American Politics and the African American Quest for Universal Freedom
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American Politics and the African American Quest for Universal Freedom

Hanes Walton, Jr, Robert C. Smith, Sherri L. Wallace

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eBook - ePub

American Politics and the African American Quest for Universal Freedom

Hanes Walton, Jr, Robert C. Smith, Sherri L. Wallace

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About This Book

This dynamic and comprehensive text from nationally renowned scholars continues to demonstrate the profound influence African Americans have had—and continue to have—on American politics. Using two interrelated themes—the idea of universal freedom and the concept of minority–majority coalitions—the text demonstrates how the presence of Africans in the United States affected the founding of the Republic and its political institutions and processes. The authors show that through the quest for their own freedom in the United States, African Americans have universalized and expanded the freedoms of all Americans.

New to the Ninth Edition

• Updated sections on intersectionality, dealing with issues of race and gender.

• Updated section on African American music, to include the role of Hip Hop.

• Updated sections on mass media coverage of African Americans and the African American celebrity impact on politics, adding new mention of the CROWN Act andthe politics of Black hair.

• Updated section on the"Black Lives Matter" movement, adding a new section on the "Me Too" movement.

• Updated sections on African Americans in Congress, with a new mention of the Squad.

• Updated voting behavior through the 2020 elections, connecting the Obama years with the new administration.

•A comparison of the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

• A discussion of the way in which race contributes to the polarization of American politics in the 2020 presidential campaign.

• An analysis of the racial attitudes of President Trump, and the institutionally racist policies of his administrations.

• Updated chapter on state and local politics, including anew section on state executive offices and Black mayors.

• Updated sections on material well-being indicators, adding a new section on the coronavirus pandemic and the Black community.

• The first overall assessment of the Obama administration in relation to domestic and foreign policy and racial politics.

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Chapter 1

Universal Freedom Declared, Universal Freedom Denied

Racism, Slavery, and the Ideology of White Supremacy in the Founding of the Republic

So, what is this thing called freedom? In 1865, General Oliver O. Howard, commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, asked an audience of newly freed slaves, “But what did freedom mean? It is necessary to define it for it is apt to be misunderstood.”1 William Riker writes, “The word ‘freedom’ must be defined. And volumes have been written on this subject without conspicuous success on reaching agreement.”2 Orlando Patterson begins his book Freedom in the Making of Western Culture with the observation that “Freedom, like love and beauty, is one of those values better experienced than defined.”3 Finally, John Hope Franklin, in From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, writes,
It must never be overlooked that the concept of freedom that emerged in the modern world bordered on licentiousness and created a situation that approached anarchy. As W.E.B. Du Bois has pointed out, it was the freedom to destroy freedom, the freedom of some to exploit the rights of others. It was, indeed, a concept of freedom with little or no social responsibility. If, then, a man was determined to be free, who was there to tell him that he was not entitled to enslave others.4
The idea of freedom is therefore a contested idea, with many often conflicting and contradictory meanings. Since the idea of freedom—universal freedom—is central to this book, in this first chapter we must attempt to define it because, as General Howard said, it is apt to be misunderstood.
In the last several decades, an important body of scholarship has emerged on how the idea and practice of freedom began in Europe and the United States. These historical and philosophical studies suggest that the idea of freedom— paradoxically—is inextricably linked to the idea and institution of slavery.5 With respect to Europe, “it now can be said with some confidence,” according to Patterson, “that the idea and value of freedom was the direct product of the institution of slavery. Where there has been no slavery there has never been any trace of freedom even as a minor value.”6 And in the United States, “without the institution of slavery America in all likelihood would have had no democratic tradition and would not have come to enshrine freedom at the very top of the pantheon of values.”7 In other words, the very idea of freedom in the Western world has its origins in the struggles of the slave to become free.8
While there is much of value in Patterson’s studies, we are not persuaded by his argument that freedom in its origins is a uniquely Western value. On the contrary, we believe freedom is a fundamental driving force of the human condition. And while slavery was undoubtedly important in the genesis of the idea of freedom in the Western world, it is also likely that the idea in the West stems from other sources such as the desire of people to be free of harsh rule, treatment, or prohibitions that fall short of slavery (freedom of religion, for example).

Freedom: A Typological Analysis

The word freedom is difficult to define. Indeed, a number of writers on the subject have concluded that the effort to construct an objective or universal definition may be futile. Increasingly, therefore, students of the subject have sought not to define the term in one all-encompassing definition but rather, given the rich, varied, and conflicting meanings of the word, have sought instead to develop typologies of freedom that are broad and varied enough to cover the diverse shades of meaning held by scholars as well as ordinary women and men.
Table 1.1 displays three typologies of freedom. These typologies are drawn from the most recent scholarship on the subject. Again, these writers do not attempt to develop one universal definition of the term but see freedom as having multiple shades of meaning. Patterson identifies three types of freedom. Personal freedom is defined as giving a person the sense that, on the one hand, he or she is not coerced or restrained by another person in doing something desired, and, on the other hand, that one can do as one pleases within the limits of that other person’s desire to do the same. Sovereignal or organic freedom is simply the power to act as one pleases, without regard for others, or simply the ability to impose one’s will on another. Civic freedom is defined as the capacity of adult members of a community to participate in its life and governance.9
Orlando Patterson
Eric Foner
Richard King
Natural Rightsa
Civil Rights
Political Rights
Social Rights
Collective Deliverance
Sources: Orlando Patterson, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (New York: Basic Books, 1991): 3–5; Orlando Patterson, “The Unholy Trinity: Freedom, Slavery and the American Constitution,” Social Research 54 (Autumn 1987): 556–59; Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988): 231; Richard King, Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992): 26–28.
Foner discusses four notions of freedom—he prefers the term rights— that were part of the political vocabulary of the nation’s leaders on the eve of the Civil War. Natural rights, those rights or freedoms inherent in one’s humanity, are what Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence referred to as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Civil rights can be defined as equality of treatment under law, which is seen as essential to the protection of natural rights. Political rights involve the right to vote and participate fully in governing the community. Social rights involve the right to freely choose personal and business associates.10
King identifies “four meanings of freedom within American/western thought that link up with the language of freedom and the goals of the civil rights movement.”11 Liberal freedom is the absence of arbitrary legal or institutional restrictions on the individual, including the idea that all citizens are to be treated equally. Freedom as autonomy involves an internalized individual state of autonomy, self-determination, pride, and self-respect. Participatory freedom involves the right of the individual to participate fully in the political process. Collective deliverance is understood as the liberation of a group from external control—from captivity, slavery, or oppression.12
Clearly, there is considerable overlap among the types of freedom addressed by Patterson, Foner, and King, especially in the realm of politics or the right of citizens to equal treatment under law and the right to vote and participate in the governance of the community. However, two of the types identified have special relevance to the African American experience and to this book’s theme of universal freedom. First, throughout their history in the United States, African Americans have consistently rejected the idea of organic or sovereignal freedom, the notion that one person or group should have the freedom to impose their will on another without regard to the rights of others. This is the freedom of might makes right, of the strong to oppress the weak, of the powerful to dominate the powerless, and of the slave master to enslave. From its beginning, African American political thought and behavior has been centrally concerned with the abolition of this type of freedom, and in doing so African Americans developed the idea of universal freedom—a freedom that encompasses natural rights, civil rights, and social rights. In rejecting the Patterson notion of sovereignal freedom, Blacks in the United States fully embraced King’s idea of freedom as collective deliverance. As part of a captive, oppressed, enslaved people, one could expect nothing less. However, in fighting for their own liberation, for their freedom, Blacks have had to fight for universal freedom, for the freedom of all people. As Aptheker puts it, “The Negro people have fought like tigers for their freedom, and in doing so have enhanced the freedom struggles of all people.”13

Freedom, Power, and Politics

All the typologies of freedom listed in Table 1.1 are related in one way or another to power or the lack of power, and power is central to politics and political science. As Lasswell and Kaplan write in their classic study Power and Society, “The concept of power is perhaps the most fundamental in the whole of political science: The political process is the shaping, distribution and exercise of power.”14 The definition of power, like freedom, however, also has an ambiguous, elusive quality.15 At a minimum, scholars agree that A has power over B to the extent that A can affect B’s behavior or get B to do something B otherwise would not do. Max Weber, one of the founders of modern sociology and political science, writes, “In general, we understand by ‘power’ the chance of a man or a number of men to realize their own will in a communal action against the resistance of others w...

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Citation styles for American Politics and the African American Quest for Universal Freedom
APA 6 Citation
Walton, H., Smith, R., & Wallace, S. (2020). American Politics and the African American Quest for Universal Freedom (9th ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Walton, Hanes, Robert Smith, and Sherri Wallace. (2020) 2020. American Politics and the African American Quest for Universal Freedom. 9th ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Walton, H. et al. (2020) American Politics and the African American Quest for Universal Freedom. 9th edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Walton, Hanes et al. American Politics and the African American Quest for Universal Freedom. 9th ed. Taylor and Francis, 2020. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.