Today is Independence Day. Like many a Fourth of July gone by, my family and I will be celebrating with burgers and dogs and a side of democracy, as we remember the timeless Declaration of our Founding Fathers that “all men are created equal” and that governments derive “their just power from the consent of the governed.”
But something is different this year. Besides the cancellation of most fireworks and parades on account of the pandemic, America is in the midst of a deeper reckoning with racism that shakes the very foundations of “equality” and “consent” so many of us take for granted. Embedded in the burgeoning Movement for Black Lives are two fundamental questions: Is the democracy we celebrate today worthy of its name? If not, what can we do to achieve our common creed of “liberty and justice for all”?
To answer these questions, I’m drawn to a far less momentous time than 1776 when the pursuit of political equality became personal for me. The year was 2012 and my wife and I were beginning our return to the United States from her homeland of South Africa, where we lived in close proximity to a kind of race-based inequality I could scarcely imagine as a privileged White person from New Hampshire. The encounters abroad, and in my own marriage, had prompted me to take a closer look at poverty and inequality back home in the form of a peculiar research trip by Greyhound bus. I did not like what I saw.
For weeks at a time in 2012–13, I observed a poverty-line budget of $16 per day as I traveled from the Deep South to the de-industrialized Midwest, from immigrant settlements along the Mexican border to “Skid Row” in LA, sleeping in bus stops and homeless camps, and speaking to “second-class” citizens about the state of our democracy. The interviews and analysis I compiled for The Atlantic and a short book revealed a democracy shot through with a kind of racial and class discrimination I thought was long since past.
I shared meals with young Black men in Alabama who had been locked up for petty offenses — like failing to pay their bills on time or being homeless in public — only to find themselves locked out of voting or serving on juries because of their “criminal” record. An estimated 6.1 million American citizens were disenfranchised in the last presidential election in 2016 — up from 5.8 million at the time of my research — including 7.8 percent of African American adults or four times the rate of non-Black citizens. The majority of disenfranchised people, then and now, have already completed their sentence.
I was welcomed into the dilapidated trailer of an elderly New Mexican couple who had spent decades working low-wage jobs for profit-hungry American corporations before earning their U.S. citizenship, only to find they could scarcely vote when their state refused to properly staff their polling place. Not coincidentally, the impoverished Colonia in which they lived near the Mexican border also lacked pavement and public utilities to meet the needs of the 14,600 mainly Latinx residents. Since the time of my research, nearly 1,000 polling places have been shuttered across the country after the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act, and millions of citizens of color have been purged from voting roles or faced other forms of suppression. In fact, wait times in Hispanic communities averaged more than four hours during the 2016 election and in predominantly-Black neighborhoods, the situation was even worse.
I listened to a middle-aged Black mother from Cincinnati describe her longstanding efforts to lobby her elected officials for basic human needs, and the feeling she always encountered of being ignored or disparaged by White “representatives” and the deep-pocketed lobbyists who funded their campaigns. Then, as now, a fraction of one percent of Americans provide the lion’s share of campaign cash, with the top 100 donors (White billionaires or multi-millionaires all) investing more money than the bottom 99.99 percent of Americans combined, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. Meanwhile, those who occupy positions of power are also predominantly White men who share more in common with the corporate lobbyists who frequently write our laws than with their own constituents.
And I slept on park benches outside the White House and U.S. Capitol alongside full-fledged American citizens who still lack voting representation in Congress or a single U.S. Senator simply because the District in which they live (two-thirds People of Color) has been denied the status of a state. The same is true for Puerto Rico, with its 3.2 million taxpaying U.S. citizens (99 percent Hispanic) who experience a poverty rate more than twice as high as the poorest mainland state. Nationwide, People of Color are underrepresented in the U.S. Senate by 22 percent today.
These and other encounters led me to search for structural reforms that could align our “democratic” institutions with our democratic ideals. The solutions I sketched in Democracy in Poverty were a modest prelude to the robust agenda of pro-democracy reforms recently released by the Movement for Black Lives and allied groups, which America would do well to embrace.
They include an end to the criminalization of Black political activity, public financing of elections, ending super PACs and unchecked corporate donations, protecting black media and political formations, and securing the right to vote for all people through universal automatic voter registration, voting day holidays, and the re-enfranchisement of formerly and presently incarcerated people.
As we mark the 244th anniversary of “all men are created equal” — words of a man who enslaved other women and men — let’s work to bring our Declaration of Independence to life for all Americans by demanding democratic reforms in the fall election.