OPINION: What to the African American is the civil war to save America’s democracy?

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There are no states seceding from the union or armed forces arrayed against one another across fixed geographical lines. Despite that reality, however, there are signs of a civil war all around. 

White nationalists throughout the south, and in many states to the north and west, have become radicalized by their own prejudices, conspiracy theories, or the rhetoric of MAGA-type speakers. Many of them are armed to the teeth as members of white militias or as “lone wolf” would-be heroes.

In addition to these warriors, there are political leaders across the country doing all in their power to destroy not just individual leaders, but also the institutions that stand in their way. Indeed, most contemporary elections, local and national, are additional battle lines, attempting to decide whether America becomes more white authoritarian or a more diverse democracy.

Being geographically and otherwise caught-up as they are, the question in many Black minds is similar to that asked by Frederick Douglass in 1852. He asked “what to the slave is the Fourth of July?” 

African Americans realize that their ancestors were brought to this country as slaves, declared non-citizens, subjected to Jim Crow segregation and other forms of oppression, killed by the thousands in lynchings and riots, and are still victimized by individual and institutional racism. Thus, they easily ask, “What to them is the civil war to save an American democracy which they have never been able to fully experience?”

In truth, based upon their treatment throughout most of their sojourn in this country, many African Americans would likely answer the question with the phrase, “not a thing.” They would conclude that no matter who has been in charge, Democrats or Republicans, they have been marginalized, victimized, and oppressed. That attitude is quite understandable. 

On the other hand, if one focusses on the Lyndon Johnson administration and the efforts of the Democratic Party since that time, he/she may determine that party has led the country more consistently toward the promise of democracy. In particular, if one compares the policies and position of Barack Obama and Joe Biden to what was provided by Donald Trump and is the position of the Republican Party today, the answer for most African Americans would be different; it would be reversed.

The contemporary Democratic Party has advocated or been responsible for things like Obamacare and Medicaid expansion; funds for infrastructure improvement, police reforms, and fire-fighting assistance; financial assistance for workers laid-off as a result of the recent pandemic; the forgiveness of student loan debt; humane policies for immigrants, women seeking abortions, and non-traditional gendered individuals; protection for the right to vote, including former felons; and the protection of organized laborers. The list goes on when it comes to the protection and expansion of democratic principles and human rights.

By contrast, the Republican Party, at least since the ascendance of Donald Trump, has opposed virtually all of the items above, which were championed by the Obama-Biden Democrats. Their biggest obsession has been “cultural war” which usually has meant the suppression of non-white, non-male, non-Christian people. Their further obsession has been promoting measures that decrease the power and influence of those outside their “tribe.” Such actions should cause people to re-think where they come down on the question of the current and perhaps ongoing civil war.

Democrats around the country need to be encouraged to and assisted in waging all-out campaigns that warn of the authoritarian-oriented civil war that is ongoing AND the alternative programs and positions that their members have promoted. The war has to be on both fronts. Campaigners can walk and chew at the same time. 

Yes, given that African Americans have become strategically located in the U.S.A. and they stand to benefit from a broadened reading of the Constitution, an expanded possible reality of what is meant by American democracy, they can and ought to be legitimately involved in the effort to turn back these modern-day white nationalists and thereby help win the current civil war.

While we realize that enthusiasm for such involvement may be hard to come by, it can clearly spell the difference for this moment in time. Furthermore, because of where they are located geographically, socially, and politically, African Americans cannot be easily removed, making it more of a reality that victory will be ours. 

Therefore, like Douglass, when he saw the difference that African Americans could make in the battle to end slavery, let’s fully and energetically engage in the battle to win a full-fledged American democracy. 

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OPINION: What to the African American is the civil war to save America’s democracy?

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
August 21, 2023