Racial Democracy: Challenges to Civil Democratic Ideals in American History


Prof. Dr. Damian Pargas, Executive Director at the RIAS, and Professor of the History and Culture of North America at Leiden University

Throughout US history structural acts of civic injustice—especially those aimed at excluding racial minorities from political participation, constitutional rights, and even legal personhood—have had a profound impact on the nature and development of American democracy, at both the local and national levels. From Dred Scott to Jim Crow, from spaces of constitutional exception in overseas territories to voter suppression tactics on the mainland, civic democratic ideals have frequently been undermined or challenged by attempts to construct and defend a “white man’s republic.” Such attempts have in evoked sustained acts of resistance through a wide variety of means.

The project explores practices and institutionalized manifestations of “racial democracy” across time and space in American history, as well as acts of resistance to such practices. A racial democracy (a variation of Pierre van den Berghe’s concept “Herrenvolk democracy” and David Roediger’s adaptation “Herrenvolk republicanism”) is one that applies the laws that govern legal and political rights on the basis of race rather than universal and egalitarian civic ideals.

The project includes three  PhD investigations that deal with various case studies.
Christine Mertens is currently researching the legal constaints placed on the spatial mobility of free African Americans in the early republic, specifically in the Upper South, as well as the ways in which free blacks attempted to subvert such constraints.
Marcella Schute is examining the Louisiana Apprenticeship Bill of 1859, which proposed to circumvent the ban on the Atlantic slave trade and “import” free African laborers in a state of legal bondage and extreme dependency (modeled after similar schemes in the Caribbean).
Manar Ellethy is exploring how African-American documentary filmmakers in the late 1960s attempted to counter stereotypical understandings of black socio-political issues in an era of significant political transformations in race relations and black citizenship.

The “Racial Democracy” project is sponsored by the Stichting Praesidium Libertatis I and supervised by Prof. dr. Damian Pargas, in conjunction with Leiden University. The project duration is four years, from 1 January 2021 to 31 December 2024.