Great Wells of Democracy: The Meaning of Race in American Life
On April 7, 1968, collective history and personal history coincided for the author to decide of his fate. He had arrived in Atlanta early, “the first person there to witness history that day” [p. ix], to attend Martin Luther King’s funeral. On that day, he recalls, he saw himself “as an American, but blessed with a unique history of struggle and a sense of obligation to my race” [p. ix]. That commitment has inspired his work as an academic, an activist and a writer. A professor of History, Political Science and Public Policy, at Columbia University, Marable has already published many other books on the subject of race and has spoken on behalf of prisoners, civil rights, labor, and social justice. He shares a passion and a vision with King who remains the constant reference throughout the book; each chapter (except for one) opens on a quote by the mentor.
The Great Wells of Democracy consists of thirteen chapters organized in three parts: “The American Dilemma,” “The Retreat from Equality” and “Reconstructing Racial Politics.” It combines historical overviews, social analyses, personal anecdotes, reports from personal encounters or interviews, and a critique of contemporary racial politics. Marable’s main argument is that America’s democratic project is still in the making since it has so far excluded so many of its potential and legitimate participants. America’s national narrative has two main protagonists: blackness, which “exists as a social construction in relation to something else. That something else is whiteness” [p. 12]. And whiteness which Marable defines as “the social expression of power and privilege, the consequences of discriminatory politics in the past, and the practices of inequality that exist today” [p. 12]. The protagonists have not been equal players as the narrative only serves to rationalize a history of abuse, spoliation and discrimination under the cover-up of “democracy,” “meritocracy” and “diversity.” A new understanding of race will lead, in his view, to an alternative perspective of what America has been and could become. Such a shift in paradigm would result in retrieving “those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” [p. 18].
Marable’s purpose is therefore two-fold: to show the roots of inequality and their pervasive impact; to call for “a new civil-rights movement” [p. xv] and “hopeful models of practical social change that may give shape to a new kind of freedom struggle that goes beyond the desegregation of lunch counters” [p. xiv].
The book first delineates the historical and social causes for structural racism and its impact on the African American community. Marable provides interesting insights about how racial discrimination has been perpetuated in a host of policy areas: housing, employment, law enforcement and criminal justice, education and social services. He examines the contribution of African Americans (in particular through labor) to the construction of the American nation, and its ensuing human cost (psychological and social). The African American community suffered from economic and racial domination before the abolition of slavery, before undergoing political domination: the state of Apartheid did not end with the Civil Rights struggle. Marable documents inequalities in wealth (credit ratings, loan applications), health (access to care and its cost), education (state-assisted loans and grants) to demonstrate how pervasive racial discriminations are .
In addition, he investigates what he calls “civic death:” the impossibility for a large part of the African American community to partake in the democratic process. He interestingly demonstrates how the prison system (and the racialized processes of criminal-justice policies)* cooperates with the electoral system to disfranchise a good part of the American electorate: “More than 4.2 million Americans were prohibited from voting in the 2000 presidential election because they were in prison or had in the past been convicted of a felony. Of that number, more than one-third, or 1.8 million voters who are disfranchised, are African Americans” [p. 89]. He concludes that the electoral political system is flawed and needs reforming to lift the barriers to full citizenship and full participation in all aspects of public life.
Structural racism has thus perpetuated white hegemony. Marable gives compelling evidence of how the whites infiltrate the different institutions (churches, schools, corporations etc.) to undermine black power. His forceful analysis of the Clinton administration shows how ambiguous Democratic racial politics have been. His devastating report of Reagan’s policies is enlightening in the wake of the recent eulogizing after Reagan’s death.
On the other hand, he offers an overview of the different forms of resistance, past and present. He describes the race-based and the state-based approaches to reshaping the racial discourse of America. After examining the legacy of thinkers like Delany and Douglass (who would embody “separatism” and “integration”), he investigates the current disaffection of black intellectuals, the black bourgeoisie and black politicians who are further removed from activism. He even identifies some “traitors” (such as Clarence Thomas and Condoleezza Rice) who, under the cover-up of terms like “cross-over” and “racial neutrality,” support a white agenda. In his view, a “black political project must be grounded in grassroots struggles around practical questions of daily life” [p. 205]; he believes that the “micro-battles of neighborhood empowerment” could bring about “change in the macro-contexts of national and international processes impacting African Americans” [p. 205]. The resources are at the grassroots level, in the churches, in educational programs. In Chapter Eight, for instance, he offers an informative summary of a number of collective actions: community-based protest organizations or labor struggles, marches, sit-ins, counseling sessions, radio programs, demonstrations, have been taking place all around the country. The political and personal clout of Farrakhan crystallizes the need for a mentor figure and new paths to black empowerment. The debate around reparations would be a good starting point as it triggers historical awareness and identity politics. The challenge is to mobilize young people. Marable gives an insightful account of the potential power of “hip hop” to build momentum for change and raise political consciousness with the youth.
Such actions, however, would not bring about the deep change that is necessary without some “reconciliation” between the oppressor and the oppressed: “Can a reconciliation be forged that bridges the racial chasm of our history to create a new national consciousness, a new dedication to a democracy that has never truly existed, but one that could conceivably be made whole?” [p. xii]. With his book, Marable hopes to provide the groundwork for the daunting task by “starting a new conversation about the meaning of race in American life and history” [p. xii]. He, too, has a dream...
Like a conversation, The Great Wells of Democracy combines different modes—personal and anecdotal, scholarly, journalistic, historical—and tones: bitter, hopeful, vindictive and indicting, sentimental. It contains repetitions, exaggerations, simplifications, passionate developments and disturbing insights. I enjoyed following this personal journey and this inspiring commitment and enthusiasm. The interest of the book also resides in the confluence of a forcefully expressed opinion on other thinkers’ thought or politicians’ work and a vocal call for something new. The book is “intended for general readers” [p. xii], therefore quite accessible. Its analysis of the theoretical mechanics of racialization, however, would have benefited from reference to contemporary theoretical debates around identity politics, in particular as articulated in feminism and postcolonial studies. The discussion on the meaning of blackness and whiteness would find echoes in Toni Morrison’s work, for example (she is mentioned only once, in passing). Marable is good at recalling important facts such as the impact of violence on African American youth; between 1989 and 1994, “more black males were killed in street violence than all the African American troops who died in the Vietnam War [...] Murder became [...] the number one cause of death for black males between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine” [p. 99]. But sometimes the focus on small or unconvincing details (for example: “Walden [mother of two teenage sons who were harassed by the local police] funded “Mothers Against Police Harassment,” which within several years had become a sixty-member, multiracial organization” [p. 212]) undermines the power of otherwise thought-provoking elements. An occasional failure to discriminate between details and choose relevant aspects makes reading difficult. On the other hand, the discussion on the public resistance to Affirmative Action could have mentioned how notorious bests-sellers like The Bell Curve were instrumental in shaping such resistance and prejudices.
However, the analysis is sometimes too quick, as when Marable writes: “for a variety of reasons, rates of violent crime, including murder, rape and robbery, increased dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s” [p. 152]: the reader expects some explanation, especially when other passages are quite documented and well-researched. Chapter Twelve on “9/11: Racism in the Time of Terror” just tries to do too much. How can you address both America’s Middle East policy and domestic policy in the wake of 9/11, and what Marable calls “global Apartheid” (unequally divided resources) in about 24 pages? There is no discussion on the provisions of the Patriot Act, for example. These interesting insights would require another book.
In my view, the main problem is two-fold. First, the “new kinds of strategies, new approaches, and new thinking” [p. 64] that Marable calls for are not explored enough. Additionally, he identifies “organizational limitations and internal contradictions around issues such as gender, sexuality, race and immigrant status” [pp. 324-325], yet leaves the discourse about gender largely unvoiced. Whereas the “alternative interpretation or narrative on the meaning of race in American life—particularly as it has been constructed around the black-white social axis” [p. 323]—is thought-provoking and enlightening in many ways, the book fails to be as thorough in its presentation of the counter-hegemonic, oppositional forces to structural racism. Its discussion of the community-based actions, for instance, does not sufficiently address the problem connected to local action (personal interest, diversity, misunderstandings, fragmented agendas). The investigation of the role of hip hop is very challenging. Yet some points need to be articulated. Marable does underline that “rap music’s consumer market in the US is approximately 80% white” [p. 269], so what is its real impact within the black community? Moreover, how can an artistic expression be turned into a political tool? How can Hip Hop become a road map for change? I would make the same comment about the role of churches [p. 292]. Finally, how can the discourse about reparations—which Marable describes as a “way for black people to challenge and subvert the master narrative of white capitalist America and to testify to the truth of their own history” [p. 251]—be articulated? And how can political consciousness and participation that would result in real push for electoral reform be organized?
Marable's “new definition of democracy” needs to leave the visionary realm where it cannot stay confined. Could his visionary final statements speak to the people he wants to reach? We, too, have a dream. The Great Wells of Democracy engages current issues of identity. It also offers a timely reflection on democracy. Marable’s call for a “new democratic conversation” spurs debate around new cultural and political paradigms to challenge the dominant conservative ideologies that might prevent America to ever coincide with its promise.
*Even though he does not mention the bias around capital punishment. back