The centuries-old ideology of white supremacy embedded a legal system into the foundation of our nation. Many Americans also developed a penchant to think there is an “us” that necessitates a “them” who is trying to steal their share of a limited pie.
This flawed foundation of our nation is not stable. In the past year we have seen growing fragmentation under that long-ingrained value system. Global protests. A new civil war led by insurgents who believe that government and “others” have stolen their birthrights. A pandemic — which should remind us that we are all interconnected in nature — that has led to more divisiveness about the rights of individuals.
How do we build true equality without duplicating the short-lived experiment of Reconstruction after the Civil War?
In her March 28 “Letters From an American” blog post, historian Heather Cox Richardson detailed the fact that the post–Civil War Reconstruction era was aimed toward giving Black Americans an equal role in society. When white southerners refused to rebuild states with formerly enslaved people, the Military Reconstruction Act was passed in 1867 to permit Black men to be part of writing new state constitutions, which confirmed the right to vote.
Richardson, whose 2001 book is titled “The Death of Reconstruction,” wrote that some people violently opposed this system. They dressed up in white sheets, representing the ghosts of dead southern soldiers. These members of the Ku Klux Klan claimed to be patriots and aimed to “protect and defend the Constitution” by opposing “Negro equality” and favoring a “white man’s government.”
Georgia voters elected 33 Black men into the state government in 1868, legally, but white legislators expelled them, claiming they were not allowed to hold office. In response, the 15th Constitutional amendment was enacted to prohibit states from denying rights. Opponents claimed Black voters were attempting to redistribute wealth by using government funds to build schools, hospitals, and other public services, and to offer land to newly freed people.
Some media turned against Reconstruction after fears of white wealth and property redistribution were effectively inflamed. The New York Daily Tribune, for example, wrote that “the most intelligent, the influential, the educated, the really useful men of the South, deprived of all political power … [are] taxed and swindled … by the ignorant class, which only yesterday hoed the fields and served in the kitchen.”
As Richardson wrote, the rhetoric of that failed Reconstruction era has haunted us ever since.
“When Ronald Reagan talked about the ‘Welfare Queen,’ [he was] calling on a long history. Today … the end game [of some] is the same as that of the former Confederates after the war: to keep Black and brown Americans away from the polls to make sure the government does not spend tax dollars on public services.”
The U.S. was built on transactional, commodified, and extractive systems. True reconstruction will come only by healing the damages of the past while also working collaboratively to build equity.
The people in the pages this month exemplify how that works. They share their stories from an encampment community, a town of 600 people, and a home for those in substance abuse recovery, among other vantage points. April Chouinard says: “It was because of my [community] that I was allowed the grace to stumble. This is how true healing begins.”
Americans have diverse experiences, cultural norms, passions, and methods of expression. We have solutions based on that diversity. Those who believe in serving the common good will find content and conversation about those values at the core of our magazine and upcoming forums.
“[It is] possible for a people to rule themselves, justly and fairly,
and as equals, through the exercise of judgment and care?” — author Jill Lepore
Healing Trauma: Creating a Village
Greater Minnesota: Why I Am Reclaiming Community
Transforming Justice: Conversation With Robin Wonsley Worlobah
Money & Business: Building a Better Twin Cities
Health: Measuring Racism
Equity: On Freeing the Deeds
Policy & Politics: An Essential Ingredient for Rural Connection
Ecolution: Befriending Pollinators
Tapestry: Where Have You Found Community?