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Peniel E. Joseph Explores ‘The Third Reconstruction’ to make sense of today’s tense racial climate

Joseph spoke about his new book, the need for abolition, and how to create a new, more just world

In 2008, Barack Obama’s historic election filled America, well, at least Black America, with the hope and optimism that this country would finally bend toward the arc of justice.

In retrospect, it was naive to believe that the United States was ready to build a liberatory democracy, one free of misogyny, racial stereotypes, gender and anti-gay bias. Instead, Obama’s presidency stoked bigoted embers, unleashing ridiculous and vile white supremacist animus against Black Americans. It’s also a period of time professor Peniel E. Joseph explores in his latest book, The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century.

“My book describes three periods of Reconstruction in American history and compares and contrasts the ways in which the first, just after the Civil War and the second, during the heroic period of the civil rights movement, informs the third, the years between Obama’s 2008 election until the present,” Joseph told Andscape.

The First Reconstruction era, which lasted from 1865 to 1877, was marked by conflicts between redemptionists — those who wanted to redeem the Confederacy’s defeat in the war over slavery and maintain white supremacy — and reconstructionists, abolitionists who sought a multiracial democracy. The Second Reconstruction, coined by historian C. Vann Woodward, began with 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring Jim Crow’s “separate but equal” law unconstitutional. The Second Reconstruction saw the civil rights and Black Power movements call for political reform, and ending with the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. In his new book, Joseph, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, argues that a Third Reconstruction began with Obama’s 2008 presidential election.

Recently, Joseph spoke with Andscape about the book, modern-day redemptionists and reconstructionists, political activist and scholar Angela Davis, and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I first heard of the term ‘Third Reconstruction’ from the work of Rev. William J. Barber II, who has been calling for a Third Reconstruction to put an end to structural racism and inequalities in this county. How does your research speak to, or build upon, his?

Rev. Barber’s work is vital in thinking about how we can turn the present situation into a Third Reconstruction. My research amplifies his efforts in many ways by taking a deep historical dive through three periods that have shaped the struggle for Black citizenship and dignity in unique ways. 

Speaking of the periods of Reconstruction, in the last chapter of W. E. B. Du Bois’ 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America, he talks about The Propaganda of History. In it he shows how textbooks and teachers distort history. In my opinion, this chapter should be mandatory reading at every school in the U.S., especially in this current climate. How does that chapter speak to The Third Reconstruction and/or current issues of today?

Great question. This really speaks to the ‘narrative wars’ that I discuss in the book. How Lost Cause histories were taught to the entire nation, including to President John F. Kennedy as a Harvard student, that justified racial violence and terror. Reconstructionists won the narrative war during the Second Reconstruction, just as redemptionists came out on top after the first. The backlash against the 1619 Project and the smearing of Black history as critical race theory (which, by the way, is a branch of critical legal studies that analyzes the way in which race and racism have shaped American law and legal foundations, founded by renowned Black professors such as Kimberle Crenshaw of UCLA’s African American Policy Forum who coined the term ‘intersectionality’) proves the enduring power of Du Bois’ words and work.

In the same book Du Bois also coined the term ‘abolition democracy,’ which he saw as the new systems, structures and institutions needed to ensure Black people would become equal members of society. For Du Bois, that ambitious goal was sabotaged when Reconstruction ended in 1877. Abolition is also a large part of your research. Angela Davis, who you mention in your book, wrote extensively on the topic as well. How has her scholarship and activism added to the idea of abolition democracy? And how did that impact your work?

I utilized Davis as an anchor in The Third Reconstruction’s introduction. [Including] A Nightmare is Still a Dream, her essay on Black women during racial slavery and their heroic efforts to push back against racial violence, sexual assault, and capitalist exploitation. Her work ties together three generations of reconstructionists. The Ida B. Wells generation, [Davis’] own, and the women of the Black Lives Matter Movement, such as Alicia Garza, Tamika Mallory, and more.

In Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, he said that he wanted to make white supremacists uncomfortable. Unlike some other clergymen at the time who believed racism should only be confronted through the legal system, King believed that civil disobedience was a key part of the movement. What’s your take on how white supremacy affects us today?

I think white supremacy is an enduring part of the nation’s fabric, not just the past, but the present. So all of us imbibe these histories, legacies, and contemporary stories that justify mass incarceration, health and wealth disparities, and segregations of all kinds, from the pop cultural and sports landscape to public schools, neighborhoods, and corporate, venture capital, private equity, and Wall Street firms.

In your book The Sword and the Shield, which was released in 2020, you write about Malcolm X’s idea of dignity, and Dr. King’s idea of citizenship. In The Third Reconstruction, you once again engage in those same themes. In what other ways does The Third Reconstruction speak to The Sword and the Shield as well as your other works, 2007’s Waiting Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, and 2014’s Stokely: A Life, about activist Stokely Carmichael?

All these books are interested in the power of narrative and how the stories we tell about American history, Black people, citizenship, democracy, and dignity are more than just stories. It’s like in The Wire, when Stringer Bell tells Avon Barksdale, ‘There are games beyond the game.’ Stories inform policy, politics, culture, everything. It is the stories we tell ourselves and each other that shape this current reality. Change the story and you transform the future.

Obama’s presidency inspired much of this book. How did Obama play into reconstructionist and/or redemptionist ideals?

Obama is a reconstructionist, but a mainstream one. His victory offers a framework for Black excellence. BLM [Black Lives Matter] offered a blueprint for Black dignity that challenged the part of Obama’s vision that had a redemptionist drift baked into it. Obama believes in American exceptionalism, the idea of continuous American progress. This concept is based on two big lies. The first is the lie of Black dehumanization that allowed for racial slavery and global capitalism that it helped to amplify come into being. The second is that the first never happened, which is why we see fear and anxiety around teaching the truth about Black history.

BLM and the energies around 2020 illustrated why we need a different story of America to create the multiracial democracy reconstructionists are still searching for.

Darryl Robertson is a Harlem-based writer, and J.I.E. Scholar at Columbia University. His research interests include hip-hop and understanding how the Black Panther Party serviced its communities. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, Black Perspectives, VIBE, XXL, Ozy, among several other publications.