US “Original Sin” and the 2016 Presidential Election

In her seminal book – American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion – the late political theorist, Judith Shklar, observed on page 1:

“There is no notion more central in politics than citizenship, and none more variable in history or contested in theory. In America it has in principle always been democratic, but only in principle. From the first and most radical claims for freedom and political equality were played out in counterpoint to chattel slavery, the most extreme form of servitude, the consequences of which still haunt us. The equality of political rights, which is the first mark of American citizenship, was proclaimed in the accepted presence of its absolute denial. Its second mark, the overt rejection of hereditary privileges, was no easier to achieve in practice, and for the same reason. Slavery is an inherited condition.”

In 2008, the election of Barack Obama, an African American, to the presidency marked a major transition in American life. It was an election that triggered profound soul searching among Americans of all hues and evoked early hopes that America had become post-racial – thus transcending the “original sin” of exclusive citizenship based upon the idea of race as a marker of human inequality in the new American nation. Obama’s election was also an acknowledgment that the United States is in the midst of a demographic shift that will result in the United States – over the next several decades – becoming a society where “Whites” will no longer constitute the majority of the population.

In effect, the US will become a multiple-minority society that will have to face the challenges of adapting its institutions to accommodate the cultural and ethnic pluralism Obama’s electoral victories have signaled. For Americans, citizenship will not be determined by “Whiteness” in its various permutations – as occurred at the founding of the country in the late 18th century. Instead, US citizenship will be shaped by a multiplicity of ethnic, cultural and religious communities that will transcend the binary of race – White citizens vs. non-Whites – that had been set in place by the founders.

However, as Barack Obama moves steadily toward the end of his two terms as president amid the opening of the various announcements from would-be presidential candidates eyeing the 2016 election, the issues of racial segregation, inequality of citizenship and the attendant disadvantages for people of color that have shaped much of American history have been resurrected in spectacular fashion within recent months.

The United States in 2012 – as at its founding – remains a house divided by race and unable to divest itself of the time-honored policies and practices of racial oppression and the consequences that flow from such policies.

These protests have been fueled by the emergence of increasing evidence that police practices across the country have resulted in the abuse and deaths of African Americans – too often without effective institutional oversight of the police, and/or with blatant disregard for the rights and lives of victims. The killing of a young African-American man in Ferguson, Missouri, by a White police officer in the summer of 2014 proved to be the catalyst that has triggered the current wave of protests. The investigation of that episode triggered increasingly heated debate about police practices across the country, and incidents of questionable police practices have become the focus of press coverage and widespread public disquiet. The recent protests and uprising in Baltimore were provoked by the arbitrary detention and death of a young African-American man by police officers in that city. He had been shackled and was placed in a police vehicle without being strapped in by a seat belt, as policy requires, for transport to the police precinct. During the process of detention and transport, he sustained a severe spinal injury, which led to his hospitalization and subsequent demise.

These events have focused attention on the issue of inequality in the contemporary US, and they have illustrated the limitations of a political system that can elect an African-American president even as the society fails to address the deep-seated institutional practices and policies that have excluded African-American and other disadvantaged populations from the benefits of equal citizenship.

The United States in 2012 – as at its founding – remains a house divided by race and unable to divest itself of the time-honored policies and practices of racial oppression and the consequences that flow from such policies. Further, the recent protests against police practices are a resounding echo of the events of the 1960s, when the explosion of urban discontent across the country revealed the depth of racial divisions that defined the society. The emergence of the civil rights movement in the South in the 1950s spread into other parts of the country, which had been reshaped by the decades-long migration of African Americans from the “reactionary” post-Civil War South into the Northern and Western regions of the country. The majority of those migrants found the other regions to be deeply complicit in the Jim Crow culture from which they had fled in search of the proverbial American Dream.

The North Star had ceased to serve as a beacon to freedom. According to the Center for Public Integrity – “In 1968, the Kerner Commission, appointed following riots in Los Angeles, Chicago, Newark and Detroit, concluded that for some blacks, ‘Police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression.’ ” Its report went on to say that the “abrasive relationship between police and the minority communities has been a major – and explosive – source of grievance, tension and disorder.”

New York has become the heart of a revitalized system for Jim Crow education tailored for the new millennium, and the development of Charter Schools in New York City appears to follow this pattern also.

In 2015, the reality and depressing absurdity of racial segregation remains a defining characteristic of the cultural geography of the United States and its urban landscapes – North, South, East and West. As Emily Badger has recently shown, the history of Baltimore provides an extremely powerful illustration of the dynamics of segregation and its consequences over the course of the 20th century. The patent absurdity of this situation can be recognized in that the US federal government is at the center of the contradiction that has shaped the geography of segregation in contemporary America. As Richard Rothstein, among others, has shown, the federal government has played a major role in perpetuating segregated housing through its policies and financing arrangements prior to, and after, the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Such segregation has facilitated the “containment” of African Americans and other minority populations by local police forces, which helps to buttress this system of de facto segregation and its perpetuation of the politics of privilege that provides significant advantages for the White majority communities. As a consequence, while segregation had been deemed a constraint upon pupil performance in schools, segregated housing militates against desegregated education since schools are created to serve local communities where segregated housing remains a powerful norm and incentive for wealth accumulation. In effect, it is possible to argue that the political economy of public education in the United States has maintained its role as a province of privilege for White communities. It is now evident that the resurgence of segregated schooling in recent decades reflects the dwindling of judicial support for the commitment to equal education that had shaped the Brown v. the Board of Education decision handed down by the US Supreme Court in 1954.

It is perhaps not ironic in this age of the reassertion of unequal education that the most segregated education system in the United States in 2014 was declared to be New York – the country’s financial capital – and home to Wall Street. In effect, New York has become the heart of a revitalized system for Jim Crow education tailored for the new millennium, and the development of charter schools in New York City appears to follow this pattern also. “The city’s charter schools are among the most segregated, with 90 percent qualifying as “intensely segregated.” But James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, told Chalkbeat New York that charters are in a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation. He told the education reporting site that charters are seen as having a mission to serve low-income students.” However,Wall Street investors would seem to have become beneficiaries of this development, and hedge fund managers have exploited these opportunities. It is an unfortunate statement about contemporary public policy in the United States that, as in the case of New York City, private investors have received financial incentives to invest in the further entrenchment of segregated education.

This development suggests that the United States currently lacks the capacity to match the accomplishments of societies such as Sweden, Finland, South Korea and Singapore, which have committed themselves to ensuring that public education is structured to sustain their long-term economic and political viability. In 2012, The Council on Foreign Relations issued a report that provided a bleak analysis of American educational performance. “Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk,” warns the Task Force, chaired by Joel I. Klein, former head of New York City public schools, and Condoleezza Rice, former US secretary of state. The country “will not be able to keep pace – much less lead – globally unless it moves to fix the problems it has allowed to fester for too long,” argues the Task Force. In effect, while there are pockets of excellence within the American educational system, it is arguable that the multiple failures since 1954 to create an effective national system of racially integrated education provide proof positive of a misallocation of resources by the political process. However, these failures should also be recognized as an index of the level of intellectual competence that has shaped public education policy and its implementation over the past six decades.

Notwithstanding the election of Barack Obama as a symbol of America’s future, US history, and the centrality of unequal citizenship therein, continues to weigh heavily upon the society.

As the Obama administration moves toward its closing months and the onset of the 2016 presidential campaign, the problems resulting from an oppressive culture of policing in minority communities and the protests that have emerged in Ferguson and Baltimore expose the symptoms of a wider American malaise – the lack of political vision and will to overcome the legacies and reality of unequal citizenship. The increasing momentum for the revitalization of de facto segregated education in recent decades, and the serial inability by successive presidential administrations since 1954 to devise effective national policies to address the United States’ original sin have resulted in the stealthy refutation of a central tenet of the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education decision:

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.

Notwithstanding the election of Barack Obama as a symbol of America’s future, US history, and the centrality of unequal citizenship therein, continues to weigh heavily upon the society.

However, the paradox that Barack Obama symbolizes in American history – for contemporary observers and for future historians – is that he is the first American president who was born after the Brown decision. He is the child of a union of a White American mother and a Black African father; attended schools in Indonesia and Hawaii, Occidental College in California, Columbia University, and Harvard Law School; taught at the University of Chicago; was elected to the US Senate; and later won office as president of the United States for two terms. He lived outside of the United States for a period of his youth and resided for various periods in some of the most ethnically diverse communities in the United States – Hawai’i, California, New York City and Chicago – and attended schools, college and universities that were not segregated.

As a consequence, Obama emerged as a well-rounded citizen whose career has defined him as an individual with the strategic vision, the intellectual depth, and the political skills to transcend the limitations that have historically shaped American racial attitudes and the country’s history of unequal citizenship. Simply put, as president, Obama stands as powerful testimony in support of the vision, and the yet-to-be fulfilled promise, of equal citizenship that was articulated in the Brown decision of 1954.

The eruption of violent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri in the summer of 2014 and the Baltimore unrest of 2015 have signaled that the United States has entered another phase of politics being taken to the streets to deal with the twin problems of unequal citizenship and police brutality – a development that will inevitably influence the elections of 2016. It is also evident that despite the intellectual vision and leadership of the Supreme Court in 1954 and the election of Barack Obama, US society has yet to shed the logic and the burden of the “original sin” committed by the founders when they proclaimed, “The equality of political rights, which is the first mark of American citizenship … in the accepted presence of its absolute denial.”