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Behind ‘We the People,’ a ‘Racial Contract’ Written in Invisible Ink


This week on democracy-ish, Danielle and Toure welcome a special guest: The Atlantic staff writer Adam Serwer. He takes us to school on the philosophies that underpin racial divides in America.


  • Our society is governed by (mostly) agreed-upon laws. But underneath the statutes, argues Adam, is a ‘racial contract’ that suggests they don’t apply equally to everyone. It’s at the foundation of our republic itself.

  • Is the Trump administration’s pandemic response malicious, indifferent or just unconscious to its racial biases?

  • Has our country really changed much since the days of Dred Scott … or Jim Crow? Adam says we’ve only been a democracy –– on paper –– since 1965. (Then as now, it’s just democracy-ish for people of color.)


Trump changes his mind a lot, about a lot of things. But his mercurial response to the global pandemic has been especially infuriating.


First, he called it a hoax. Then he seemed to take it somewhat seriously. But soon afterward, he tweeted that “the cure cannot be worse than the problem,” and urged Americans to return to work and business as usual.

That final shift happened right around the time we started to realize that statistics show Black and Brown people are suffering and dying from COVID-19 at far greater rates than white people.


Coincidence? Of course not.


Toure and Danielle invited Adam to discuss his latest essay, which analyzes the historical forces that wrought both Ahmaud Arbery’s murder and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and Brown communities.


“Adam's piece really nails that down in a more intelligent way than anything else I've seen,” says Touré.


Adam sees his work at The Atlantic as “an attempt to create a historical record of the precedents –– ideological, political and intellectual –– for Donald Trump.”


One of the things that struck him after Trump’s election, he adds, was how many people said, this isn't America. This isn't our country.


“I was like, no, actually, this is a part of us. This is a part of what we've always been. My responsibility is documenting these things as they're happening, as clearly as possible.”



Episode Highlights –– Repubs Don’t Care About Black People



The racial contract

At the root of racial inequality in America, Adam explains, is philosopher Charles Mills’ concept of the “racial contract.”


We live in a society governed by laws –– a set of explicit, written-down rules. But underneath those rules, he says in his Atlantic essay, is “a codicil rendered in invisible ink, one stating that the rules as written do not apply to nonwhite people in the same way.”


Consider the Declaration of Independence itself: “All men are created equal has been interpreted by subsequent generations to mean “man” as humanity –– all people are created equal,” says Adam.


“But at the time … it really meant white men with property. That's an example of something that is superficially universal, but actually has a tacit underlying racial meaning”.



The white privilege of ‘stand your ground’ and police brutality

We see the racial contract in modern society all the time. Take "stand your ground" laws. Statistically, white people are much more likely to use those laws to successfully claim self-defense if they've killed a Black person. The racial contract was at work when Cleveland police shot Tamir Rice on sight, even though he was a 12-year-old with a toy gun.


“But you can have a semi-automatic rifle on your back and walk into a state legislature, quote-unquote protesting,” Adam adds.


“The terms of the racial contract are pretty much there for everyone to see. But it exists almost unspoken and unacknowledged. Because that's the only way you can have a society where everybody is supposed to be equal –– but everybody knows that certain people are not, and they treat certain people differently, based on who they are.”



Trump isn’t the only white supremacist in the West Wing