The United States Needs a Third Reconstruction

Whatever its shape, the era ahead must rekindle the aspiration of a nation molded in the ideal of perfect equality.

Getty / The Atlantic

Along the unbroken chain of racism that links America’s past to its present, there have been two points when the federal government—otherwise complicit or complacent—saw the mistreatment of African Americans as intolerable. During these periods, the country had a response: Reconstruction. The Reconstruction efforts were not without their flaws but, without them, the U.S. would not have made what racial progress it has. Today, another Reconstruction is needed to avoid wasting the promise of its predecessors.

The first Reconstruction came in the Civil War’s aftermath. But the concept of reconstruction—that is, what a postwar, reunified America would look like—was being discussed even before the opening shots were fired at Fort Sumter. “If another Union is formed,” one newspaper wrote in 1861, “the slave States can have no part in it except on the principles of entire and perfect equality.”

Not surprisingly, the emphasis of that first Reconstruction was on the South. Ratified shortly after the war, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, thereby ridding the South of its “slave bonus” in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. Then, in fairly quick succession, the Fourteenth Amendment bestowed citizenship on the newly freed and Congress forced the South to enfranchise African American men, before the Fifteenth Amendment extended the franchise to men nationwide. The scale of progress ushered in over a decade was so consequential that historians have termed the era “America’s second founding.”

And yet, Reconstruction was an abysmal failure, subverted by policy makers whose acts and omissions made clear that America was giving up on Black people. First off, financial investment in the project was grossly inadequate, all but guaranteeing that formerly enslaved people would remain at the mercy of erstwhile petty tyrants. The Compromise of 1877, moreover, led the federal government to withdraw troops from the South prematurely, which emboldened regional actors to perpetrate campaigns of violence, intimidation, and political domination against African Americans. And the Supreme Court, hellbent on eviscerating the Reconstruction Amendments in the name of states’ rights and constitutional color blindness, issued a series of opinions that failed to vindicate Black liberty. Any aspirations of “entire and perfect equality” were relegated to a footnote in history, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, dead letters. W. E. B. Du Bois may have put it best: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun,” but then “a new slavery arose.” Jim Crow had taken a sledgehammer to the edifice of a multiracial society and, for decades, the nation stood idle to the destruction—and even wallowed in the detritus.

The sorely needed Second Reconstruction came in the middle of the next century, though its timing is less neatly bounded. Some historians trace its origins to 1948, when President Harry Truman issued the executive order desegregating the military. Others suggest that it began when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. Most place its start between those two events, at the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. But all agree that the Second Reconstruction was erected on the foundation of the first. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were lifted from abeyance, and soon became the basis for much of the federal government’s equality agenda.

The successes of the Second Reconstruction proved that lawmakers had learned some lessons from the failures of the first. To start, the vote was expanded dramatically—even nationally. Federal measures, most notably the 1965 Voting Rights Act, put the U.S. on a path toward becoming a true democracy. “What occurred in the course of a decade was not only the reenfranchisement of African Americans but the abolition of nearly all remaining limits on the right to vote,” the Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar wrote. “Poll taxes, literacy tests, understanding clauses, pauper exclusions, and good character provisions had been swept away,” increasing the size of the electorate by more than 20 million.

Another distinction between the post–Civil War Reconstruction and that of the mid-20th century is that the latter’s civil-rights agenda was coupled with an economic agenda. To be sure, the Johnson-era domestic policies, known as the Great Society, were not uniquely targeted to Black Americans. But unlike many programs of its forerunner, FDR’s New Deal, the Great Society’s health-care, education, housing, and economic-development initiatives envisioned Black participation. And with committed federal funding, the programs designed to benefit the commonweal began to lift many out of poverty and helped expand the Black middle class.

Finally, in this Second Reconstruction, unlike in the first, the Supreme Court moved alongside advocates for progress—and sometimes ahead. The Warren Court did its share to sustain the momentum of the Second Reconstruction by ruling on the side of equality and upholding federal measures designed to further it. The Court took the lead by outlawing discrimination in schools and transportation hubs, as well as political machinations aimed at submerging Black votes. When pressed by the civil-rights movement, the executive branch racked up some crucial wins in Congress, most notably the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.  And the Court affirmed them. With the federal government and civil society working in tandem, the gains of the Second Reconstruction could be more durable than those of the first.

Even so, the Second Reconstruction soon came to an end. Whereas the Compromise of 1877 marked the swift and dramatic demise of the First Reconstruction, the Second faded away slowly and quietly. Johnson’s War on Poverty morphed into Nixon’s War on Drugs. Federal programs were defunded and disbanded as cities deindustrialized. And color blindness came back with a vengeance, with claims of “reverse discrimination” in the fields of education and employment. In the 1978 Bakke case, for example, the Supreme Court called “‘societal discrimination,’ an amorphous concept of injury”—as if it were ignorant of racism’s origins, existence, and effects. By dismantling the successes of the civil-rights revolution and the Great Society, conservatives issued a sardonic reply to the civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin, who had asked: “What is the value of winning access to public accommodations for those who lack money to use them?”

Dog-whistle politics also came to prominence. Because a certain word was not longer acceptable to utter, the mastermind of the “southern strategy” instructed conservatives to code switch. “So you say stuff like, uh, ‘forced busing,’ ‘states’ rights,’” Lee Atwater, a top Reagan and George H. W. Bush adviser, later admitted. “Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a by-product of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.” This approach had its intended effect: Because racism stopped rearing its ugliest faces—the George Wallaces and Bull Connors, and even police dogs—white Americans could psychologically and legally detach themselves from the nation’s racist underpinnings. With no Klan-initiated lynchings to point to, Black people could be hung out to dry.

As the rightward shift in policy continued to clip the wings of the Second Reconstruction, racial inequality soared. Circumstances in the 1990s and the 2000s began to make this painfully clear: The “tough on crime” era has left untold hundreds of thousands of Black Americans wasting away in prisons; the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, which flattened a predominantly Black major American city, had an impact that extends far beyond the nearly 2,000 people it left dead; the Great Recession made an already ballooning racial-wealth gap—one that matches 1968 levelseven more persistent. The need for Reconstruction pressed upon the country once again.

Then came a herald: President Barack Obama. Obama’s election was both problematic and promising. It was problematic because it allowed the country to applaud itself for being “post-racial”—that is, Obama’s election reinforced the fiction that America is a color-blind society. But it also showed promise—promise that the multiracial political coalition that Bayard Rustin wrote about was possible. Indeed, the Obama presidency could have marked the beginning of a Third Reconstruction. While it did not meet its full potential substantively, it was big history that delivered rhetorically, and positioned his successor to lead the country to the apex of the mountain and toward the promised land. Of course, that opportunity was squandered with the election of Donald Trump, who governs as though we’re in the nadir of a Second Redemption.

This long legacy of racism has salience during the current COVID-19 pandemic: Black Americans have unequal access to health care and housing, while being overrepresented in low-paid, “essential” employment—factors that contribute to their suffering from the virus disproportionately. America’s sharp racial fault lines have proved an all-too-convenient path for the disease to follow. Even after the pandemic subsides, that trail will be littered with signs of the coronavirus’s wreckage. And yet, these dismal times, as the virus rages and historic protests continue in the wake of George Floyd’s slaying, can be the springboard for a Third Reconstruction.

So what is needed for a successful Third Reconstruction? Perhaps it begins with sweeping criminal-justice and voting reforms that could transform the United States from the world’s leading carceral state into a truly multiracial democracy. It might also entail direct investments in Black communities to guarantee stable housing, universal health care, and high-quality education, necessities for achieving a more inclusive economy and greater wealth parity. But whatever its shape, a Third Reconstruction must rekindle the aspiration of a nation molded in the ideal of perfect equality, understanding that thinking big—and going big, too—is the surest way toward “a more perfect Union.” Success also demands that national leaders heed some lessons.

The next period of Reconstruction must contend with the effects of the prior era’s deconstruction. America’s undoing of interim progress has only added to the weight of history and increased the burden for future generations. The unmitigated injury of slavery and racism did not end with abolition or the civil-rights era; instead, like interest on debt, its impact has compounded. The upshot of this is that continued inaction and delay amount to opportunities lost, and will make racial justice ever more difficult to achieve.

In addition, a Third Reconstruction will require many things, three of them vital: truth, reconciliation, and recompense. At no point in American history has there been a major national effort toward achieving any of these things separately, much less collectively. But we have no shortage of models for doing so. Many governments and universities have inquired into their ties to mass atrocities. The United States, too, should establish formal means to unearth and understand the enormity of state-sanctioned repression, dispossession, exploitation, and violence toward Black Americans, as well as the extent to which the remnants of those ills persists in our economic, political, and legal systems today. Only then will the nation be primed to engage in the long-overdue discussion about how to restore the human dignity stolen and to repair itself. (On this, too, there is no scarcity of ideas.) The task will be made much more difficult because we suffer from a collective amnesia, and now operate in a post-truth world. But without accurate accounting of and penance for the original sin and its progeny, we’ll get nowhere.

History has revealed a recursive white weariness from trying to solve “the Negro Question.” The work of reconstruction will be less exhausting—and the results far more stable—if everyone participates in crafting the solution. It’s not enough for elites to design a project and dictate its terms and conditions. Instead, achieving meaningful progress will require us to join together “in the work of remaking this nation … block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.”

And, finally, on color blindness: Acknowledging race is necessary. Identifying its impact is necessary. Drawing on it to fashion solutions—solutions to problems caused not by Black inferiority, but systems infected with virulent, mutating strains of white supremacy—is necessary. The Supreme Court may have dismantled Plessy v. Ferguson, but through its insistence on the charade that is constitutional color blindness, it has warped a 19th-century conception of progress and has left 21st-century America leaning on a faulty pillar. Healing racial wounds may demand race-sensitive ointments, and a successful Third Reconstruction requires us to pursue that possibility.

Viruses may not discriminate but, unfortunately, U.S. policy does. The destruction from COVID-19, as Martin Luther King Jr. might have said, “is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” It has been said that life has no do-overs. When it comes to reconstruction, we can only hope that’s wrong. And if it is, we will have to undertake deep self-examination, be prepared to confront some hard truths, and remain open to substantial remedial action. The country cannot afford to lose a third chance to get things right.