The First Reconstruction: Black Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War (UNC Press 2021) by Van Gosse, Franklin and Marshall College. At a conference this week with nonlegal academics, I was made aware of this new book. I am genuinely looking forward to taking a step back from the daily partisan fracas to reading this and thought it might be of interest to others on the list serve.
It may be difficult to imagine that a consequential black electoral politics evolved in the United States before the Civil War, for as of 1860, the overwhelming majority of African Americans remained in bondage. Yet free black men, many of them escaped slaves, steadily increased their influence in electoral politics over the course of the early American republic. Despite efforts to disfranchise them, black men voted across much of the North, sometimes in numbers sufficient to swing elections. In this meticulously-researched book, Van Gosse offers a sweeping reappraisal of the formative era of American democracy from the Constitution’s ratification through Abraham Lincoln’s election, chronicling the rise of an organized, visible black politics focused on the quest for citizenship, the vote, and power within the free states.
Full of untold stories and thorough examinations of political battles, this book traces a First Reconstruction of black political activism following emancipation in the North. From Portland, Maine and New Bedford, Massachusetts to Brooklyn and Cleveland, black men operated as voting blocs, denouncing the notion that skin color could define citizenship.
Joshua Sellers’ new article “Race, Reckoning, Reform, and the Limits of the Law of Democracy” is a timely reminder to all of us that the consequences of redistricting are not just about the health of our democracy. Partisan gerrymanders impact the lives of ordinary people by defining the policies that will (or more often won’t) be adopted. And those consequences are likely to be worse for Black communities–at least, that has been true these last two cycles.
On the flip side, the Article reminds us that Black political participation and electoral success should not be “the sine qua non of Black political progress.” They are not ends in themselves. The real measure of the VRA’s successes are the returns of Black political participation–wealth, health, and welfare. And lately, those returns are low even when the Democratic Party is in office. Sellers rightly criticizes the democracy reform community for overemphasizing legal rights “with little to no consideration of how those rights translate into substantive gains.”
For the curious, Sellers uses Wisconsin to illustrate the disparate impact of the state’s partisan gerrymander on the state’s Black residents. Republican control for the past decade meant the rejection of the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid and a defunding of public education, for a start.
A new article by Richard Johnson, Queen Mary, University of London explores conflicts with the Reagan administration over the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act. It pushes back against the view that Republican support can be explained by the party’s belief that the Supreme Court would strike down its most expansive provisions. The article appears in Studies in American Political Development.
Abstract: Republican support for the 1982 Voting Rights Act (VRA) extension is a puzzle for scholars of racial policy coalitions. The extension contained provisions that were manifestly antithetical to core principles of the “color-blind” policy alliance said to dominate the GOP. Recent scholarship has explained this puzzling decision by arguing that conservatives were confident that the VRA’s most objectionable provisions could be undone by the federal bureaucracy and judiciary, while absolving Republicans of the blame of being against voting rights. This article suggests that the picture is more complicated. . . . .