The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century by Peniel E. Joseph

(Basic Books)

Review by Brian Tanguay

Like many Americans, I saw the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as a long awaited turning point in race relations in this country. On the historic evening that Obama spoke to a massive crowd in Grant Park in Chicago, the possibility of an emerging multiracial democracy never seemed more attainable. Not long after I would take exception to some of Obama’s policy decisions and was often upset that these were too modest and timid given that the Democrats controlled Congress. I believed that Obama was allowing a rare political opportunity to slip away. Obama’s repeated efforts to reach out to Republicans, who consistently slapped away the hand he extended, along with his apparent belief in bipartisanship, struck me as naive. 

Until relatively recently I didn’t appreciate the political tightrope Obama had to walk during his two terms in office. In the policies his administration promoted and perhaps more in how he spoke to the country, Obama could never afford to give the impression that he was favoring Black citizens at the expense of white citizens. Nor did I grasp the intensity of the backlash against Obama’s presidency that began almost immediately after his election, sparking the rise of the reactionary Tea Party in 2010. 

But the thing I most glaringly misunderstood was that for millions of white Americans the fact of a Black president was a harbinger of social catastrophe, not a sign of long dreamed of progress.   

At the time I hadn’t studied enough American history to understand that retaliation against Barack Obama was practically inevitable, not so much over his policies and ability to govern, but his race. As American presidents go, few have been as qualified, measured, sober, ethical, intelligent, and eloquent as Barack Obama. He carried himself with class and grace, and exercised restraint in his official dealings, at home and abroad. His administration was competent, stable and almost completely free of scandal. And yet, for millions of white Americans, Obama’s performance in office wasn’t enough to transcend his blackness. 

In his magnificent new book, The Third Reconstruction, Peniel E. Joseph, the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of The Sword and the Shield and Stokley: A Life, offers an explanation for the Obama backlash as well as the rise of Donald Trump and the MAGA movement. His analysis is sharp and his prose powerful. In four sections — “Citizenship,” “Dignity,” “Backlash,” and “Leadership,” — he outlines a framework connecting present to past. But the book is also a memoir of Joseph’s evolution as a thinker about matters of race. When Joseph was fourteen he began attending an overwhelmingly white high school in Queens, New York, and it was there that he was first called the N-word. “I became painfully aware,” Joseph writes, “of the geography of racial borders in Queens. Crossing over into the white parts of Flushing felt like entering a combat zone.”

Joseph traces the progress Blacks achieved during the first period of Reconstruction, the heady years between 1865 and 1876, when the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution were ratified, and Black men rose from chattel slavery to the halls of the U.S. Congress. But such rapid social change was unbearable for former slave owners and unrepentant Confederates from every walk of life, and a furious backlash ensued, spearheaded by the Ku Klux Klan who instigated a reign of racial terror to keep Blacks subordinate and in constant fear. Once federal troops were withdrawn from the South in 1877, most of the gains of Reconstruction were reversed, replaced by the Lost Cause myth of southern redemption and relentless Jim Crow segregation. 

The second period of Reconstruction in Joseph’s telling begins with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 and closed with the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. This was the Civil Rights Era marked by the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. It was also a time that saw the rise of a Black Power movement and the competing visions of Malcolm X and Dr. King. Brilliant Black female intellectuals like Angela Davis emerged on the scene, influencing the movement’s political imagination and critique of the status quo. 

But as with the first Reconstruction, the second produced another round of white resistance and political counter-attack. The lofty goals of president Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty slipped into oblivion, supplanted by Nixon’s Southern Strategy, austerity for the poor and a War on Drugs accompanied by mass incarceration that disproportionately impacted Black communities. And it has continued into the third Reconstruction, which began, in Joseph’s framework, with the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and has been punctuated by the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the frequent and highly publicized killing of Black people by police officers and self-appointed vigilantes, the emergence of Black Lives Matter as the largest and broadest mass movement in American history, and, of course, the election of Donald J. Trump, an unapologetic white nationalist. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, coming on the heels of the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and in the middle of a pandemic, temporarily brought America’s deep-seated racial and class prejudice into sharp focus.

The achievements of the Black Lives Matter movement have been remarkable, but in the context of history it’s not surprising that Black women have played a major role in mobilizing people and resources. As Joseph writes, “Black women indelibly shaped America’s three Reconstruction periods, each time battling racism, patriarchal violence, sexism, and dehumanization.” It’s not surprising that contemporary reconstructionists are running into the same headwinds of anti-democratic white supremacy that were hallmarks of the two periods preceding it. From shameless efforts on the part of Republican-controlled state legislatures to make voting as tedious as possible for voters of color, to egregious partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, to schemes to prohibit mention of slavery, segregation and white supremacy in public school classrooms, the white power structure resists.

“America’s Third Reconstruction,” Joseph notes, “is simply the latest chapter in a long struggle pitting multiracial democracy against the forces of white supremacy.”