The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century

By Peniel E. Joseph. Basic Books, 2022. 288 pages. $27/hardcover; $17.99/eBook.

This book was very different from Peniel Joseph’s earlier book, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. (which I reviewed in FJ Oct. 2021), as it is less focused on history and more focused on political thought and Joseph’s personal perspective of these times as a Black American. Joseph writes of two theories: “Since the birth of the nation, its racial politics have been shaped by an ongoing battle between reconstructionist America and redemptionist America.”

The first theory is that the United States was founded as the bastion of democracy, however flawed, and is predestined to embrace, through corrections along its path, democracy for all and a more just and egalitarian future, as reflected in Reconstruction politics. The other theory is that the United States was founded as the bastion of democracy without flaw, as White people are naturally superior, even if there are exceptional Black Americans who rise above their race.

This theory was best reflected in a redemptionist school of thought created by White supremacist William Archibald Dunning at Columbia University in the last days of the nineteenth century; it was called the Dunning School. His theory spread and was taught to and accepted by American leaders in elite colleges and universities such as Harvard (where John F. Kennedy was exposed to it in the 1930s) and Rice University (where I was lectured about it under the name “exceptionalism” in the 1970s). Joseph explains: “Dunning and his supporters viewed themselves, like the white historical characters they wrote about, as ‘redeeming’ America from the mistaken Reconstruction era with its commitment to Black citizenship.”

This book is about the struggle for the acceptance of Black Americans as full citizens, but it is also about the lies some of us tell ourselves as a nation to redeem the myth of the inherent purity of American freedom and democracy of our country’s founding.

Joseph reminds us of W.E.B. Du Bois’s seminal 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880, calling it “arguably his most important book yet”; it was, in Joseph’s words, “about the two Americas that briefly united as one in the aftermath of a bloody Civil War.” Du Bois ultimately viewed the Reconstruction period as “a missed opportunity . . . as the nation’s second founding” (again in Joseph’s words). Instead, Joseph explained, the post-Civil War narrative became the Redemptionist narrative of “myths and lies of ‘Lost Cause’ histories that presented the period after slavery’s end as a horrible mistake that required the heroic intervention of the Ku Klux Klan to make right.”

The Third Reconstruction, as defined by Joseph, began with the election of Barack Obama as president. Many people saw this election as a historic change and the pinnacle of the Civil Rights Movement. Joseph points out, however, that Obama’s success was, in part, a product of additional factors such as his charisma and his and his family’s good looks and cultured manners. Obama, however, was not free from attack as a Person of Color in a position of power. In many respects, his election allowed a more open attack on People of Color who didn’t fit the “exceptional” mold. As Joseph writes of this double standard:

[T]hose who hoped that Obama might serve as a combined commander in chief and social movement leader would be bitterly disappointed. . . . For too many white people, the question of whether Black Americans would ever truly be fit for citizenship remains open-ended.

The battle between histories not only continued, it deepened. Joseph makes clear that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which grew out of the response to the White supremacy backlash, was more than the original Reconstruction attempt to make Black Americans full citizens. BLM was largely led by Black American women. They no longer accepted the role of supporting from behind the scenes, to which they had been relegated for so many decades. These women and their allies brought with them a recognition of the intersection of racism; sexism; and queer, transgender, and other oppressions. The 2020 elections reflected this change in perspective, culminating in January 2021 with the election of the first Black and first Jewish U.S. senators from Georgia in runoff elections won with the support of the Black American women and their allies.

The January 6, 2021 insurrection was another assertion of Redemptionist politics that we are watching play out today. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that encapsulated this book for me: “Stop pretending your racism is patriotism.” But it should have included sexism, anti-gay and anti-transgender bias, xenophobia, and other oppressions.

As Emma Lazarus, Maya Angelou, and other great activists have warned: None of us are free until we all are free. None of us are full citizens until we all are full citizens.

I encourage Friends to read this book.

J. E. McNeil is a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) and an attorney. She has been politically active for more than 50 years. She is always grateful for the opportunity to learn more about the ins and outs of the United States and its economy, and to work for justice within it.

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1 thought on “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century

  1. Forgiveness and reconstruction are the only way to prevent another war, as we learned the hard way after UK and France pushed to punish Germany for WW1. Rebuilding Germany and Japan over decades after WWII (we still have a large and costly military presence) worked far better to prevent resentment.

    If we ever want a woman of any race as President, it’s critical our Presidency be a committee. Otherwise, just like Margaret Thatcher was attacked by Argentina machismo and politically forced into a costly war, our first woman President would be backed into a corner by Putin and Xi patriarchy, but risks nuclear weapons. An executive committee (at least four) would decentralize our winner-take-all (exclude everyone else) system, which would also help minorities share a seat at our executive table, voting in proportion to votes earned. Our Constitution might be legally read to allow the President to be more than one person, avoiding a slow Amendment. The wealthy Swiss already proved the success of a seven member executive committee with the chair rotating annually.

    Whites like me should see the new religious comedy “Book of Clarence” with a Black Jesus (always respected), Black Apostles, and Black Jerusalem under white Roman rule. Some scenes may upset the orthodox, but ends on a proper religious note. Professional critics didn’t like it because it was religious, and white audiences likely struggle to walk in the shoes of another culture. Personally enjoyed the distinctive viewpoint…all alone. My insight came decades ago from a Navy roommate, cemented when invited to his home and noticed a powerful picture of black couple pulling on a US Flag.

    Beware divisive for-profit selfish politics…on both sides. We need to learn to share US, State and local executive power, not hog it and risk endless backlash. Thankfully, our world has 200 nations, and we have 50 states and about 5,000 counties experimenting with better solutions to problems, avoiding one unilateral government.

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