A Discussion on the Link Between American Democracy and Race

Categories: Comparison

The advent of American democracy did not incite the profound changes that colonial insurgents foretold. Egalitarian assurances, initially purported by revolutionists and eventually inscribed in the Constitution, were never wholly realized. The stratification of American society was solidified, aided by centuries of slavery; at best, equality existed in the comradery of white countrymen. Abraham Lincoln’s government, “of the people, by the people, for the people,” could not possibly encompass the millions of African Americans enslaved prior to the Civil War (Lincoln, 1863).

These slaves were, by definition, ineligible to receive the rights which citizenship afforded. The interactions between democracy and citizenship signal deeper complexities embedded in American government. In democratic republics, power is meant to flow up from the citizens. However, whiteness was initially defined by that same American citizenship, and blacks were barred from participation in the public sphere.

This paper will argue that American democracy and race are inextricably linked, which is to say that race severely limits one’s ability to participate in the polity.

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African Americans are largely isolated from white-dominated spaces, namely government; as a result of political alienation, black people have been expected to frequently make democratic sacrifice. Blacks are marked as the perennial losers of U.S. democracy, and as such are frequently undermined and exploited. In order to make this argument, this essay will explore political isolation through W.E.B. Du Bois’ concepts of the “double consciousness,” and “lifeworlds.” Further, Juliet Hooker’s examination of democratic sacrifice will illuminate the onerous responsibility of overcoming political loss in a government where African Americans are a subordinate group.

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Finally, works from Alicia Garza, and Ta-Nehisi Coates will explicate how American democratic systems continue to profit from black exploitation.

In order to examine the convoluted interactions between race and democracy, it is imperative to first establish an understanding of what each of these terms mean in the context of this investigation. Race is a product of modernity,” in that it is not natural, but rather the upshot of discrimination and domination (Olson, 2004, 9). This means of human classification proved exceedingly powerful, and ultimately fostered global cultivation of racially stratified societies. Democracy, the political system hailed for propagating inclusion and representation, is not immune to the pervasive effects of racial hierarchies. Democratic systems are defined by three-prongs: participation, civil liberties, and competition (Thompson, 2018). Participation is typically exercised through acts of political engagement, such as voting or running for office. An energetic and inclusive body politic propels democracies to enact policies that equally represent the needs of the people. Democracies cannot adequately address the needs of the people without full participation from all citizens.

American democracy fails to incorporate black constituents into its white-dominated government. African Americans are less engaged in the polity because there is little room for them. This political alienation calls into question African Americans’ competing “black” and “American” identities. While an American identity is all-encompassing and inclusive, the black facet is not. Political scientist Joel Olson examines this phenomenon through Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness. Du Bois illustrates the unique burden of being black in America by conjuring the metaphor of an internalized “twoness” (Olson, 20). In a country which simultaneously champions self-determination and persecutes people of color, African Americans seemingly always perceive themselves in two senses: through their own eyes, and through the eyes of a nation that despises them (Olson, 19). These contradictory visions are so incompatible that it is inconceivable the two will ever merge; blacks are left to perpetually wrestle with these irreconcilable sides. White America—a group that is often oblivious to their privilege—cannot comprehend this struggle. Accordingly, double consciousness “represents a form of alienation that results from the partitioning of the nation into two ‘worlds’ of race” (Olson, 20). White and black realities exist concurrently, rarely intersecting and always unequal. While the white lifeworld is the epicenter of democratic power and wealth, its black counterpart is written off as an afterthought.

The veil separating the black and white lifewords only has one-way transmission; although blacks bear witness to the white existence, this is not reciprocated. Time and time again, American political discourse overlooks African American interests because whites possess no fundamental understanding of the black environment. African Americans seek the same “freedom, equality, and opportunity American society promises, yet these gifts of citizenship are denied them simply because they are Black” (Olson, 19). Ultimately, whiteness defines American citizenship. Even blacks and whites of the same socioeconomic status rarely exhibit any solidarity. Rather, the commonality of race bonds people. According to Olson, racial privilege is institutionalized such that white society at large enjoys “an air of both equality and superiority: equal to all white people—even the rich—yet superior to all Black people” (Olson, 14). The white lifeworld is reluctant to relinquish this power, preferring instead to wield their influence in ways which service their own community. African Americans are underrepresented, and therefore cannot experience the benefits of democratic institutions.

African Americans are alienated from the polity’s operations, subordinated to white people, and must consequently reconcile with democratic sacrifice . Democratic sacrifice, which can be simply defined as democratic loss, is a central aspect to any free republic (Hooker, 451). In an electoral democracy it is reasonable to assume that all parties will eventually face some sort of defeat. However, the U.S. democracy is particularly flawed because it does not maintain an equilibrium that is conducive to producing reciprocal democratic losses. In her article “Black Lives Matter and the Paradoxes of U.S. Black Politics,” Juliet Hooker explains that, “U.S. democracy dealt with the inevitable fact of loss in politics by unevenly distributing the burden of sacrifice” (Hooker, 453). Blacks continuously experience democratic loss, yet are still expected to acquiesce without conflict. Until they have the representation and support necessary to curtail these democratic wrongdoings, achieving racial justice is unfeasible.

Nonviolent compliance — most notably modeled in the Civil Rights Movement — was initially glorified as the exemplary response to democratic loss. Hooker contemplates the drawbacks of this tactic, particularly in the current political climate (Hooker, 449). Meeting police brutality with passive non-violence may not only be counterintuitive, but harmful. Misguided interpretations of black activism can easily transform the meaning of a protest. For example, “peaceful acquiescence to violence, rather than being read as sacrifice, could be interpreted as black submission” (Hooker, 462). If this behavior is misinterpreted as complacency, these acts of insubordination are unavailing. Modern-day racial justice movements must not parallel the democratic exemplarity of the 1960s; rather, they ought to demand public attention through innovative and captivating demonstrations that defy political norms.

The consequences of black sacrifice and limited participation are evident across all African American communities, regardless of socioeconomic status. Collectively, blacks are oppressed and exploited in social, political, and economic arenas. American democratic institutions preserve the very systems that sustain racial injustice because it is profitable to do so. Alicia Garza, who is a co-creator of the Black Lives Matter movement, wrote, “the state apparatus has built a program of genocide and repression mostly on the backs of Black people (…) and then adapted it to control, murder, and profit off of other communities of color” (Garza, 2014). Racism is extremely lucrative for opportunistic capitalists. Corporations have historically exploited the racial divide between the black and white communities to ensure workers will not join in solidarity and pool their collective bargaining power. Garza argues that the “legacy and prevalence of anti-Black racism and hetero patriarchy is a lynch pin holding together this unsustainable economy” (Garza, 2014). Blacks do not have the same opportunities as other groups because the ruling elite decided their lives (and bodies) are expendable. At this juncture, the wealthy white men who control this nation refuse to overturn the exploitative practices upon which their fortune was built. African Americans rally behind the Black Lives Matter movement because it is a celebration and reclamation of the lives that have been repeatedly denied, forgotten, and sacrificed.

Coates’ Between the World and Me further expounds on the themes of race and democracy. This collection of personal reflections explores what it means to be black in America; Coates is particularly concerned with the processes that construct racial identities. He writes, “perhaps being named ‘black’ was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah” (Coates, 55). Blackness had to be undesirable — something almost inhuman — so that black bodies could be monetized. In defining black identities, whites defined themselves as well. Coates believes that “the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white” (Coates, 42). This juxtaposition of black and white identities reflects the current power dynamics in U.S. democracy, wherein blacks are underrepresented and frequently sacrificing, and whites unapologetically assert control.

Democratic ideals should fundamentally shield against racial discrimination, yet the condition of U.S. democracy would prove otherwise. Race and democracy are inseparable concepts, for race frames one’s experience in American life. As second-class citizens, blacks habitually see themselves from the perspective of white society. Olson describes how this double consciousness exemplifies the disconnect among blacks and whites, as well as blacks and the polity. While whiteness is associated with privilege and power, blackness severely limits one’s involvement in democratic systems. This political alienation exacerbates democratic sacrifice, which finally culminates in black exploitation. The founding principles of democracy are egalitarian, meaning this was not a system meant to propagate racial strife or hate. Perhaps there should be no relationship between race and democracy. The fact that such a convoluted once exists shows Americans that there are great strides yet to be made in the struggle for racial justice.



  1. Coates, T. (2015), Between the World and Me. New York: Random House.
  2. Garza, A. (2014). A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement. The Feminist Wire. Retrieved from: http://www.thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/
  3. Hooker, J. (2016). Black Lives Matter and the Paradoxes of U.S. Black Politics: From Democratic Sacrifice to Democratic Repair. Political Theory. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publishing.
  4. Lincoln, A. (1863). The Gettysburg Address. Abraham Lincoln Online. Retrieved Janurary 23, 2018, from http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm.
  5. Olson, J. (2004). The Abolition of White Democracy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  6. Thompson, D. (2018). Lecture 1: Foundations [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from University of Oregon Black Lives Matter and American Democracy Canvas: https://canvas.uoregon.edu/courses/102208/files/folder/Week%201%3A%20Foundations?preview=4841682.

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A Discussion on the Link Between American Democracy and Race. (2021, Oct 07). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-discussion-on-the-link-between-american-democracy-and-race-essay

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