The North Star's Resistance to White Supremacy

On December 3, 1847, Frederick Douglass, who became an abolitionist and public intellectual, published the first issue of The North Star. As Douglass tells it in his Life and Times, the purpose of The North Star was clear and urgent: “It would require much time and space to set forth the arguments which demonstrated…the unconstitutionality of slavery, but being convinced of the fact…the further conduct of my paper was plain.”

For Douglass, The North Star should serve as a resource and instrument to resist the blight of white supremacy that dominated American life. Douglass believed that the abolition of slavery and the elimination of white supremacy were not exclusively moral questions for philosophers, but civic ones for all Americans. His persistent and unwavering belief in the unconstitutionality of slavery was not a matter of mere jurisprudence, but a call to the citizens of America to stand by the commitments that made democracy possible for them: liberty and equality for all people.

It is fitting then that The North Star was meant to shine under the slogan “Right is of no sex – Truth is of no color – God is the father of us all and we are all brethren.” These words were meant to establish three points essential to achieving social justice.

First, men did not possess any inherent superiority in determining the course of our shared life; the power to do so was the provenance of women and men alike. Second, American whites did not have access to any special facts about the nature of Black humanity. Contrary to the tendency of racists to set the boundaries of Black possibilities based on unfounded theories of Black nature, the slogan relocates human reason for all to share equally in pursuit of mutual respect. The slogan also establishes humanity as a shared condition which puts us all in the mutually recognizable position of striving to live the lives into which we were born, with no station justifying prejudice or bias over any other.

Today’s revival of The North Star is momentous for American democracy. Though more than 170 years have passed, the degree to which the United States has morally matured is an open question. It took 161 years to elect our first Black president, only for that milestone to be followed with the election of a most openly hostile misogynist, racist, and xenophobic person to our seat of power. Though failing to capture a majority of the electorate, Donald Trump managed to mobilize 43 percent of the country while not bothering to hide his plethora of biases and hatreds.

It is beyond the power of any one person to define an entire nation, but Trump’s effortless rise to the presidency is indicative of a powerful remainder of Douglass’ time – the desire to determine rights on the basis of patriarchy, and truth on the basis of whiteness. All the while denying the equality of our shared humanity. But open racism is not the only parallel we face today. In the inaugural issue of The North Star, Douglass focuses his contribution on publicly shaming “the Great Compromiser” Henry Clay, a Kentucky statesman and slaveholder. Clay had occasion to publicly fashion himself an opponent of slavery, as present-day Democrats claim to be opponents of racism. Yet, Douglass wonders in his public letter to Clay, why it is the man still holds slaves and why he had so little to say against the institution at earlier times.

“For fifty years of your life you have been a slaveholder. You have robbed the laborer who has reaped down your fields, of his rightful reward. You are at the moment the robber of nearly fifty human beings[.]”

We would do well to keep this moment in mind. The open racism invited by our current administration is certainly unwelcome and dangerous, but it is also the moral low-hanging fruit – easy to pluck for public display and castigation. The harder task is implicating a system, which spans nearly the entirety of America’s political spectrum, for its complicity in the various offenses that stubbornly plague Black life: police shootings, job discrimination, poor education, poor access to quality public services and medical care, to name just a few. This is a system built on both malign disdain on the right and malign passivity on the left. It is a state of affairs enabled and emboldened by the cynical idea that the powerful retain the ability to control the agenda of public discourse, and that our only choices are between evil and lesser evils.

Although that may be true for the moment, Frederick Douglass believed that words attuned to the core tenets of justice and civic responsibility can move the heart of a nation to act in accordance with human decency. This conviction is not entirely without merit – 2019 may not be a completely improved time compared to 1847, but it differs in important ways that would be folly to deny. There is power in the word; there is power in counter-publics; there is power in resistive public discourse. These all have the potential to push America to its promise. We all have a part to play. That is the work. And we are here for it.

About the Author

Chris Lebron is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and a Senior Writer for The North Star. He specializes in political philosophy, social theory, the philosophy of race, and democratic ethics. His work has focused on bridging the divide between analytic liberalism and the virtue ethics tradition. He is the author of The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice In Our Time (2013) and The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea (2017).