On September 1, 2022, President Biden delivered a speech in defense of democracy from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His remarks denounced “MAGA Republicans,” distinguishing this sect from “mainstream Republicans.” MAGA, Make America Great Again, is a scarcely veiled call to reinforce White supremacist tenets and social practices. And yet it was not until the 17th minute of a 24-minute speech that President Biden uttered the words “White Supremacy” or made any other reference to race. Mr. Biden cannot rally American resolve for fully inclusive democracy unless he is willing to tell the whole truth about what has always threatened it. Mr. President, anti-Black racism is “normal” in America—and it has been since our country’s founding. MAGA is today’s manifestation, but it’s lineage is long.
We must first grieve the conditions that make MAGA magnetic for millions of Americans.
The majority of those who convened at Independence Hall to draft and sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were slaveholders at some point in their lives, as were a near majority of those at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Our founding documents and attendant federal, state, and local laws protected slaveholders’ interests. The “the rule of law” was then, and still is, Black subordination.
Among the most overt platforms of slaveholders’ power in the Constitution was the counting of enslaved people as three-fifths of a free individual, for the purposes of determining congressional representation, thus granting slaveholders outsized influence in our political system for decades. Those who gathered in Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century were representative of America’s slaveholding political class until the end of the Civil War in 1865. The Washington Post found that 1,800 Congress persons once enslaved people.
While most White Americans never enslaved anyone, Americans of European descent, even if desperately poor, were never subjected to chattel slavery. They retained bodily autonomy and the protection of laws. And after chattel slavery ended and Jim Crow segregation was erected in its place in the late nineteenth century, White Americans regardless of social class, continued to benefit from anti-Black racism, albeit to varying degrees.
MAGA claims slave logic is “greatness.” If President Biden seeks to confront this perspective, mere passing mentions of the Civil War and America’s steady march to include all the people in “we the people,” remains inadequate. What, Mr. President, was the Civil War fought over? To what extent did the social order of White domination end after the War? If we study any social domain of consequence for life chances in our country—from access to high quality health care and schools, to safe neighborhoods and drinking water, White Americans continue to have starkly disproportionate access. And this access rests on the exclusion of non-White people, especially those who are Black.
President Biden called for hope and optimism and dismissed “grievance” as a legitimate path for progress. I respectfully disagree. We must first grieve the conditions that make MAGA magnetic for millions of Americans. We ought to lament that in a country of plenty, so many are in wont. The leader of the MAGA movement is using earnest concerns about the rapacious forms of racial capitalism that render so many Americans economically vulnerable, to scapegoat the very group that has least benefited from America’s economy, Black Americans. Indeed, Black people’s labor and skill is the foundation for America’s wealth accumulation.
I am a Black middle-class woman with the honor of studying Black people as my profession. I both hold onto the breakthroughs achieved after centuries of agitation, most recently through the Modern Civil Rights Movement, and my righteous indignation at how “stony the road we trod,” as Black Americans.
American greatness has been elusive, and it will keep slipping from our grasp if we remain unwilling to repudiate repugnant social systems that do not honor the dignity of all people.
Certainly, President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 is a step in the right direction. However, it is a far cry from the Build Back Better bill Progressive Democrats proposed, which would have created paths for a higher quality of life for those most marginalized by instituting paid family and sick leave, child care support, and other social safety net measures.
As a follower of Christ, I serve a God who came to preach good news to the poor and to set the captives free. I serve a God who ushered in abundance through his life, death, and resurrection. Thus, I refuse to settle for the manufactured scarcity that plagues our society. Thank you, Mr. President, for reminding us that our democracy is in peril and that we must fight for it. I simply say: this has always been so. If we name what ails us, tell the whole truth so we might work toward an appropriate cure. Let us all, as Americans, put our shoulders to the plough. The journey to justice has only just begun!