Though it may feel like a new catastrophe happens every day, the catastrophic failure of our institutions to assure the basic safety and security of marginalized people is a historic phenomenon traceable to the origins of our republic. The pandemic and economic collapse have disproportionately affected Black, brown, and indigenous communities, immigrants, and women. The people who flooded the streets in the wake of yet more police killings of Black people understand that these reverberations are nothing new. That’s why they are demanding a fight not for piecemeal reforms but for liberation.
This moment calls for a bottom-up deconstruction of our oligarchic racial and gender caste system and reconstruction of a just and equitable system. Anything less is unacceptable.
The first step is to understand the unequal power dynamic that allows systems of oppression to persist. Specific and identifiable actors—corporations, establishment politicians, the rich, white people, men, and US citizens each hold varying levels of outsize power and privilege. When they wield that power for their own interests at the expense of marginalized communities, they write and rewrite the rules that create and sustain an inherently violent hierarchy.
Take corporate America. From Amazon to Walmart, the same corporations that now loudly proclaim that Black Lives Matter continue to force Black, brown, and immigrant workers to go back to work in the middle of a pandemic that is deadlier for these communities. They continue to profit from paying poverty wages (and often stealing wages), maintaining unsafe working conditions, misclassifying the status of workers and denying workers their voice and dignity on the job. These corporations refuse to shoulder any of the costs of ensuring their workforces can afford child care even as many children cannot return to school. Instead, the cost and time of that burden falls on families or the grossly underpaid care workforce made up of predominantly Black and brown women. The pandemic has further concentrated the power and control of employers—especially mega-corporations like Amazon and Walmart—over workers, smaller businesses, and whole communities. Meanwhile, regulators turn a blind eye to corporate and elite malfeasance, even as we see the proliferation of coercive over-policing against Black and brown communities.
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But the power of people protesting on the ground is not lost on ruling powers—those who sit atop our American caste system. Political and economic elites recognize that movements are making an impact and many elites are counter-mobilizing to suppress our demands and further concentrate their power by dismantling our democratic institutions. The militarization and escalation of the police response to the protests—egged on from the White House—represent an assault on the democratic principles of free speech and association and bottom-up people power. Republicans have been suppressing marginalized voters for decades. And now, they are moving to delegitimize and defund critical election infrastructure—such as the Post Office and the need for vote-by-mail—that we need to assure a fair and safe election in November.
We are witnessing a power struggle over the heart and soul of America’s future. While the establishment fights to uphold the status quo of racial and gender oppression, economic subordination, and the hoarding of political power, our communities are fighting for what we need to live a life of dignity just like everyone else—the ability to go to the doctor when we’re sick, to provide healthy food for our families, to have a warm bed to sleep in every night, to have safe and affordable care for our children and to live with joy and not fear. Ordinary people of all races, led by the Movement for Black Lives and many others, are engaging in deconstruction of our racial and gender caste system and the reconstruction of a new system based on liberation and justice.
After the defeat of the Confederacy, the United States made the collective choice to engage in the project of radical Reconstruction. Lasting just a little over a decade, this vast experiment was at the core a fundamental redistribution of power from Southern slaveholding oligarchs to Black Southerners. Vital public goods—like public education systems—were created for the first time and financed by fairer taxation to pay for them. Inclusive democratic expansion resulted in Black political power for the first time. Inequality declined and well-being increased to the benefit of all—Black and white alike—in that short experiment of a multiracial democracy. In essence, an Abolitionist movement forced a rupture of our American racial caste system. In the words of historian Eric Foner, we rewrote the fundamental rules of the nation and the Constitution itself—the foundation of our racial caste system—to create a “Second Founding.”
But power and domination always seek a comeback after defeat. America’s social hierarchy, rooted in a Southern plantation economy central to the country’s system of racial capitalism, reasserted itself with the new racial rules of Jim Crow. This created not only systems of formal segregation, but also the de facto enslavement that comes with debt peonage, indentured servitude, and the rise of the modern prison industrial complex. Powerful political actors remade our original caste system for a new era and century. Think of this as American racial caste system, 2.0.
It took decades of organizing from the 1920s through the 1950s, catalyzed by the Black Freedom movement, to usher in what the late Manning Marable called the Second Reconstruction: the civil rights movement in the 1960s. This brought a formal end to Jim Crow segregation and secured landmark reforms like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (known as the “War on Poverty”), the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Let’s call this Reconstruction 2.0.
Yet, much like political elites at the end of the first Reconstruction, defenders and beneficiaries of racial hierarchy sought retrenchment. The years to follow saw the rise of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and a conservative political movement, the “Southern strategy” of racialized “dog-whistle” politics, the “war on drugs” and the rise of modern mass incarceration, and an outright attack on public goods, welfare protections, voting rights, and civil rights apparatus. Conservatives—and many liberal supporters—effectively recreated levels of segregation, racial wealth gaps, and an erosion of civil rights unseen since before Brown v. Board of Education, or what we might call American racial caste system 3.0. Black leaders in the civil rights and welfare rights movements like Ella Baker, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Johnnie Tillman, and Bayard Rustin saw the work of anti-racism and liberation as bound up in a deeper rejection of militarism, imperialism, and capitalism itself. Needless to say, this radicalism was fought vociferously—and has since been read out of history by the liberal myths of “nonviolent” civil rights activism.
As was the case in the first and second American Reconstructions, the broad-scale and wide-ranging Black Lives Matter movement of protests and organizing today is likely the “largest movement in U.S. history.” This movement that has drastically sped up changes in public opinion didn’t arise out of thin air. Like plate tectonics, grassroots and movement organizers have been doing the invisible work of community and digital organizing, political education, reimagining public safety and our social contract and mobilizing people to take action that helped to make this a seismic moment in American politics. It is an earthquake that is upending our foundational 400-years-old racial caste system.
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And—crucially—the current uprising is unfolding with and alongside other popular movements for racial, gender, and economic justice. The immigrant rights movement, the movement for reproductive health care and women’s economic justice, the climate justice movement and the struggles for worker justice in many ways exist in deep allyship with the Movement for Black Lives. And in some cases, the Movement for Black Lives is also a voice for other justice movements that seek to change the social, economic, and political rules.
This intersection and ascendance of multiple intertwined movements is cause for great hope for this moment to lead to transformative change. Mass movements operating across multiple constituencies and practicing deep fusion with each other have an opportunity to usher in what Rev. Dr. William Barber has called a third American Reconstruction.
The blueprint for Reconstruction 3.0 is being defined as we speak by directly impacted people engaged in struggle. Bold ideas for change are emerging from the ground up that, taken together, present a comprehensive vision of liberation for all marginalized people. It is a vision that is about simultaneously deconstructing our centuries-old racial caste system and reconstructing our communities, our economy and our democracy. The objectives of this deconstruction and Reconstruction 3.0 include:
This political project of Reconstruction 3.0 is already underway. There will inevitably be defenders of the old racial caste regime and backlash to the new world being forged beneath our feet. We believe we will win. As the Movement for Black Lives reminds us, it’s a “all hands on deck, no elbows” moment. On the superhighway to freedom, while we might be moving in different lanes and at different speeds, let’s ensure we’re all headed in the right direction to emancipation and justice.
K. Sabeel RahmanK. Sabeel Rahman is the President of Demos, a think tank that powers the movement for a just, inclusive, multiracial democracy, and an Associate Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School.
Dorian T. WarrenDorian T. Warren is an organizer, political scientist, and vice president of Community Change Action.