The word “decolonization,” in much mainstream American commentary, is treated as an unproductive and blunt slogan: a way of reducing a nuanced history—be it in the United States or in Israel/Palestine—to a zero-sum and violent fight over who has power. “To talk of dismantling an American settler state of 330 million people is to take a rhetorical flight of fancy,” writes Michael Powell in the Atlantic. The colonial frame, he continues, generates “a morality tale stripped of subtleties” and “makes it all too easy to brush aside the practicalities of coexistence.” The implication of Powell’s argument is clear: decolonization suggests forced removal and separation. As New York Times columnist Bret Stephens writes, “real atonement” is for all non-Indigenous populations—white, Black, immigrant—to return to where they came: “If you’re an American citizen of non-Native American descent, leave.”

It goes almost without saying that these are caricatures, selective renderings of terms with long debates over their meanings. What if we looked past them, to how generations of activists and thinkers in the United States viewed their own effort to dislodge what they saw as the country’s colonial infrastructure? If we did so, we would realize that if anything, activists saw zero-sum thinking as a key marker of the colonial mindset itself. In fact, they understood the very aim of decolonization as finding a real path out of such thinking. For that reason, anticolonial American activists across various communities—Indigenous, Puerto Rican, and Black, to name a few—often turned to constitutional politics, which they embraced as a mechanism for creating a genuinely inclusive society in which equal and effective freedom was available to all communities.

Activists saw zero-sum thinking as a key marker of the colonial mindset itself.

A closer engagement with Black radical thinkers, the ideas of figures from Harry Haywood and W. E. B. Du Bois to James Boggs and Afeni Shakur in the Black Panther Party, highlights just this point. Their analysis, as well as that of Indigenous activists like Hank Adams, offers a powerful lens for reflecting on the relationship between decolonization, reform, and a nonexclusionary vision of liberation. The erasure of these constitutional visions in today’s public debates strips the depth out of anticolonial political thinking across the American twentieth century—and by doing so, restricts the tools we need today for addressing our current social crises.

For many Americans, constitutionalism is associated with a traditional civil rights frame. This is, no doubt, a large part of its history. In the 1950s, liberal Black and white voices presented the struggle for Black freedom as one of fulfilling principles embedded in the existing federal Constitution, especially those of equal protection associated with Reconstruction-era amendments. The project emphasized litigation and focused on redeeming an egalitarian national promise by unlocking the Constitution’s textual language. Brown v. Board of Education, which declared “separate but equal” doctrine inherently unequal in 1954, is the great substantive and symbolic embodiment of that project.

But the civil rights frame was never the only way of connecting constitutional politics and racial transformation. Throughout the twentieth century, Black radicals questioned whether the end of legal inequality would be enough to uproot racial subordination. As Du Bois declared in 1960, while the country was “approaching . . . a time when” Black people may be “in law equal in citizenship to other Americans,” this represented only “a beginning of even more difficult problems of race and culture.” Such figures rejected a presentation of the United States as a fundamentally liberal society, if incompletely so, in which Black freedom was primarily about providing worthy elements in nonwhite communities with an equal opportunity to achieve professional and middle-class respectability.

Instead, they argued that the intensity and violence of racial hierarchy were the product of underlying structures in American society—including deep-rooted flaws in the federal Constitution itself. The country needed more than some fine-tuning of its already egalitarian essence, because U.S. conditions embodied one variant of the colonial systems that proliferated across the globe. Such colonial circumstances, remarked Du Bois to an audience in Haiti in 1944, were not only those in which one country “belong[ed] to another country,” but also included “groups, like the Negros of the United States, who do not form a separate nation and yet who resemble in their economic and political condition a distinctly colonial status.”

Du Bois and others did not explicitly use the term “settler colonial” (it would be decades until the term was in wide circulation). Yet their analysis of colonization was adapted to the particularities of the American experience, and therefore distinct from various European imperial experiments, like those of the British in India or the Belgians in the Congo. In the U.S. context, these thinkers argued, self-government and economic prosperity for racial insiders proceeded through institutions that were designed to extract much-needed land and labor from Native and outsider groups, in the latter case particularly enslaved African workers and their descendants.

This fact generated some striking conclusions. For starters, it meant that unless Americans confronted the exploitative nature of their economic system, formal legal equality alone would never produce Black freedom. A liberal frame ignored how racial hierarchy had been woven into the fabric of American capitalism, in both small-scale production and large-scale industrialization. And if this was true, this also meant that the legal-political infrastructure of the country was organized to sustain such hierarchy. Therefore, any truly transformative response to American colonial conditions had to realize two facts. First, racial and class politics could not be separated. And second, change would require more than creative interpretations of existing text—it would necessitate basic shifts to the structure of American governance itself.

To set these shifts into motion, Black anticolonial activists would need to develop their own competing constitutional politics: a vision of alternative institutional design, values, and even governing text. Although it would be explicitly decolonial, change could not proceed in a way comparable to settings like the Congo, in which the relatively thin layer of power-holding elites were European colonial administrators without their own national movement or deeply felt connections to the land. As the great labor radical James Boggs maintained of the United States, all communities, those white and nonwhite, were permanently and mutually entangled. Decolonization, according to him, had to entail “tackling” together “all the problems of this society, because at the root of all the problems of black people is the same structure and the same system which is at the root of all the problems of all people.”

In a sense, Boggs was critiquing both a traditional civil rights frame and the idea that decolonization in the United States could merely graft onto the society a one-size fits all Third Worldism marked by a plebiscite and Black formal nationhood. The latter was a view that certainly percolated among some Black American anticolonialists, perhaps most clearly expressed in the effort in the 1960s and 1970s to establish a Republic of New Afrika. Yet the driving tendency was elsewhere. It saw the racially and economically intertwined nature of American life as requiring projects of Black freedom and of change in majority white society to be joined. As Boggs again wrote in Racism and Class Struggle (1970), “the Black Power movement must recognize that if this society is ever going to be changed to meet the needs of black people, then Black Power will have to resolve the problems of the society as a whole and not just those of black people.”

What concretely did this kind of politics entail? There were two basic orientations, emphasized at different moments and by different figures. The first concerned altering the American system of government to make it genuinely democratic. The second orientation emphasized fundamental reforms to economy and society.

Du Bois’s 1945 book, Color and Democracy, offers a systematic account of the first approach. Du Bois believed that truly overcoming both capitalism and white supremacy required confronting the structural problems of political representation in the United States. Doing so would mean targeting the existing Constitution, which, he maintained, created an infrastructure for minority rule—indeed, for a specific and quintessentially American brand of white authoritarianism. This was because the Constitution organized representation around states, privileging geography over actual people. And it fragmented and undermined popular authority through endless veto points. The result were rules that placed a massive thumb on the scale in favor of the forces of racial reaction, with ripple effects for who served as president, who sat on the Supreme Court, and what policies were contemplated. It helped ex-Confederates defeat Reconstruction and reclaim power. And once Black people were again disenfranchised, it so dramatically overrepresented Southern white constituents that Jim Crow politicians effectively determined the extent of any practical changes to the social order. “This extraordinary situation”—embodied by the “rotten-borough system” of the states, what Du Bois called a “national tabu [sic]” Americans were not allowed to critique—had “neither rhyme nor reason.” It was rather “a survival of an eighteenth-century American Tory hatred and fear of democracy, surviving as a fetish” in the form of unreflective Constitution-worship. The result was a set of institutional arrangements in which “the race problem [had] been deliberately intermixed with state particularism to thwart democracy.”

In many ways, Du Bois’s analysis mirrored the ideas of the Black communist activist and thinker Harry Haywood. Haywood was closely identified with the anticolonial idea of Black people as “an oppressed nation” in the United States and with the CPUSA’s 1920s and 1930s promotion of the “Black belt” thesis, calling for Black self-determination in counties stretching from eastern Virginia to eastern Texas. His vision of “political self-rule” in the Black belt, though, did not mean secession. Like Du Bois, Haywood, too, was focused on how to create democratic arrangements for all.

A civil rights frame was never the only way of connecting constitutional politics and racial transformation.

According to Haywood, Reconstruction’s defeat was tied to the ultimate failure to abolish “the plantation system” and therefore the persistence of deeply oppressive structures of racial capitalism. Genuine freedom for Black people across the South, he believed, could not be achieved without confronting the question of land and property. African Americans in the Black belt were a distinct and cohesive economic and political community: they had been enslaved on the land and, even in the mid-twentieth century, continued to provide the oppressed labor for its plantation economy. “There is no escape from the conclusion that freedom and prosperity for the people of the South, Negro and white, can be won only through drastic overhauling of the present system of land ownership and agrarian relations,” he argued in 1948.

But such a project was near impossible to achieve within existing institutions. Black people were not only systematically disenfranchised through explicit Jim Crow policies that denied African Americans the vote; they were also disenfranchised by the very structure of Southern state boundaries and administrative units. Haywood wrote that these “boundaries . . . arbitrarily crisscross the area of contiguous Negro majority breaking up this area into a maze of governmental administrative, judicial, and electoral subdivisions, which in no way correspond to the life needs of its people.” When white authoritarians won elections, it was because planter elites had made manipulating those elections a conscious political project. “These divisions are purposely maintained—in many cases are even gerrymandered—by the South’s rulers with the aim of continuing the political suppression of the region’s predominant” Black constituencies, Haywood wrote. All of this meant that as a programmatic agenda, “the abolition of these bureaucratic and arbitrarily established boundaries and their replacement by truly democratic ones . . . is a key task of American democracy.”

Haywood’s anticolonial vision was thus grounded in a very specific account of constitutional transformation. He called for “full equality throughout the country” alongside “self-determination in the South.” He defended the importance of ongoing struggles across the United States for Black labor and political rights. But in the South, he did not seek a new nation-state, but a new “governmental and administrative structure” to replace the old states. These institutions would facilitate Black democratic majoritarianism and serve as popular instruments for redistributing land from white “oligarchs” to the working poor, Black and white. As Haywood concluded, such Black “self-government” meant “a regrouping of country and administrative districts to guarantee full proportional representation.” It amounted to “a simple democratic demand, in full conformity with the principles of majority rule.”

It was such a sensibility that led James and Grace Lee Boggs, in the 1960s and 1970s, to update Black belt ideas as urban centers—rather than the rural South—became the heart of Black economic and political experience. As cities’ populations swelled, state-based representation, they argued, was increasingly becoming a holdover from “an agricultural era.” In a post–World War II and increasingly post-civil rights America, the system still gave disproportionate power to demographically white and geographically rural and suburban spaces. The result was national policy that deemphasized the needs of the Black poor and working classes living in cities.

The Boggses thus called for movement activists “to formulate a new Constitution that establishes a new relationship of government to people and property, as well as new relationships between the national government, the states, and the cities.” In arguing for proper federal electoral representation for cities—where large Black majorities actually lived—they imagined how aims of Black self-determination and actual American democracy could reinforce one another. Like Du Bois and Haywood before them, they saw the fundamental task of their new constitution as addressing the problems of having state-based representation as the basic unit of American government, which carried implications for the organization of federal institutions like the Senate and Supreme Court.

If one Black decolonial orientation reimagined political democracy and governance, the other focused on a social, cultural, and economic agenda. Even here, constitutional politics played a key role. This fact is best illustrated by the Black Panthers’ own experiment in constitution-writing, which culminated with the September 1970 staging in Philadelphia of a Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention (RPCC). That location and date embodied a large-scale counter-event in opposition to the by-then-routine anniversary celebrations on September 17 of the drafters’ signing of the 1787 U.S. Constitution.

Depending on estimates, the number of delegates and participants at the RPCC ranged from twelve to fifteen thousand people, with five to six thousand attending the plenary sessions at Temple University and Huey Newton’s opening speech; thousands more stood outside the doors but could not get seats. As one participant recalled later, delegates to the Convention came “from an array of organizations” besides the Panthers: “the American Indian Movement, the Brown Berets, the Young Lords, I wor Keun (a radical Asian-American collective), Students for a Democratic Society . . . , the newly formed Gay Liberation Front, and many feminist groups.” Those present also reported that various 1960s-era activists and celebrities mingled with the crowd and took part in plenary sessions, from Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, and William Kunstler to Muhammad Ali himself.

The event was the product of tireless organizing by Panther activists like Afeni Shakur, who were committed to using constitutional remaking as a framework for building cross-group and coalitional solidarity. Shakur, who today is remembered almost exclusively as the rapper Tupac Shakur’s mother, was a formidable activist and constitutional actor in her own right. For her and others, constitution-writing was a strategy to reach as broad an audience as possible: the language of constitutionalism maintained contact with the norms and traditions of the majority-white society while still suggesting an irruptive politics. As a shared enterprise in refounding, constitution-writing was culturally American. And yet, it also mirrored the defining acts of anticolonial rupture and independence in Asia and Africa, where there had been a proliferation of constitution-writing exercises. It thus provided space for radical activists to reconceive American values in a way that was nonviolent, revolutionary, and collaborative all at the same time.

And collaborative it had to be, since the document was meant to be written together with various non-Black political formations. The new constitution, the Panthers hoped, would be able to remake American society in ways that transcended its colonial infrastructure while respecting the intertwined nature of its white and nonwhite communities. Beyond the white and Black binary, activists also understood how the different social position of groups such as Native peoples (with their experience of expropriation and violent removal), Mexican Americans (with their related history of conquest, ongoing discrimination, and dependent labor status), or Puerto Ricans (legal subjects of an imperial state) spoke to the real complexities of overcoming the American brand of colonialism. Each of these groups, while all caught up in the same overarching structures of colonial power, were located in collective life in profoundly distinct ways, with necessarily different implications for the meaning of freedom.

The activists’ aim was to express the collective agency of a movement coalition across backgrounds and identities—meaning that they sought to incorporate proposals that had no direct relation to race and colonialism. Some of the convention’s constitutional demands, for instance, incorporated extensive LGBTQ+ rights including for transgender persons and guarantees that “all modes of human sexual self-expression deserve protection of the law and social sanction.” They also contained feminist demands, such as those for extensive reproductive rights, “socialization of housework and child care,” and “guaranteed paid maternity leave.”

The result was a series of workshop reports that spelled out a normative vision for a future constitution grounded in decolonization but not limited to that frame alone. Alongside the policies already mentioned, the reports called for constitutionally entrenching the sovereign right of all colonized peoples, including Puerto Ricans and Indigenous nations, to determine, once and for all, their future political status, as well as what legal relationship (if any) they wished to have with a reconstructed United States. They further demanded broad-ranging reparations, at home but also for communities abroad that had faced security state intervention; expanded socioeconomic rights and wealth transfers through the public and universal provision of food, housing, medical care, a nonexploitative job, and a guaranteed income; and extensive demobilization of the military, security, and police.

Taken together, the goal was a new popular compact for all Americans regardless of race or identity—a non-exploitative job for everyone, a guaranteed income for everyone. “We cannot afford not to rewrite [the Constitution]!” Shakur concluded. “We must attempt this last straw at National Salvation under this present system, for we must exhaust all legal means. We know that there can be no peace until there is land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and blessed liberty!”

Ultimately, these reports embodied the high-water mark for the Panthers’ efforts at articulating a decolonial alternative. Plans for participants to reconvene in Washington, D.C. in November 1970 to hold a massive ratification of the new constitution more or less collapsed, due to a combination of internal disagreements and U.S. government sabotage and repression.

Constitution-writing was nonviolent, revolutionary, and collaborative all at the same time.

But these ideas nonetheless dovetailed with separate proposals proliferating during the era. In 1972’s Trail of Broken Treaties, a caravan of Indigenous organizations traveled from the U.S. West Coast to the Washington, D.C. office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. These organizations developed a set of demands partially drafted by the Assiniboine-Sioux activist Hank Adams, who in 1968 had also been a member of the national steering committee of the Poor People’s Campaign led by Martin Luther King, Jr. That twenty-point position paper called for Native nations, even without formal independence, to enjoy actual control over their territory, resources, and members—effectively establishing a system of concurrent sovereignty with the United States. The paper further contended that U.S. federal actions with respect to such nations would only be legitimate if based on treaty obligations. It held that all existing treaties should be enforced, with Indigenous peoples enjoying the ability to seek restitution before an appropriate arbiter for the violation of legal rights. Along with extensive material redistribution, activists additionally pressed for the “Restoration of the Native American Land Base”—meaningful land reform and return.

And at various historical moments, activists, especially tied to Mexican American and Puerto Rican politics, argued for the decriminalization of the border as a central decolonial commitment. For instance, the socialist Congressperson Vito Marcantonio, who represented a heavily Puerto Rican New York district throughout the 1940s, repeatedly joined calls for Puerto Rican independence with both economic restitution and the presumptive admission of post-independence Puerto Ricans into the United States. This idea persisted across the century, especially in immigrant politics. In order for the United States to reverse its imperial relation with its neighbors, it would have to embrace a fundamentally different politics for the border.

The great difficulty these decolonial ideas faced was not that their aims were exclusionary and zero-sum, merely reversing who now enjoyed a power to oppress. It was rather that during key moments in the twentieth century, including in the late 1960s and 1970s, there was no real pathway for creating an American majority behind both the reconstructive legal-political agenda and the transformative social, cultural, and economic one. Part of the reason had to do with the evident logistical difficulty of some of the proposals. But at a deeper level, the reform sensibility as a whole faced decisive pushback due to political currents. The growing conservatism of white working-class politics—which fed presidential victories for Richard Nixon as well as an anti–New Deal turn even within the Democratic Party—had profound effects on what ideas could get a real hearing in American life.

Unsurprisingly, the new climate proved inhospitable to radicalism. An emerging post-1960s consensus among center-left circles about how any reform discourse could proceed meant that constitutional politics had to be narrowed in scope and ambition. Now, it had to embrace the existing legal-political system and seek ameliorative changes on terms managed by Cold War judges and other state officials. The idea that anticolonial thinkers in the United States had a competing constitutional framework disappeared from popular debate. If anything, their thought became framed in terms familiar from opinion pieces today: as anti-constitutional and as having no account of inclusive democracy.

This conventional wisdom no doubt derived partly from choices made by some Black radical activists. For all their engagement with constitutional politics, the Panthers never adequately linked their social, cultural, and economic agenda to reforms to democratic governance of the kind that Du Bois and Haywood had developed earlier in such detail. And as the country shifted rightward, that lacuna left the prevailing institutions as the only model of American thinking about constitutional democracy.

In the retreat away from large-scale transformation and constitutional reform, the vast majority of activists in organizations like the Panthers turned to a local focus on basic services (from children’s breakfasts to health care clinics, ambulances, clothing, busing, prisoner support, and education centers). But smaller Black radical offshoots, including elements within the Panthers, reacted to repression and blocked reforms by embracing an armed response to the U.S. state. That response was a politically implausible pathway to change, along with raising all the ethical concerns marked by a turn to violence. Above all, it further allowed state and business officials to cast all traditions of decolonization as destructive and inherently un-democratic.

This was, of course, despite the depth and breadth of decolonial politics across the twentieth century, and the fact that thinkers and activists—again from Du Bois and Boggs to Hank Adams—had overwhelmingly avoided that dead end. They had sought consciously to link change to inclusive coalition-building and imaginative new democratic processes. But in a society marked by Nixonian law and order, simply being subject to the government’s lawlessness provided the ammunition for critics to tar all anticolonial activists (especially Black and Indigenous ones), not to mention their efforts, as dangerously out of bounds. All the while the state was engaged in extensive crackdowns, often on false pretenses—up to and including the the killing of Panther leaders like Fred Hampton. 

The idea that anticolonial thinkers in the United States had a competing constitutional framework disappeared from popular debate.

Ultimately, the two decolonial orientations, now shorn of their constitutional ambitions and insurgent potential, were reduced in political life to husks of their former selves. Often all that persisted of these ideas in mainstream American politics was the notion of Black electoral control, typically at the city level through new party machines. But such representation, something the Boggses had sought, existed without any of the wide-ranging structural changes they wanted. These changes would have ensured that city power was not hamstrung by the regressive politics and austerity commitments at the state and national levels. And it would have linked mass city mobilizations or experiments in places like Jackson, Mississippi to granting local populations the capacity to access the resources and national infrastructure required to realize those projects.

Demands like those articulated at the RPCC were largely ignored. The symbolic idea of a Black “nation” still persisted, but the conventional version of the idea deemphasized the class radicalism of the Panthers. At times, it could even devolve into a brand of ethnic politics that focused on cultural pride in ways that mirrored the very white localism Black anticolonial activists had challenged.

Today offers a striking opening to think again about the richness of that decolonial imagination. Over the last two decades, the country has faced intensifying social conditions: extreme military violence, financial crisis, striking class inequalities, the carceral state’s generational effects on poor and minority communities, white authoritarianism, and ecological disaster, to name a few. The existing legal-political institutions, marked by the same antidemocratic weaknesses Du Bois and Haywood highlighted nearly a century ago, have only strengthened a Trumpian far right and worsened these dilemmas.

At the same time, Biden and those around him seem trapped in a Cold War imagination built around increasingly hollow precepts—from the virtues of American primacy and global market liberalism to deep wariness of any significant structural changes, no matter how necessary. All of this has proven fundamentally ill-equipped for the times. The results have veered from paralysis to catastrophe—as underscored by the U.S. approach to Gaza. It is no wonder that anticolonial activism and thought have returned to the forefront: more than ever, the conventional political lens in the United States appears exhausted.  

The response must be to push back decisively against any knee-jerk rejection of a century’s worth of anticolonial American ideas and efforts. Instead, it is essential to appreciate how even if past activists did not engage in the familiar moves of court-centric constitutional politics, they nonetheless articulated a clear framework for making sense of the constitutional system as a whole. And they saw their efforts at reform as a way of building a society in which all—again, no matter the group identity—enjoyed equal and effective freedom. In this way, these activists had perhaps much in common with figures elsewhere, like Nelson Mandela and others in South Africa, who too sought to find a pathway for everyone out of the destructiveness of an embedded colonial state and economy. Their ideas may have been shaped for American conditions, but they were part of global efforts to think beyond the colonial binary.

Doing the same today requires engaging seriously with the parts of those past American anticolonial agendas that remain vibrant political resources. It also means confronting the central dilemma that long bedeviled such transformative politics: how to build a broad, multiracial majority behind both democracy and decolonization in a society like the United States, marked as it is by imperial power and ongoing colonial legacies. Holding those two ends—democracy and decolonization—together at once is the strategic and conceptual challenge for our times. Fortunately, it is also our ethical inheritance from movements past.

This essay is drawn from the newly published book, The Constitutional Bind: How Americans Came to Idolize a Document That Fails Them. Reprinted with permission from the University of Chicago Press.  

Independent and nonprofit, Boston Review relies on reader funding. To support work like this, please donate here.