Review of “The Third Reconstruction” by Peniel E. Joseph



When Nathan Connolly and his wife, Shani Mott, saw that their home in Baltimore had been appraised at $472,000, they knew something was wrong. They had bought it four years earlier, in 2017, for $450,000. They had made $40,000 in renovations. Home prices had been rising throughout the pandemic. It just didn’t make sense. So a few months after that first appraisal, they applied to refinance again with another company and decided to try something different. This time, the African American family removed all the photographs of themselves and had a White colleague meet the appraiser. The second appraisal came back at $750,000. Same house. Same location. Three-hundred-thousand-dollar difference.

In “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century,” historian and professor Peniel E. Joseph uses our country’s history on race and racism to help make sense of such injustices. Joseph argues that, until recently, America was living through a Third Reconstruction: It dated, he argues, from the election of Barack Obama in 2008 through the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol. It was an era that echoed the periods following the Civil War and the civil rights movement, national moments of cultural ambition that centered and then upended the socially and legally enforced limits on Black inclusion in the American experiment. And in the wake of our Third Reconstruction, we face the same kind of retrenchment that followed those two previous periods.

Joseph’s consistent focus on racial inequities hidden in plain sight makes this book searingly relevant. Think, for example, of the water crises in predominantly Black cities, such as Flint, Mich. and Jackson, Miss. Or consider appraisal discrimination, which devalues Black-owned homes. Or recall the ever-growing, always heartbreaking list of unarmed Black men who have been killed by the police. Joseph aims to distill these strands into a single narrative that helps us understand why, decades after the end of chattel slavery and Jim Crow, the virulent racial animosity that helped produce the Jan. 6 Capitol breach persists. “For Black America,” he writes, “reconstruction remains a blues-inflected tone poem about the perils and possibilities of Black humanity.”

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He describes a national history in which two competing narratives collide. For Joseph, the First Reconstruction established the central tension between reconstructionism and redemptionism, a tension that encapsulates our national moment. Reconstructionism is based on a foundational belief in multiracial democracy and in the tools we have to enforce the federal government’s promise of equality: voting, protesting, boycotting and other types of civic action. Redemptionism, on the other hand, aims to concentrate power, access and opportunity in the hands of White people by any means, even and especially through physical violence. The clash between these two visions produced enduring political divisions and racial violence based on false narratives about Black dangerousness and criminality. Convict leasing, lynching and mass incarceration are all redemptionist tools. Impressively, Joseph weaves each of these schools of belief through the narrative of his own life growing up as a first-generation Haitian American. We see the ways reconstructionism has expanded what was possible for him, and the way redemptionism has constricted it.

After the First Reconstruction, Black Americans were no longer enslaved, but the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy and its attendant lies about Black inferiority and criminality would justify decades of Jim Crow and other oppressive ills. The Union had won the physical war, but the narrative war had been lost. By contrast, the reconstructionist narrative won after the Second Reconstruction. From 1968 until the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision gutting the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Joseph argues, we had a national consensus on the importance of racial equality that led to major civil rights advances, including the election of Obama and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Joseph’s Third Reconstruction resumes this struggle, with the most violent clash between reconstructionism and redemptionism in decades.

Joseph ably traces the through-lines that connect these three eras. This is especially pronounced in his account of the Jan. 6 insurrection. For many of us watching as the Capitol was overrun, the siege surely seemed like an unprecedented incident. But it was no mistake that the rioters strode through the Capitol waving Confederate flags. For Joseph, the noose and gallows erected in front of the Capitol by the insurrectionists and the violent mobs spilling into the building were old wine in new bottles.

Joseph also plays out the consequences of his analyses. When we recognize that mass incarceration is a tool of redemptionism, he shows, we can view the Black people whom the system sweeps up as political prisoners, not as a disposable population of criminals. In the process, we can recast them as the heroes in our national narrative instead of the villains, and our criminal legal system as the recent evolution of a race-based caste system instead of a model of fairness.

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Like a therapist, Joseph is trying to reveal our past to help us explain our present national situation. He is trying to remake the story that we have internalized about ourselves — how we have behaved, how we have atoned, what we can learn and what steps we should take next. If we instead rely on true, nuanced stories that will allow us to confront harm with deeper understanding, we will take more thoughtful action and produce more just outcomes.

James Baldwin famously observed: “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frame of references and identities, and our aspirations.” In “The Third Reconstruction,” Joseph tries to narrate our history as we live it, the better to understand the choices we make even as we make them.

America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century

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