America is built on a racist social contract. It’s time to tear it up and start anew

From the civil war to the January 2021 insurrection, the white nationalist response to democratic defeat has been to attempt to destroy US institutions and our national agreements. We shouldn’t tolerate this


By Steve Phillips | The Guardian | October 26, 2022



‘This centuries-long, whites-first framework for immigration policy was most recently articulated by Donald Trump when he asked, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”’ Photo: José Luis Magaña/AP


The current social contract in America is not an expression of our deepest values, greatest hopes and highest ideals. Quite the contrary: it is the result of a centuries-long series of compromises with white supremacists.


In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson included a forceful denunciation of slavery and the slave trade, condemning the “execrable commerce” as “cruel war against human nature itself”. The leaders of the states engaged in the buying and selling of Black bodies balked at the offending passage, and Jefferson explained the decision to compromise, writing, “The clause … was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina & Georgia who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for tho’ their people have very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.”


The constitution itself, the governing document seeking to “establish justice” and “secure the blessings of liberty”, is replete with compromises with white supremacists’ demands that the nascent nation codify the inferior status of Black people. The “Fugitive Slave Clause” – article IV, section 2, clause 3 of the constitution – made it illegal for anyone to interfere with slave owners who were tracking “drapetomaniacs” fleeing slavery.


And, of course, there was article I, section 2, clause 3, which contains the quintessential compromise on how to enumerate the country’s Black population, resulting in the decision to count individual human beings – the Black human beings – as three-fifths of a whole person.


The whites-first mindset about citizenship and immigration policy that still roils American politics to this day is not even really the result of compromise. It is in essence a complete capitulation to the concept that America is and should primarily be a white country. The 1790 Naturalization Act – one of the country’s very first laws – declared that to be a citizen one had to be a “free white person.” That belief was sufficiently uncontroversial that no compromise was necessary, and the provision was quickly adopted.


In a unanimous opinion in the 1922 Ozawa v United States case, the supreme court ruled firmly and unapologetically that US law restricted citizenship to white people because “the words ‘white person’ means a Caucasian”, and Ozawa “is clearly of a race which is not Caucasian, an