This is the last of five pieces in an occasional series, derived from recent interviews with scholars at the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts. (See Related Content at the end of this article for the first four articles in the series.)
A famous quote, often attributed to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (although he borrowed it and modified it from others) holds that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Does the history of democracy in America bend toward justice? And does justice mean equal opportunity for all categories of Americans to participate equally in, and benefit equally from the blessings of our democracy?
Whatever your first reaction to those questions, allow professor Rose Brewer to deepen your thinking. Brewer is a professor of African-American Studies, also affiliated with the American Studies, Sociology, and Gender, Women & Sexuality departments and programs. She focuses on issues of race, class and gender. She is yet another of the professors I interviewed for a piece in a special edition this past summer, of “Liberal Arts,” a publication of the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts, to make the insights of scholars on matters affecting the U.S. experience of democracy.
Yes, Brewer said, “What we have come to understand as democracy has been expanded certainly from the inception of our Constitution when citizenship, in a 1790 naturalization law, was restricted to white males with property.” Americans who are neither white, nor male, nor propertied are now considered citizens.
Still engaged in ‘an ongoing struggle’
But, Brewer cautioned, America is still engaged in “what should be seen as an ongoing struggle for what I would call real democracy.” Ongoing. As in: Not there yet.
Race, class and gender still matter, she said, and challenge our society to think about Americans who are on the less-advantaged side of all three of those divides, those who are poor, female and of color. Accept that challenge and you will start to grasp how far America is from real equality.
“It’s not simply that racial nationalism is still a threat, or male domination, or class exploitation,” Brewer said, “but if we think about the way those interlocking systems work together across race, class and gender, that takes us quite a way toward understanding who can fully access democratic rights and who can’t. That access has never been given without some group standing up and resisting.”
Sometimes, it’s about the intersection between wealth and power.
“I work on issues of wealth,” she said. “What is it? Who has access to it? And how much of a role does money play in our politics? Who has access to the decision makers? How much is your voice heard if you are poor?”
Brewer brought up the “Citizens United” case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have free speech rights and can use their economic power to influence elections. That decision, she said, means that “everyday citizens are juxtaposed to corporate power in the functioning of democracy.”
Don’t let the idea of history “bending toward justice” make you think it moves steadily in that direction, she cautioned. It goes back and forth.
Rights granted — and taken away
“It took a bloody civil war to end enslavement,” she said. But that didn’t guarantee equal access to democracy for the freed slaves. “For a quick moment, there was something called radical reconstruction,” the post-Civil War amendments (13th, 14th and 15th) that supposedly guaranteed new rights for all, “but that regime was overthrown and the political and social rights that came out of that were withdrawn,” Brewer said.
“Look at the Supreme Court decision, Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896), which stands for the next phase of racial segregation, which pretended that separate facilities would be equal; or the Jim Crow era… It would require another almost hundred years to restore the rights promised in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments (referring the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act) and the goals of those laws still aren’t fully realized 60 years later.
“And then think about the economic component of equality, where an African-American woman, on average, makes 66 cents for every dollar a white male makes. And white women make 80 cents.”
Votes can talk — but so can money
“We have to take a long view,” Brewer said. “These are dialectical processes. Obviously we have moved the needle, over history, on many of these issues. We have to be mindful of those things that have moved the needle, and of where the needle has not moved and that this involves the lives of tens of millions of people.”
Votes can talk in politics, Brewer said. But so can money. The 2006 book, “The Color of Wealth,” which Brewer co-authored, deals with the maldistribution of wealth. “The number of African-Americans who are now classified as middle class is the highest in history,” she told me, “And that’s progress.”
But shortly before we spoke, she told me, she had seen a Pew study of wealth distribution, which projected that by 2053, half of all African-Americans will have some wealth, meaning, I gather, they own more than they owe.
Half will have none.