The end of 2020 also finds America at another crossroads in our tragic racial history. Three significant events have cast a particular spotlight on the gaps between the promise of American democracy and our unequal reality. The disparate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to ravage Black and brown communities in the US. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement — sparked by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — continues to galvanize both global protest and drive a searing national conversation about systemic racism. Both of these factors helped to alter the political climate by paving the way for Joe Biden to be elected president after perhaps the most racially divisive presidential campaign season in history.
The parallels between our own time and 1865 are especially striking; both moments are defined by national political debates shaped by the struggle for Black citizenship and dignity. In many ways America is in the midst of a Third Reconstruction that echoes elements of its First.
Racial slavery’s demise threatened long-standing political and economic institutions that upheld White privilege and power in America. President Andrew Johnson’s approach to Reconstruction held the line by envisioning a nation where little had changed except the legal status of Black people on paper. White control over Black bodies could continue by ensuring that the Confederacy went unpunished, the redistribution of land to freed slaves halted and states’ rights remained sacrosanct enough to defy the spirit of any constitutional amendment (and a few in particular) with impunity.
Americans committed to racial justice must remember the past as we seek to carve out a more hopeful political future that, partially because of the 13th Amendment’s shortcomings, continues to prove elusive in our own time. The focus of that fight cannot be a single issue or community; it must be America’s system of policing and punishment, which has served for so long to wreak mass havoc on the bodies, minds and families of Black Americans.
This generation of Americans, unlike those living in slavery’s immediate aftermath, have the profound opportunity of writing a new chapter in our nation’s history. Words unmatched by deeds will not be enough.
The 13th Amendment failed to fundamentally transform the structures of anti-Black violence and degradation that contoured Black lives. Instead, it offered a formal equality before the law, one that could technically be ripped away from those accused of being criminals. The badge of the criminal then, replaced the mark of slavery, creating a new caste system that persists into the present. The 13th Amendment’s 155th anniversary should be one of not just celebration but mourning as well — for the opportunities for systemic change America has already squandered. Those possibilities need, now more than ever, to be recovered.