We should be tellers of history and not judges

[Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part series from Joshua Peters on the discussion of race and the teaching of American history. Part one is available here.]

In an effort to delineate in precise terms those responsible for black suffrage, there are three areas of interest: social, economic, and political. I will inspect each of these categories to determine which one provides the appropriate specificity to frame education around black suffrage* in America.

Additionally, because we are interested in the period of 1776 to 1964, I will suggest another element of interest that must be examined: continuity. Black suffrage spans centuries, so the culprit is one of ideological affiliation rather than of a specific person. Here, black suffrage, unlike the Holocaust, could not be the product of a single person. Therefore, that which will be held to account is an idea shared by a particular group from 1776 to 1964. There are three distinct subjects of history pertaining to black suffrage: slavery, Reconstitution, and Jim Crow. Each of these subjects denotes a specific period in time that is both sequential and characterized under unique circumstances. Thus, whatever we suggest as being responsible for black suffrage will correspond to each of these periods.

Hence, those held to account will be of a particular social class, economic class, or political class that spans the different epochs of black suffrage in America.

Sociologically, black suffrage cannot be attributed to culture, at least in the context of specified history. This is not to say members of American society didn’t espouse racial or prejudicial beliefs, but instead, this was the way of the world at the onset of America’s founding. One cannot project onto the study of history the magnitude of moral beliefs which we share at present. History should be taken for what it is and in the context of that time. To do otherwise in the context of education would be to use history for one’s own political and moral ends. of history when teaching its contents.

Additionally, America, as a whole, did not have a uniform belief in the practice of slavery. Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence had an aggressively negative view of slavery. He condemned slavery as antithetical to “human nature itself.” In the initial draft, Jefferson states, “[King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”

The exact reason this passage was removed is unknown. But Jefferson tells us in his autobiography that the blame for removal is due to South Carolina, Georgia, and Northern sentiments (he may be referring to Rhode Island here due to about 90 percent of slaving voyages from the American Colonies started from there). This makes evident the competing dichotomy in America on the matter of slavery.

Furthermore, from abolitionists in the 1800s to civil rights advocates in the 1900s, it is evident that America’s culture seeks equality and unification of all Americans. Accordingly, we cannot use American culture, as a whole, to explain the reason for black suffrage as it lacks specificity.

The next area of examination is economics. Indeed, black suffrage, slavery, in particular, is rooted in economic interest. Goods like cotton and tobacco created substantial wealth for plantation owners in the southern states. But are economic incentives precise enough to explain Black Suffrage across the whole of its history? It cannot. The American economic system would change post-Civil War and into Reconstruction. American Historian Edward Ayers argues that former slaves were able to build a life for themselves in the era of Reconstruction, despite racial prejudices. Ayers contends, “despite the fact of starting with nothing, nothing, that through their hard work, [freed slaves] were able to scrimp and save and buy a little bit of land for themselves, and build a better future for their children. They educate their children somehow, out of all this. How could they afford to do that? Just through sacrifice… African Americans in the South were able to fight their way up into a better life for themselves and their families.”

This is not to say no prejudice and racism died post-Civil War and through the mid-1900s. However, economic conditions as a driving factor across the epochs of black suffrage would not be pervasively instrumental in explaining the social misfortune of black America. Consequently, the duration of black suffrage in American cannot be explained by the American economic system, and thus it is inaccurate to attribute blameworthiness.

The last area of interest to be examined is politics. It is important to note that America’s political history can be reduced to two philosophies: individualism and collectivism. To give a general reference to the practitioners of both political philosophies, one can think of Thomas Jefferson advocating individualism and John Quincy Adams and Alexander Hamilton espousing a more collectivist American worldview. Within the states that tend to be pro-individualism, there was the fervent sense of state-nationalism. (At this time, there was no Americanness to speak of, but rather individual states a part of a union of states.) This enthusiastic sentiment of individualism was particularly strong in the southern states.

However, there is another political sentiment that was blended with the social belief at the time. One can think of this socially driven collectivism as racial nationalism. This racial nationalism in the southern states is an evil shadow that cast the silhouette of the cruel war against human nature itself. Unfortunately, shadows grow as light rescinds. So, what was it that expanded the shadow of racism in the south? It was the political elites playing racial identity politics to gain favor with white southern voters.

The political elites of the south were being funded by the southern oligarchy, which had a direct interest in the institution of slavery. Consequently, this poli-business union created a political bubble that insulated southern voters. Combined with partisan news, media-based narratives harmonized the poli-business interest with a potent racial nationalist perspective of how the world should be seen. The poli-business-media trifecta became a powerful partisan machine to insulate the southern states from virtually all contradictory information about their worldview regarding black Americans.

But what is required to maintain the institution of slavery is a political class that is organized around a political philosophy that is susceptible to devaluing individual freedom and rights for the sake of consolidating collective power in the hands of the elite members of society. This particular political class will eventually be known as the Democratic Party.

One can clearly see why the intersectionality of politics, economics, and sociology is a potent force for maintaining the institution of slavery during the first epoch of black suffrage. But what about the second and third epochs? I contend that as one moves through the eras of black suffrage, there is a constant that gives us continuity and specificity: political policies adverted by the Democratic Party. Why was it that Reconstruction policies after the Civil War were broadly unsuccessful? Democratic president Andrew Johnson did not support the measures. Additionally, the 1870s saw Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives, whereby they advanced legislation to undo Reconstruction-era policies. From the 1880s to the 1960s, who advanced Jim Crow laws that led to racial segregation? Southern Democrats dominated state legislatures during that time. From slavery through the Civil Rights Movement, one can rightfully say that the Democratic Party’s political ideology was responsible for political subjugation in the black suffrage era.

Joshua Peters is a philosopher and social critic from Raleigh, NC. His academic background is in western philosophy, STEM, and financial analysis. Joshua studied at North Carolina State University (BS) and UNC Charlotte (MS). He is a graduate of the E.A. Morris Fellowship for Emerging Leaders.

*Black suffrage in this piece refers to the period between Reconstruction and the American Civil Rights Act of 1964. Black Americans, particularly males before Women’s suffrage, were legally allowed to vote but often prevented by Jim Crow political systems.