By Justin Steil and Somala Diby (click here for the pdf)
The literary scholar Saidiya Hartman asked in a recent essay, “Is abolition a synonym for love?” Analyzing W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1920 short story “The Comet,” which is narrated from the perspective of a Black survivor of the near-total extraterrestrial destruction of New York, Hartman notes that it is “as if the enclosure of blackness could only be breached and caste abolished by the destruction of the world.”
In his 1935 historical masterpiece Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880, Du Bois explores how the near destruction of the nation created an opportunity to abolish white supremacy by building a truly multiracial political, social, and economic democracy. Du Bois argues that intertwined issues of land, housing, and education are at the core of an abolition democracy that would create the new institutions and new social relations to enable former slaves to live as equal members of society. The failure to create a right to land and housing for the freed slaves, Du Bois argues, ensured the continuation of a racial caste-based system of economic exploitation—slavery by another name: “To emancipate four million laborers whose labor had been owned, and separate them from the land upon which they had worked for nearly two and a half centuries, was an operation such as no modern country had for a moment attempted. . . . Only the American Negro slave was emancipated without such rights, and, in the end, this spelled for him the continuation of slavery” (Du Bois 1935:611). And the continuation of this racial inequality, Du Bois argued, would ultimately undermine true democracy.
Without rights in land, Black people in the United States had only the most precarious rights to sell their labor, famously undermined by the Black Codes and Jim Crow. From the nation’s founding, questions of color and capital were central to debates over the limits of democratic control and the protection of property and privilege. The brutal end of Reconstruction answered these questions again for the industrial age. Du Bois noted that because the “upward moving of white labor was betrayed into wars of profit based on color caste,” the “majority of the world’s laborers . . . became the basis of a system of industry which ruined democracy” (Du Bois 1935: 30). The movement for an “abolition-democracy” was replaced after Reconstruction by a return to “compensated democracy” that gave those who could vote a voice in the selection of elected officials, within a system that protected white power and subordinated Black labor to white profits and capital accumulation. The end result, Du Bois argues, was that “Democracy died, save in the hearts of black folk” (Du Bois 1935: 30). The idea of abolition democracy that would actually create new democratic forms, new institutions, new relations through which we could envision a different and inclusive future for all members of the nation struggled to survive, while a compensated democracy thrived, focused on capital accumulation.
White capital accumulation in the United States, over and over again, has come from the extraction of value from Indigenous, Black, and other non-white people, from the theft of Native American land and Black lives, from forced labor under slavery to sharecropping and the convict lease system, from President Johnson’s reversal of Sherman’s Special Field Order 15 and the repeal of the Southern Homestead Act, from legal doctrines of partition regarding heir’s properties that have facilitated the taking of Black-owned land to the extraction of elevated rents through rigid residential segregation and redlining, from the razing of Black communities through urban renewal to the extraction of income and home equity through discriminatory reverse redlining and predatory lending. Du Bois’s fundamental point, I would argue, is that a true political democracy requires a multiracial economic democracy, which necessitates eradicating oppressive structures that enable white supremacy and creating new democratic institutions in their place.
Central to political and economic democracy is stable housing and rights in land, which are tied in the United States to a reimagining and repair of neighborhoods and local governments so that they can deliver a sturdy and equitable platform of educational and other public resources from which individuals can actually fulfill their capabilities. At a minimum, we need to ensure that everyone in the nation has a healthy home that provides a platform that enables them to realize their potential. Creating healthy homes in racially just neighborhoods requires that we repair our cities and towns in ways that take into account this long history of the theft of Black wealth, of displacement from urban renewal, the siphoning of income from discriminatory and predatory lending. Instead, many wealthy jurisdictions in the United States advance themselves at the expense of everyone else by hoarding public resources. Initial steps towards more affordable homes and more equitable neighborhoods would be coordinated federal and state efforts to prevent this hoarding, to require states to take meaningful actions to address measurable disparities in access to place-based resources, to require all municipalities to remove exclusionary land use regulations and make land available for multi-family housing and permanently affordable housing, and to restructure school funding and assignment policies so that an excellent public school education is not an amenity that people see themselves as purchasing with their home but a right for every child. Ultimately, we need to create new regional and national institutions that ensure that essential public services, such as public education, public health, public transportation, public spaces, and small business development have all the resources they need to help Americans thrive, equally.
Destruction, calamity, pandemics—these moments reveal to us what we do and do not need; what should be destroyed, and what should reimagined and reinvented. We need to create new institutions and norms of property, changed expectations of the relationship between ownership and profit, that ensure that everyone has a stable, healthy home.
A century ago, Du Bois, in “The Comet” used an imagined near destruction of the world to open up a window into the possibility of racial equality, and then later analyzed the near destruction of the nation in the Civil War in Black Reconstruction to illuminate the possibilities for a multiracial democracy. Like most other disasters, the pandemic has disproportionately affected Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, in exposure, infection, loss of life, and economic precarity. The seeming brush with apocalypse in this year of the pandemic, runaway Gilded-Age style inequality, and the sustained threats to democratic institutions urgently summons our capacity to imagine the creation of new institutions that would move us further toward the true abolition of the legacy of slavery, toward political, social, and economic democracy by reimagining the government structures that perpetuate inequality and the structures of land ownership and housing that create continuing precarity for so many. In this year where we have seen moratoria on evictions and releases from prisons, we have a window both into what should be abolished, and what is possible. A guarantee of homes for all is possible and necessary. Arundhati Roy has described the pandemic as “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” She writes, “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” Let us fight for the abolition democracy Du Bois imagined.
Justin Steil (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Associate Professor of Law and Urban Planning at MIT and a member of PRRAC’s Board of Directors. Somala Diby is a Masters in City Planning student, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Saidiya Hartman, “The End of White Supremacy, An American Romance.” BOMB, June 5, 2020.
W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Comet,” in Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Howe (1920).
W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880, New York: The Free Press (1935/1992).
Sophie House and Krystle Okafor, “Under One Roof: Building an Abolitionist Approach to Housing Justice,” Poverty & Race, 29(1) (Sept/Oct.2020).
Robert Gooding-Williams, In the shadow of Du Bois: Afro-modern political thought in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (2009).
Florence Wagman Roisman, “The Lawyer as Abolitionist:Ending Homelessness and Poverty in Our Time,” 19 St. Louis Public L.Rev. 237 (2000).
Arundhati Roy, “The pandemic is a portal,” The Financial Times, April 3, 2020.