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What Alexis de Tocqueville Told Us About Democracy and the Future of Black and Native Americans

By Kyle T. Mays

Portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau, 1850
Portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau, 1850

African Americans and Native Americans in urban districts and on reservations were major reasons why Joe Biden won the presidency. To be sure, Trump’s disastrous handling of the Coronavirus and racism were fundamental reasons why people voted him out. But the people in Detroit, Philadelphia, the Navajo Nation, and other locales put Biden in office. The importance of the Black and Indigenous vote underscores their importance to American democracy—a democracy that many, including French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville believed would never happen. He believed that Blacks, Natives, and whites would never live in the US on equal terms. In many ways, the ethnographer of white supremacy was correct. 

Anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous bigotry are as American as cherry pie. It is embedded in this society and has remained a core part of US democracy. For example, the Nikole Hannah-Jones-led 1619 Project avows two historical facts: that slavery was foundational to the US economy, and that the founders developed their democracy through who could and who could not be a citizen based upon one’s ownership of property. Citizenship was also based on who was property and who was not. Property ownership is a key feature of US democracy. However, the whole idea of property was constructed by two phenomenon: African enslavement and Native American dispossession.

The bond between citizenship and property was the crucible of Americanism, a phenomenon that has placed Black and Native Americans outside the US democratic project. Anti-Black racism does not assert that it is more egregious than other forms of oppression, but it is foundational. Just as African American oppression is foundational, so, too, is the dispossession of Native Americans.   

What does slavery and anti-Black racism have to do with Native Americans? A lot, actually. The founding fathers were simultaneously concerned with Native Americans as a threat to their political and social order. We can consult the founding documents. The term “Indian” shows up thirteen times in the Federalist Papers. In Federalist No. 24, Alexander Hamilton noted that acquiring land and maintaining a military against possible Native attacks were essential for the young nation’s development. Federalist No. 54 uses the term three times and further cements that Black folks had been transformed into property. If we don’t want to accept the relevance of anti-Blackness and anti-Nativeness within the Federalist Papers, we can rely on a more objective analysis: Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Tocqueville traveled throughout the US and was an ethnographer of the US democratic project. While some focus on his analysis of democracy, a key component of his series of essays is race.

Tocqueville’s essay on the “Three Races” sheds light on at least a few things. First, Tocqueville claimed that little connects Africans and Native Americans in the US except their subjugated position in society. He was astute to understand that “if their wrongs are not the same, they originate, at any rate, with the same authors.” Who are the authors? The creators and ancestors of US democracy. Tocqueville concluded that Whites and African Americans would never “live in any country upon an equal footing,” but for him, this was especially true in the United States. For Native Americans, he contended that “the Indians will perish” and “from whichever side we consider the destinies of the aborigines of North America, their calamities appear to be irremediable.” Native dispossession and the subsequent anti-Native racism in the US has, like anti-Black racism, remained a comparable cog of US democracy.

If Tocqueville were to return today, would he make the claims he made then? It’s likely. Native people did not fall into demise, but they are still under the yoke of US bondage. African Americans are hardly free.

What can we learn from Tocqueville and democracy? First, American democracy is an unfinished project that will never reach its full potential until it makes right the problems it created with Black and Native peoples. Black and Native histories have always been connected. If anti-Black and anti-Native racisms are principal modules of US democracy, then there will never be peace until they gain their freedom. If we are ever going to have an interracial democracy rooted in equality, liberty, and sovereignty, we, as Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” If the liberation of Black and Indigenous peoples is ever going to happen, we need to think differently about how we include them in democratic practices, and maybe, just maybe, listen to those who are advancing the idea of abolition! Abolition might not only save this democracy, but radically transform it.


About the Author 

Kyle T. Mays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of African American Studies, American Indian Studies, and History at UCLA. He is the author of the forthcoming An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States (Beacon Press, November 2021).