Historians say America has gone through two periods of Reconstruction, eras characterized by racial progress followed by white backlash. One was after the Civil War; the other was during the civil rights era in the 1950s and ’60s.
In his new book, The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century, historian Peniel Joseph argues the United States is currently going through a third.
Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values, founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and associate dean for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. He’s also a history professor at UT Austin
Joseph says each of these Reconstruction periods was started by what he calls a “thunderclap” or “hinge” moment in U.S. history. Those moments are:
He says during each of these periods, “there’s both racial progress and backlash happening simultaneously.” All three Reconstruction eras have “sewn into the very fabric of the nation state the recipe for political violence, wealth extraction, exploitation,” he says, but those efforts have not gone unchecked.
“Black people are some of the leading proponents of small ‘d’ democracy during Reconstruction,” Joseph says. “When we think about all three periods of Reconstruction, Black people are the canary in the coal mine saying there is a better way.”
Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to hear more from Peniel Joseph about the Third Reconstruction.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
KUT: You say there are three “thunderclap” or “hinge” moments in United States history that ushered in periods of Reconstruction. What were those moments or events?
Peniel Joseph: One is going to be the 13th Amendment and the end of racial slavery. And that starts a period of Reconstruction that I argue really lasts for a little over three decades. The second is the Brown Supreme Court decision. When that comes out on May 17, 1954, that revises or peels back at Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which said separate but equal was constitutional. And it signals … a shift in the entire nation.
And then the third “thunderclap” moment is Barack Obama’s election. Many Americans of all backgrounds did not think that could ever happen in the United States of America. They just thought that any other kind of marginalized identity could get an opportunity to be president before a Black person, a Black man.
Talk a little bit about the moments that have happened since Barack Obama was elected president, because the country has had some very tough times and difficult moments since then.
One of the things these periods of Reconstruction show is really the way in which there’s both racial progress and backlash happening simultaneously. You have the pandemic that occurs, and you see the racially disparate outcomes of the pandemic where Black or Brown communities or Indigenous communities suffer much, much more disproportionately than their white counterparts.
But then you also see in the aftermath of [the murders of] George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, 25 million people out in the streets for Black citizenship and dignity and racial justice. We see the largest turnout in an American election in history [in 2020], where over 155 million people vote. And then you see the Jan. 6 insurrection.
This period shows you deep, deep investment in Reconstructionist sentiments, this adherence to multiracial democracy. But it also shows deep commitments to redemption and these advocates of white supremacy.
There are some things that seem common to me to the periods of Reconstruction — white supremacy, violence — that I thought would be behind us by 2022. Yet, they’re clearly not.
No, they’re not. And I think Reconstruction is supposed to be a second American founding where we’re going to finally be true to our creed. What Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Be true to what you said on paper.” That really all people were created equal, and we’re going to have equal opportunity and equal access and then similar outcomes because of that, because we’re all endowed with similar attributes even though some people might pursue those attributes in different ways. But we’re not different kinds of species. We’re human beings.
But what Reconstruction really does is really cement this unhappy pattern of inequality — politically, economically, culturally — based on racial privilege and racial subordination. And so when we think about the way the three periods of Reconstruction all are braided together, what we see is there’s going to be violence. But there’s also policy, political and legal weapons that are deployed against Black communities to really make sure that citizenship and dignity won’t ever go hand-in-hand in that community. And conversely, it really makes sure that those who are going to be identified as white, irrespective of their class background, will always have better treatment by institutions, by structures, by entities in that democracy.
What’s so extraordinary about all three periods of Reconstruction is that we see sewn into the very fabric of the nation state the recipe for political violence, wealth extraction, exploitation. So, for example, the crisis of mass incarceration that we have now in United States. That is rooted in the Reconstruction period and the convict lease system that is set up as soon as racial slavery ends. Sharecropping. Peonage. Making certain that Black children, unless they have notes saying they work for white people, can be conscripted and can be placed in jail, in prison.
The good news is this: There’s a pushback as well. Black people are some of the leading proponents of small “d” democracy during Reconstruction. It’s Black elected officials who really start the public school system. It’s Black elected officials who push for infrastructure reform and push for anti-poverty efforts. But they are shut out of the very reforms that they institutionalize throughout the South because of segregation.
And so when we think about all three periods of Reconstruction, Black people are the canary in the coal mine saying there is a better way.
How do we break out of that unhappy pattern so that everybody, all citizens, do actually enjoy equal citizenship and equal dignity, and these racist, systemic patterns aren’t repeated?
Well, I think one of the things we have to do is invest in people and not systems of punishment. The positive side of Reconstruction is the creation of historically Black colleges and universities. We have Huston-Tillotson right here in Austin. We need to invest in health care, in education, in housing support, and we need to think about, as a country, reparations. How do we repair what’s happened both locally — when we think about cities like the City of Austin, the State of Texas — but nationally as well? And if we do those things, then we no longer are trying to scapegoat Black people.
One of the main reasons I wrote this book was to really share that story with people, because I don’t think it’s being taught enough, what these three periods of Reconstruction mean. And really afford us a way to think about a different narrative of American history. Not one based on American exceptionalism, but one that crafts a unifying narrative that looks at the whole of American history, warts and all, and finds real inspiration in those who’ve actually tried to go against the grain and turn this place into a multiracial democracy.
And that includes people from all backgrounds, all colors, all religions, all sexual orientations, genders, everything. And that’s a very inspiring and uplifting story. And that’s what makes democracy and American democracy worth fighting for.