Freedom Without Citizenship, Reconciliation without Reparations

This post is part two of a two-part commentary/analysis on Black citizenship after Reconstruction. Read part one here: “Deferred Freedom Dreams in the Quest for Black Economic Citizenship.”

Sharecropper Family, 1935 — Little Rock, Arkansas (Library of Congress: FSA/OWI Collection)

It has become a fashionable axiom of white politicians today to acknowledge that slavery was in fact the cause of the Civil War. This consciousness was rekindled by the widely influential writings of former Atlantic magazine writer and editor, Ta-Nehisi Coates. The women who founded the Black Lives Matter movement were also at the forefront of keeping the flame of this conversation. Preceding Coates and Black Lives Matter was Randall Robinson’s important book, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. In spite of the renewed discourse, less discussed is how the institutional remnants of Black enslavement is at core an issue of Black economic citizenship for the last 150 years after emancipation and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. While Black citizenship experienced great potential in the late nineteenth century, the transition from slavery to freedom and from sharecropping to the semi-feudalistic Jim Crowism of most of the twentieth century wiped out the democratic legacies of Reconstruction. A history of the present does not bode well either. Not yet a full quarter into the twenty-first century, Black citizenship is arguably at a point of stagnation, if not already displaying the trappings of semi-serfdom realities of debt-bondage, and of the public-private carceral labor regimes. With such deep-seated economic inequality perpetuating racial caste and class dynamics, a people with no wealth in the capitalistic US system — as is the case for African America — is a people owned by and existing at the margins, if not at the political mercy, of their economic peers.

The successes of the Civil Rights Movement did point to the promise of a paradigm shift. Since the post-civil rights measures of the era lasting roughly between 1965 and 1974 — Affirmative Action initiatives, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, the gospel of “Black Capitalism” (the Office of Minority Business Enterprise), and the Office of Economic Opportunity — have succeeded in displacing the strictures of Jim Crow racism. However, where Jim Crow was dismantled as one pillar in the structure of white supremacy, the economics of racial capitalism persists in the expansion of a Black bourgeoisie that was largely recruited and enlisted to assimilate into the mainstream neoliberal processes of globalization. In effect, Black America as it exists today is reeling from the ills of integration without self-determination.

The problem of Black freedom, as history continues to show, is that citizenship and its construction is mired in different demands and who controls the political sphere. While there is no one overarching reason for the lack of apparent consensus on the most prominent factors contributing to this problem, the arrogance and, as some would argue, the independent force of racism is perhaps the primary reason. Even where the issue may have been lack of land ownership, as historian Eric Foner demonstrates in his book Nothing But Freedom, the formerly enslaved viewed land as the prerequisite to entering the community of industrial workers. An equal relationship within that community cannot be mediated in an equitable fashion if one side is completely starved of the capital that was expropriated from them during centuries of enslavement. In those same periods of inhumane bondage, those who had before benefited from the free labor of Black bodies retain the land and whatever fruits of capital it returns as investment. From this vantage point, civil rights without economic citizenship was a Faustian bargain that brought freedom without citizenship and supposed national reconciliation without genuine reparations.

This dilemma is partly the historical effects of a longstanding American tug of war between inclusion versus exclusion. As the late historian George Frederickson noted, this dichotomy was always more inscribed in the white mind than fostering a true meritocratic system of genuine citizenship. For comparative instances, look to the case of Jamaica and the US after the emancipation of slavery. In both societies, popular white opinion never conceived of Black people as truly free or capable of controlling the means of labor in their own terms. This history points to an ideological fact that undergirded the construction of racialized citizenship in the minds of most whites in Britain and in the United States. That is, from the white perspective, free labor ideology was never free from the outset. As Frederickson points out in his book Black Liberation, the cost to enter that realm of citizenship asked that African-Americans accept the presumed innate inferiority of Black people.

Free labor ideology was thus not devoid of racism and in effect adhered to a naturalization of Black workers as idle, indolent, and lackadaisical in their work ethic. In other words, work and Blackness were conceptually incompatible. Between North and South, systems of thought about Black labor and freedom differed insomuch as one side advocated a society with some form of servitude (North) and the other called for a slave society. What remained constant is that both communities identified the symbiosis of white freedom to Black inequality. The South Carolinian slaveholder John Calhoun was the foremost advocate of this system of racist beliefs. As he once said to his fellow congressman John Quincy Adams, slavery as an ideology of labor was the providence of Black people: “It was only manual labor-the proper work of slaves. No white person could descend to that. And it was the best guarantee to equality among the whites.” Moreover, the paternalism of free labor ideology rests in attributing the virtues of thrift, hard work, and so-called protestant ethic — and thus deserved economic citizenship — as the traits of the white yeomen farmer.

Whether Congress intended to inscribe the 1866 Civil Rights Act with that ideology did not matter much for the wider Euro-American population, especially Northern antislavery policymakers. Most policymakers sought to make the formerly enslaved into workers in the image of white men. However, without land, citizenship to the freedmen was an empty promise. Only in the case of post-Revolutionary Haiti did a genuine sense of the Black worker as owner of some landed capital become a reality, but one that was continually interrupted by the intrusive force of merchant capital from the North Atlantic empires, namely France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States. Rather than a wholesale overthrow of the structural processes of racism that were inherited from American slave society, much of the era of Reconstruction proved to have been a reactionary period fraught in the racial insecurities of white anxieties and fragility regarding Black freedom. Those anxieties were read into the letter of the law as white northerners and southerners attempted to substitute Black citizenship with a second-class caste status. The goal was to fit race into racism in the hope that Black workers’ citizenship would create a fateful equality between otherwise unequal parties.

Given this rather tragic aftermath of post-slavery America, what then is left to be done? It is my opinion that whatever course is followed will have to involve the active intervention of the State and policymakers. Trends in the contemporary discourse of the Democratic party’s presidential politics show that several candidates have endorsed at least a serious conversation on the issue of reparations as redress for the enslavement of African Americans. Beyond policymakers, we must also turn, in part, to the nineteenth-century demands of the freedmen and women who, throughout their transition from slavery to freedom, provided their own prognosis. As articulated by John Adams, a formerly enslaved man, what African Americans want is this: “Now we are free. What do we want? We want education; we want protection; we want plenty of work; we want good pay for it, but not any more or less than anyone else … then you will see the down-trodden race rise up.” Far from a dream deferred, this is a vision of democratic reform and a penance for redeeming the soul of America. The possible outcome may be that African Americans can one day claim to have dreamt the so-called American Dream instead of the centuries-worth of American nightmares that plague Black political existence to this day.

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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.

Comments on “Freedom Without Citizenship, Reconciliation without Reparations

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    Professor Alcenat, I thank you for this piece that brings together so many themes into one clear focused argument, relevant for our times.

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    “It has become a fashionable axiom of white politicians today to acknowledge that slavery was in fact the cause of the Civil War”

    And I predict the freedom given by the 13th amendment leaving the Negro slave incarcerated on a island continent in a strange land never to be at ease will be the cause of the second Civil War. The only reparations [ the cash value of “40 acres and a mule” ] should be for passage to go back home before that happens.

    PS: I’ve been studying the Transatlantic slave system consequences from 1400 to today.

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