Given the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement and escalation of the climate crisis, the time has come to reevaluate whether or not democracy is functioning to serve all Americans, and whether or not it was created to.
The urgency of this question becomes especially apparent as both presidential candidates hold histories of complicity, perpetuating direct violence against communities of color as well as accepting large donations from corporations responsible for environmental damages and exploitation of laborers. Despite the tangible differences in candidates, regardless of party preference, a casted vote affirms a historically, and at present, white democracy.
Political theorist, Dr. Joel Olson, whose work honors renowned sociologist and abolitionist W. E. B. Du Bois, outlines the white democracy as one in which polity and citizenship is dependent upon racial lines and the exclusion of nonwhites. In contrast, standard democracy is recognizable by the political equality of all citizens.
The formation of the United States as a white democracy then lies in the violence of genocide and chattel slavery, which created a system of rights, by virtue of citizenship, dependent upon whiteness. Those who racially present as white, and those who could assimilate into whiteness, were granted and are granted prioritized rights over BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) who find exclusion.
The first recognizable conundrum is that the democratic ideals penned in the constitution, which granted natural rights to citizens, found itself dependent upon the symbiotic relationship of capitalism and white supremacy.
“There is no contradiction between democracy ideals and practises of slavery; the former depended on the economic base of the latter,” Olson writes. The broad assertions of “all men are created equal,” “inalienable rights” and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” remain deeply misaligned with the reality created by violent practices against BIPOC for the purpose of wealth expansion and exclusion.
As declared in the three fifths clause of the constitution, a Black person was deemed 60 percent of a free white man. This clause found confirmation in the utilization of chattel slavery, which relegated Black people to property and breeders for capital gain. Although the constitution did not explicitly name the standing of Native Americans, the historical and present violence indicates such.
In 1850, the U.S. Cavalry slaughtered 400 Pomo people—one six-year-old girl is documented to have survived by hiding in a pond where she used a reed to breathe. Then, within the first two years of the Gold Rush, 10,000 Native Americans were killed as the state spent $1.7 million to encourage the “elimination” of indigenous peoples. In 1862, law determined slaves by those “whose parentage and native country were not christian at the time of purchase” and allowed for white persons to seize native land with naturalization. When Native Americans did receive citizenship, they still faced mass sterilizations—persisting into the 70’s—and forced relocation to boarding school where cultural genocide occurred.
Following the establishment of the U.S. white democracy through violent dominance, policy enacted by the government persisted to suppress Black people, as well as people of color holistically, from engaging in democracy and exercising their natural rights.
During Reconstruction in late 1865, the first Black Codes were implemented, incarcerating thousands of Black men for the purpose of labor. Following the Black Codes, the Jim Crow era arrived as a codified system of apartheid bringing mass segregation, lynchings, voter intimidation and state laws prohibiting Black people from voting unless they owned property— an impossible feat given that the Federal Housing Administration practiced redlining, refusing to insure Blacks with mortgages and subsidizing the building of suburbia.
Although the Civil Rights Movement overcame blatant segregation, the consequences persisted and the new right formed (comprised of Republicans and Democrats alike), utilizing a colorblind ideology to boast diversity while simultaneously waging a war on drugs against people of color, especially Black people.
The harm detailed in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, confirms the white democracy as described by Olson. Alexander describes the subjugation of Black people as that of a racial caste system dependent upon the “tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group definitely largely by race.” Policies in question include the example of the 100-to-1 crack versus powder cocaine sentencing disparity which targeted Blacks, as well as strategies of policing which target urban populations over suburban areas, although studies show that people of color and whites use drugs at the same levels.
In illustration of these points, the Sentencing Project’s studies revealed how from 1995 to 2005, Blacks made up 13 percent of drug users although they accounted for 36 percent of drug arrests. Following this, the Sentencing Project revealed that mass incarceration has allowed for 7.4 percent of the Black population to be disenfranchised, while only 1.8 percent of non-Blacks are disenfranchised.
The New Jim Crow era finds new scrutiny in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and following issues of voter suppression, an increase in demands for ID’s at polling places, the rollback of the Voting Right Act of 1965 and the shaky state of the USPS services.
The reality of a U.S. white democracy, created from colonial violence and perpetuated by current exclusionary acts, must face a serious confrontation, contemplative of how a new democracy can operate to pay reparations forward and reimagine itself to liberate BIPOC as well as low income and working class whites. Until this is done, the act of voting can only operate to slow the cog which is white supremacy.