Deferred Freedom Dreams in the Quest for Black Economic Citizenship

U.S. Supreme Court Building (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A little more than 153 years ago, in the aftermath of the Civil War, Radical Republicans in the United States Congress adopted the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1866. As a watershed legislation, it marked the first time that the Federal Government attempted to secure the legal personhood of its Black population who had heretofore been held in chattel slavery. The Act, according to one of its sponsors, James F. Wilson of Iowa, provided “for the equality of citizens of the United States in the enjoyment of “civil rights and immunities.” The Bill seemed likely fated for death on arrival when it reached the desk of President Andrew Johnson. The President viewed any guarantee of Black citizenship as a zero-sum that “is . . . made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race.” For this reason, the President promptly vetoed the law on March 27th. It was subsequently rescued and then ratified when on April 9th both chambers of Congress overrode the president’s objection. Among its more remarkable legacies, the law served as a precursor for the Equal Protection Clause so cherished today. It did so by introducing the doctrine that respects the “reasonable protection to all persons in their constitutional rights of equality before the law, without distinction of race or color, or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude.” The further significance of the law can be seen as an extended effort by Congress to combat the notorious Black Codes of the Southern states. Thus, by legislative fiat, the law secured and designated the U.S government as the guarantor of African American civic and political rights (a role that had been left to the States since the founding) when its citizenship clause was adopted into the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.

Beyond the unequivocal support for birthright as the legal principle for securing the rights of all native-born Americans, the law tested the moral commitment of the nation to its ideal mantra, E Pluribus Unum. For the first time since the Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted naturalization to “free White persons,” the country adopted what was before the Civil War an unpopular position associated mainly with radical abolitionist: recognition of the full democratic rights and citizenship of Black people. As the anniversary of the law passed this April, this singular human rights achievement during the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) comes at an unceremonious time in U.S. history. Just as the country is exiting the euphoria of the Obama Era’s (2009-2017) post-racial mythos, a specter is haunting America — the specter of the widening racial wealth gap and its historical antecedents. To this end, economic indicators point to a present epoch in which class and racial inequalities have converged into the nadir of wealth disparities, and thus the problem of economic citizenship and the question of who owns America.

To read the numbers on the plight of African Americans as a nation within the Nation is, in the words of James Baldwin, enough to make prophets and angels weep. According to recent reports published by The Institute for Policy Studies, “between 1983 and 2016, the median Black family saw their wealth drop by more than half after adjusting for inflation, compared to a 33 percent increase for the median White household.” In all, twenty four percent of the class of the descendants of the enslaved men, women, and children of the nineteenth century still live in poverty today. And as pointed out in a recent article by the Washington Post: “In 2006, amid the real estate run-up, Black families earning more than $200,000 annually were more likely on average to be given a subprime loan than a white family making $30,000 a year.” These economic benchmarks speak to a worsening crisis of economic depravity and financial devastation. On average, Black family wealth is a mere $3,600—just 2 percent of the $147,000 of wealth the median White family owns. This same percentage point is commensurate with the fact that “African-Americans overall make up 13.2 percent of the U.S population, but have only 2.5 percent of the nation’s total wealth.”

In this unequal arrangement where deep-seated economic insecurity folds neatly into a persistently racist political economy, African America’s posterity looks grimmer when accounting for the fact that thirty seven percent of Black families have zero or negative wealth. In short, just as racism is the bedrock of the foundations of our inherited racial inequities, so too is the racial wealth gap a breeder of economic injustice, forming the cornerstone for the seemingly elusive and intractable problem of Black economic citizenship. Thus, the remarkably striking fact that in today’s America, the wealthiest 100 white men and women of the Forbes 400 Richest Americans own as much wealth as the entire African American population of 42 million people.

These racial economic disparities highlight the unfulfilled promise and long, but elusive, struggle for Black citizenship. And if it continues to fester in this trajectory, demographers have noted an apocalyptic reality in the near future: “by 2050 the median White family will have $174,000 of wealth, while Latino median wealth will be $8,600 and Black median wealth will be $600. The median Black family is on track to reach zero wealth by 2082.” If history is indeed prologue, a fair conclusion by any historian is that little, outside the gains of political freedom and civil rights, has changed the economic conditions of Black people since Congress took the first steps to remedy the problem through the Civil Rights Law 150 years ago.

The retreat from Reconstruction Era policies like the Civil Rights Act of 1866 has ensured that Black economic disenfranchisement continues to reverberate as not just past, but present and future history. For instance, the ongoing contraction of the welfare state and the increasing hyper-precariousness of the Black working and middle classes, underscore the severity of the unfulfilled promise of Black economic citizenship as a future problem in American life. Already starved of land or monetary capital, and faced with the diminishing returns of neoliberal labor markets, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United is a verdict against efforts to reconstitute the Black body politic. Citizens United accentuated the power of “white” moneyed influence in American political life while eroding the Fourteenth Amendment’s intended effort to safeguard Black citizenship. Complainants reasonably lament that Citizens United effectively enshrined corporate personhood as constitutional doctrine. Also, true, however, is the equally devastating fact that the Justices reaffirmed the Federal Judiciary’s antipathy for Black personhood by resurrecting an established jurisprudence from the 1880s that, more often than not, privileged nonpersons over and at the expense of the formerly enslaved Black men and women who were the intended beneficiaries of such reforms. As one scholar observes: “Between 1868, when the [Fourteenth] amendment was ratified, and 1912, the Supreme Court would rule on 28 cases involving the rights of African Americans and an astonishing 312 cases on the rights of corporations.” Seen in its proper historical context, Citizens United was not, in fact, a mere abrogation of responsibility. Rather, it is reflective of the Court’s career of illiberal decisions when adjudicating Black citizenship.

The reluctance of the Court to extend to African-Americans the constitutional guarantee of what the distinguished philosopher Hannah Arendt called, “The right to have rights, or the right of every individual to belong to humanity,” highlights the residual effects of a problem that outlasted the Civil War and Reconstruction after it. That is, the emancipation of four million Black women, men, and children did not in fact sever white supremacy from the national political economy. From that legacy partly stems the many inequities that continue to tear at the sociopolitical fabric of Black livelihood. The structural underpinning of our society, it would appear, is partly informed by the remaining vestiges of American slavery; a tragic fact that impedes the democratic project of building a more equal, multiracial society. The consequence of this history is to have left the United States and Black Americans grappling still with 150 years of a twinned problem: freedom without economic citizenship, and post-Civil War reconciliation without reparations.

Note: This post is the first of a two-part commentary/analysis on Black citizenship after Reconstruction. Part 2 will explore the problem of reconciliation without equity and the implications for citizenship.

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Westenley Alcenat

Westenley Alcenat is a scholar, teacher, and academic consultant. His primary focus is the African American protest tradition, political and intellectual thought in the nineteenth century, and the Haitian Revolution's legacy and influence on Black American radicalism. He teaches United States, Atlantic, and Afro-Caribbean history at Fordham University in the Bronx. Follow him on Twitter @wesalcenat.