Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series that attempts to answer the question: Is democracy dying?

He stood on the outer edge of the sidewalk, hands clasped behind him—handcuffed, perhaps, by the immensity of the moment. He knew the city of Springfield, Illinois, well. But on June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln was learning his new place in American politics, and possibly dreading what it now demanded. He was about to deliver a speech accepting the nomination as the Republican Party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate. In it, he planned to diagnose a malignant divide many of his fellow Republicans believed was benign.

To hear more feature stories, see our full list or get the Audm iPhone app.

The speech was too radical, his friends had told him, as friends had told American revolutionaries a century earlier. Those revolutionaries had pressed on with their cause. Summoning the courage to press on with his, Lincoln may have reminded himself that ignoring the divide would be more radical still.

Delegates stared at Lincoln as they made their way to the Illinois state capitol. Patrons stared at him from the nearby dry-goods store owned by his friend John Williams. Lincoln believed that the slave states were staring at him, too—were eyeing the northern states as well as the western territories. With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the election of the expansionist President James Buchanan in 1856, and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857, all three branches of the federal government had acquiesced to the march of slaveholders across the nation.

Lincoln left the solitude of the sidewalk. He walked across the square, entered the House of Representatives, and stood before the more than 1,000 delegates of the Illinois Republican State Convention. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he declared. “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free … It will become all one thing or all the other.”

The prophetic speech propelled Lincoln onto the national stage. Three years later, as president, he was commanding an army that battled to keep the house standing. His opponent, the Confederate States of America, was fighting to destroy the house and to build a new one safe for slavery.

Lincoln saved the old house, with the decisive assistance of black troops. Though he didn’t live to see it, the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 ensured that the United States would be permanently free. But the racism that buttressed slavery remained in the living constitution of American policy and the American mind. The house remained divided, remained separate and unequal.

It remains divided today. One hundred sixty years after Lincoln warned of the dangers of disunion brought on by slavery, Americans must bear witness to racism’s destructive power. This government cannot endure, permanently half racist and half antiracist.

Slavery divided the nation in two, politically and geographically. The threat racism poses to the contemporary United States is more insidious for being more diffuse and more veiled. But trace the issues rending American politics to their root, and more often than not you’ll find soil poisoned by racism. None of these issues is likely to tear down the republic as slavery nearly did, but the danger is no less existential.

Some of the assaults that racism has mounted on American society are well known and recall Lincoln’s era in their brazenness. “I do not regret what I did,” Dylann Roof journaled six weeks after killing nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. America may not be on the precipice of civil war, but the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year revealed that there are white nationalists who are prepared for violent conflict, convinced that demographic shifts will deprive white Americans of their power and privilege. They came out into the public square chanting, “You will not replace us!” and “Blood and soil!”

The racism motivating other divisions in American democracy is only somewhat more subtle. Racist resentment propelled to the presidency a man who seems intent on jackhammering the unfinished foundation of the house Lincoln risked everything to save. Donald Trump’s administration has encouraged the incarceration, deportation, or exclusion of astonishing numbers of nonwhite people. On Trump’s watch, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are being pushed to deport undocumented immigrants. The president regularly whips his followers into a frenzy by calling for a wall along America’s southern border, threatening to shut down the government if he does not get his way. For a brief moment a few years ago, politicians on both sides of the aisle at least feinted toward criminal-justice reform. But those energies have largely faded, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible charges and sentences in all cases.

And yet it is the least recognizable of racism’s assaults that are most portentous—and their beginnings predate the Trump presidency. Those people of color not imprisoned or deported are robbed of their political power by other means. In 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts justified a rollback of federal voting regulations by writing, in Shelby County v. Holder, that “our country has changed” since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. But by Election Day 2016, 14 states had instituted new voting restrictions. Our country has changed—but only in the way votes are suppressed. In the old days, before the Voting Rights Act, states and counties suppressed voting by men and eventually women of color through property requirements, literacy tests, and poll taxes—while tacitly condoning employer intimidation and Ku Klux Klan violence. Now states and counties suppress votes through early-voting restrictions, limits on absentee and mail-in ballots, poll closures, felon disenfranchisement, and laws requiring voters to have a photo ID.

Voters of color who can’t be kept from the polls are herded into districts where their ballots, in effect, don’t count. As the percentage of white Americans has declined, Latino and black populations have been manipulated on maps to keep white Republicans in positions of power. In emails sent in 2010, Texas map drawers used the abbreviation OHRVS, or “Optimal Hispanic Republican Voting Strength.” The map drawers were seeking to create districts that would appear representative of the state’s growing Hispanic population but would nevertheless continue to safely elect white Republicans. In 2011, GOP operatives in North Carolina secretly schemed to alter the makeup of the state’s congressional delegation, which at the time was seven Democrats and six Republicans. The goal was to get to 10 Republicans and three Democrats, in part by incorporating “all the significant concentrations of minority voters in the northeast into the first district,” as one map designer, Tom Hofeller, wrote at the time. (The state’s delegation soon became 10 Republicans and three Democrats.) In 2016, when a federal court deemed the maps discriminatory, state Republicans unabashedly tapped Hofeller to draw new “10–3” maps, assuring the public that this time race would not be “among the criteria.”

Such chicanery robs Americans of their franchise. It also robs American democracy of its health. Civic engagement and collaboration are the lifeblood of any republic. Racist policies inhibit dialogue and undermine efforts at bipartisanship. They pit citizens against one another. Rather than locating the real sources of economic hardship and inequality, for instance, racist politicians encourage Americans to blame their struggles on neighbors who don’t look or act like them, who are supposedly stealing their jobs or subsisting on their hard-earned tax money.

How long will Americans continue to believe in the ideal of equality and freedom while their nation’s racist policies maintain inequality? How long will nonwhite Americans be willing to live as “second-class citizens” (to borrow Malcolm X’s phrase), deprived of basic rights like the franchise? At some point, the victims of such policies and their allies will lose faith in their government, if they haven’t already. They will come to see the American experiment as a failure—a house irrevocably divided against itself.

When he delivered his speech in 1858, Lincoln admonished his audience, and the North as a whole, for imagining that free states and slave states could continue to cohabitate peacefully. In 2018, many Americans imagine that a similar neutrality between racism and antiracism is possible. But only an embrace of antiracism can save the union. Antiracist ideas are built on the bedrock of racial equality. They recognize that any observed disparities between groups are the product not of hierarchy among races but of racist systems that create and perpetuate inequities. Antiracist policies seek to close the gaps in rights, resources, and opportunities that racist policies have opened and maintain.

The Voting Rights Act was once a paragon of antiracism. For decades, segregationists had disenfranchised southern black voters through measures cleverly disguised to hide their racist intent. Legislators came to regard these measures as discriminatory because of their inequitable outcomes. Congress banned the measures and required all changes to voting laws in specific states and counties—primarily in the South—to be approved by federal officials. Unlike so many failed civil-rights bills in American history, this provision placed the burden of proof on the policy maker to show that a policy wasn’t racist, and not on the victim to show that the policy maker intended to be racist.

When the Supreme Court stripped federal preclearance from the Voting Rights Act in 2013, it removed one of the last major antiracist policies from federal law. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified 150 years ago, is no longer antiracist, if it ever was. That amendment was supposed to guarantee equal protection under the law for all Americans. Yet, to ensure its passage in 1866, congressional Republicans refused to define equal protection—or privileges or immunities, or due process of law—and thus left both racists and antiracists a claim on their meaning.

The racists have secured much of the Fourteenth Amendment’s inheritance, from the Supreme Court’s first interpretation of it in the 1873 Slaughterhouse Cases, which limited its protections, to the modern cases that have upheld racist policies and struck down antiracist ones. In 1978, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Court curtailed affirmative action. In 1987, in McCleskey v. Kemp, it sanctioned the racially disproportionate impact of the death penalty in Georgia. In 2007, in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the Court placed new restrictions on school-desegregation programs.

Justice Harry Blackmun would shudder to see how the Fourteenth Amendment is interpreted today. “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race,” he wrote in his opinion in Bakke 40 years ago. “There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently. We cannot—we dare not—let the Equal Protection Clause perpetuate racial supremacy.” But that is precisely what has happened, and the result has been every bit as dire as Blackmun foresaw.

Today, only a renewed commitment to antiracist policies can save the endangered American project. The alternative is a governing system that becomes all racist and wholly illegitimate. The result may not be an 1860s-style civil war. But, if allowed to proceed far enough, racism will ultimately destroy the American idea. And it will lead to contentiousness and resentment and, yes, violence that will make today’s polarization seem quaint by comparison.

I believe, as Lincoln did, that we can repair our divided house. “I do not expect the house to fall,” Lincoln said. “But I do expect it will cease to be divided.” Even at the height of slavery’s power, Lincoln believed that Americans could make the nation free. We can and must believe in our ability to make the nation antiracist despite the ascendancy of a racist president who pursues a racist agenda. Did we brave all then to falter now?


This article appears in the October 2018 print edition with the headline “A House Still Divided.”