TAmerica’s current social contract is not an expression of our deepest values, greatest hopes, and highest ideals. Rather, it is the result of a centuries-long series of compromises with white supremacists.
In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson included a strong condemnation of slavery and the slave trade, denouncing the “abominable trade” as “a cruel war against human nature itself.” The leaders of the states involved in the buying and selling of black bodies rejected the offending passage, and Jefferson explained the decision to compromise by writing: “The clause … was struck out in token of agreement with South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wanted to continue it. Our northern brethren, too, I think, felt a little tender under these reproaches; for though their people have very few slaves, yet they have been quite considerable carriers of them to others.’
The Constitution itself, a governing document aimed at “establishing justice” and “securing the blessings of liberty,” is rife with compromises with white supremacist demands that the People’s Nation codify the inferior status of black people. The “Fugitive Slave Clause” – Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution – prohibited anyone from interfering with slave owners tracking down “drapetomaniacs” who were escaping slavery.
And, of course, there was Article I, Section 2, Clause 3, which contained the quintessential compromise on how to count the black population of the country, which resulted in the decision to count individuals – black people – as three-fifths of the whole people.
The thinking about citizenship and immigration policy that continues to preoccupy American politics, primarily white, is not even the result of compromise. In essence, it is a complete capitulation to the concept that America is and should be primarily a white country. The Naturalization Act of 1790 – one of the country’s first laws – declared that to be a citizen one had to be a “free white man.” This belief was sufficiently uncontroversial that no compromise was necessary, and the provision was quickly adopted.
In a unanimous opinion in 1922, Ozawa v. United States The Supreme Court ruled firmly and irrevocably that US law limited the citizenship of white people because “the words “white man” mean a Caucasian” and Ozawa “clearly belongs to a race other than the Caucasian, and therefore belongs entirely by -beyond the zone » citizenship. Racial restrictions were official law until 1952 and standard practice until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This centuries-old white-first immigration policy framework was most recently articulated by Donald John Trump – the man who 74 million Americans voted for in 2020 – when he asked in 2018, “Why are all these people from crappy countries coming to us here? »
The broad social programs of the New Deal were the result of compromises with Confederate congressmen who sought to preserve white power. In a Congress that valued seniority, many of its most senior and influential members came from states that barred blacks from voting. In her book When Affirmative Action Was White, Ira Katznelson describes how “The South used its legislative power to transfer its racial priorities to Washington. Its leaders imposed New Deal policies on them, with little resistance.”
Social Security may be the signature policy of the New Deal era, but out of deference to white Southerners, the program expressly excluded farm workers and domestic workers. As Katznelson explains, “These groups—which made up more than 60 percent of the black workforce in the 1930s and nearly 75 percent of those working in the South—were excluded from the legislation that created modern unions, from the laws that established minimum wages . and regulated working hours, and from social insurance until the 1950s.’
Even the cornerstone of democracy – the right to vote – remains to this day the result of a creaky compromise with white nationalists. Most constitutional rights do not require updating the common law. There are no laws on freedom of speech, the right to privacy, or the right to bear arms. We don’t revise these basic rights every 10 or 20 years. However, when it comes to the Fifteenth Amendment, suffrage has required additional legislation to ensure enforcement, and opposition has been so intransigent and long-standing that the Voting Rights Act must be regularly renewed by Congress, requiring negotiations and compromises with those who fear the consequences of change. power if everyone of all races is allowed to vote.
Even after achieving a cavalcade of compromises over the centuries, the Confederates consistently demonstrated that they did not feel bound to abide by any agreements or democratic institutions unless those agreements or institutions could adequately protect whiteness. From the Civil War itself to the January 2021 uprising, the white nationalist response to the defeat of democracy has been to attempt to destroy American institutions and tear up our national compacts.
In contract law, a contract is void if one of the parties did not enter into it in good faith or if one of the parties breaches the agreement and repudiates their mutual obligations. Given the apparent bad faith and contempt for any loyalty to the common good, why should we cling to the old framework?
The answer is no. We don’t have to stifle our dreams or give up our principles. Now we can work out a new, fundamentally different social contract.