Black America as canary in coal mine of democracy

February 26, 2024


By Christina Pazzanese | Harvard Staff Writer 
February 26, 2024

If you want to know about the health of American democracy, take a look at how Black America is faring.

Like a canary in the coal mine, history has shown that "the harms against Black people are not just illustrative, they are predictive," said Cornell William Brooks, director of the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice and former president and CEO of the NAACP.

"When Black people's lives [are] in peril, when Black people's access to the ballot box is in peril, so is the country,” Brooks said during an event on the state of Black America last Thursday evening at a JFK Jr. Forum at Harvard Kennedy School.

Historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad pointed to other signs and causes.

He said many antidemocratic sentiments and actions have gained traction in recent years —mainstreaming of birtherism and white supremacist ideology; changes to the Voting Rights Act and passage of voter suppression laws to erode the electoral power of Black voters. And all of it came in response to Barack Obama’s two terms as the nation’s first Black president.

"I think for us to pretend like Black people's role in pursuing a more expansive democracy is not, at root, behind [these developments] is to kid ourselves," said Muhammad, the Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race & Public Policy at HKS and director of the Institutional Antiracism & Accountability Project.

"It is not the case, in my opinion, that this country has ever been able to accept en masse the role of Black people included in this democracy at a scale that would not fundamentally threaten what America thinks of itself," Muhammad said.

While there has been some progress made to improve the lives of Black Americans, it is often overstated, said sociologist Sandra Susan Smith, Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice and director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at HKS.

"For about 45 years, we have assumed that we have made huge progress in this country. And it turns out, about two-thirds of that progress can be explained by the fact that we don’t count the people that we incarcerate," Smith said.

"Much of it has been a mirage because we essentially warehoused a significant percentage of people on the low end and then said, 'Look at how great they're doing!' Now, put those folks back in, and all of a sudden, you're kind of looking like 1972 again," said Smith, who is also faculty director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management.

"Time and time again … the policies that are supposed to lead to closing or the elimination of disparities often benefit white folks more than they do the people who are supposed to be benefiting from them," said Smith. "And that speaks to a culture that privileges whiteness."

New state laws banning books, restricting lessons about race and gender, or forbidding diversity training are part of a broader political war now being waged against higher education "by people who are deeply suspicious of democracy," said Muhammad.

"Every pro-democracy movement has been predicated on organizing the people. And the way to organize the people is to help them understand both their lived experience, as they can articulate, but also the broader systems that they operate in. That is the system that is being attacked," he said.

Where Smith finds hope and inspiration is in communities of color where people have taken control of issues and created solutions for themselves, such as the opening of birthing centers to combat the alarming spike in Black women's deaths during childbirth over the last 20 years, particularly in the South.

These kinds of grass-roots efforts also help strengthen democracy, said Smith. "These are people who otherwise would have been marginalized. Now, they feel like they have a stake in it, and they are empowered to make a difference, and they do it together."

Asked what responsibility Black Americans have to other pro-democracy movements around the world, Brooks said they have to be more "self-conscious" about their role as supporters and catalyzers rather than as leaders. For example, the debate over reparations and racial reckoning in the U.S. ought to occur within a larger discussion about global reparations and relationships between nations and regions.

"I think it's a matter of a kind of moral self-confidence and an intellectual self-confidence in terms of assuming the role that we should play in the world. But also, a moral and intellectual humility, meaning — we have to listen as much as we speak."

Photos by Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer