The American Civil Rights State: The Role of Federal Power in the Pursuit of Racial Justice

Robert Lieberman, Johns Hopkins University
Desmond King, University of Oxford

For most of American history, the state has been an active agent of oppression toward African Americans. Even as the United States democratized in other ways, it retained structures and practices of racial authoritarianism and coercion. But in the middle of the twentieth century, the United States underwent a major wave of democratization – incomplete, to be sure, and still tempered by the persistence of racial oppression and inequality. For a brief while during that period, the American state transformed itself, on balance, into an agent of racial equality. We explore the reasons for this turn and present a theoretical scheme to explain the transformation of the state’s role in America democratization and the advancement of civil rights and racial equality. Using a comparison between the civil rights revolution in the twentieth century and the period of Reconstruction in the nineteenth, we show that “forceful federalism” – a distinctive historical alignment of the multiple dimensions of state power – best accounts for the democratization surge of the mid-twentieth century and the distinctive way that development has subsequently unraveled.

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 Presented in Session 38. Enforcing Boundaries of Belonging in the (Post)Colonial State