticize American Institutions: speech before the American Anti-Slavery Society, May 11, 1847, in Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, eds. Y. Taylor – P. FONER, Lawrence Hill Books, Chicago 1999, p. 77.

[3] W.E.B. DU BOIS, The Souls of Black Folk, p. 5.

[4] L. HUGHES, The Colored Soldier, in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, eds. A. Rampersad – D. Roessel, Vintage, New York 1994, p. 147.

[5] L. HUGHES, Let America Be America Again, in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, pp. 189–91.

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