Nell Irvin Painter

From 1872 to 1876 in the Space of One Year

During this year of 2021 I’ve been going around smiling, telling my friends that I feel like I’m living in 1872. As a historian, I know that 1872 was a high point of Reconstruction in the South, a moment when it looked as though true democracy had arrived in a region that before the Civil War had had the greatest disparities of income and wealth—between immensely wealthy planters and enslaved workers without wages or possessions—and the greatest political polarization: not only were all women disfranchised, but also men identified as Negro could not vote. Reconstruction promised to turn much of that around by enfranchising Black men.

Reconstruction legislatures did try some good policies, such as public schooling and, through the Freedmen’s Bureau, enforcing employment contracts. For the first time in the South, race did not bar men elected to office from taking their places in local and state legislatures. Promising indeed.

During this year of 2021 I had been basking in the anti-racist upheaval of 2020. Yes, the pandemic saddened me, the illness, the death, the economic crisis that left hundreds of thousands hungry and threatened with homelessness. But the largest public demonstrations in memory brought Americans into the streets against police brutality and for racial justice. Unlike the civil rights manifestations of the 1950s and 1960s, this time it wasn’t just Black people and a few of our non-Black allies in the streets. This time it was Americans of all races and ages, all over the country.

In its apparent depth and breadth, the anti-racist reckoning that followed also felt new to me. By now even the overpowering Robert E. Lee monument in the capital of the Confederacy has come down, part of a nation-wide questioning of the meanings of the symbols we have chosen to embody our civic identity. No longer can the champions of a nation dedicated to the permanence of slavery dominate public spaces where Americans of many races and ethnicities live.

In national politics, the Biden-Harris administration has been seeking to enact policies that I favor, from protecting voting rights to addressing climate change to supporting the wellbeing of children. I haven’t noticed a widespread application of the terms “Reconstruction,” or “Third Reconstruction” (the “Second Reconstruction” had been applied to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s). Nonetheless, in the arenas of business and culture, diversity and equity seemed to be meaningfully addressed. Here I was, feeling as hopeful as 1872, even though I know what came after 1872.

We know now what came after 1872. In nineteenth-century prevailing parlance, it was “Redemption.” “Redemption” was the work of terrorists on the ground, of bloodshed and intimidation. On the national level, it was the Tilden-Hayes compromise after the contested election of 1876 that withdrew the last federal troops from the still reconstructed states of Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana. In the U.S. Supreme Court, it was also the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873, which reoriented the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment from people to corporations, from voting rights to property rights.

We are at a pivotal point in our Third Reconstruction, as Democrats, now the party of civil rights, are being urged to jettison voting rights in order to court White voters without college degrees. As in the presidential election of 2016, the argument is couched in terms of class, not race, when class is interpreted in terms of education and applies only to White people. It’s not said that White people without college degrees don’t care about Black people’s access to the ballot. It’s not said that White people without college degrees prefer to keep the pre-2020 racial order intact. In pundit language, “class” means the mass of White people.

But what happens if Democrats don’t stress the causes that Black voters care about? Would Black voters turn out massively, as they did in 2020 for the Biden-Harris ticket, though, as Biden acknowledged, Black voters had delivered his margin of victory? Between the disregard of White voters without college degrees and declining enthusiasm from Black voters of all classes, national Democrats are doomed. Once again, just to make sure, the forces of Redemption are once again resorting to terrorism, as at the Capitol on January 6 this year. Emboldened by congressional Republicans, the Redeemers promise a return, in the states and in the nation.

We may not be in 1877 yet, but pundits are preparing its way, reinterpreting “class” to mean not upsetting White people’s place in the racial/cultural order. Our “Third Redemption” aims to undermine voting rights, a foundation of American citizenship whose history is racialized. For now, though, I’m savoring my 1872, with its promise of multiracial, multicultural American citizenship.

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