De Tocqueville and the Racial Divide

In last week’s class, we opened our minds to the contentious viewpoints of Alexis De Tocqueville in his infamous piece of literature, Democracy in America. Published in 1835, the book provides an in-depth analysis of the status of American democracy in the the 1800’s. By examining factors such as the societal attitudes surrounding the democratic system, the possibilities of tyranny through the legislative system, and an excessive communal desire for equality and independence, De Tocqueville exposes a plethora of flaws in the American institution. While scrutinizing the bold ideas of the author, I stumbled upon a particular piece that seemed to bear extreme relevance to current affairs and societal disputes.

Amongst other historical factors that have significantly affected the American democratic system, De Tocqueville spends a great amount of time discussing the presence of slavery, and its detrimental, lasting effects. In elaborating on this idea, De Tocqueville claims that because of the atrocities that took place during the many years of the slave-era, “…it will readily be understood that there are but two alternatives for the future; the negroes and the whites must either wholly part or wholly mingle: (432). Following this audacious statement, he goes on to declare that “I do not imagine that the white and black races will live in a country upon an equal footing” (433).


There are several ways to tackle this powerful argument, but I will begin with perhaps the most dominant progression of the American racial divide: the recent election of an African American president. It is nearly impossible to challenge the fact that the 2008 election of President Barack Obama was not one of the most momentous and groundbreaking achievements for the African American race. Not only was Barack Obama the first African American President, he was also the first to be born outside of the Continental United States ( At first glance, the existence of this event may appear to be the kiss of death to De Tocqueville’s argument; after all, with an African American elected as the leader of our entire country, how can we possibly argue that equality hasn’t been achieved?

Unfortunately, this argument is one for the naïve.

Although De Tocqueville may have never predicted an event of such magnitude, his national forecasts cannot be disregarded. It is safe to say that improvements in the American racial climate have certainly been made over the last century – the civil rights movement, affirmative action, the NAACP, and, as previously discussed, the election of an African American president are just a few to name. But despite these positive moves, to challenge De Tocqueville’s skepticism regarding “equal footing between whites and blacks” would be unwise.

The last few months have marked a particularly notable period with regards to the presence of American racial division. This ethnic spark was initiated by an event that occurred on August 9th, 2014, when an 18 year old African American male by the name of Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Specific details of the event in its entirety can be found here. 

Surprisingly enough, the groundbreaking racial element of this event came not in the form of the actual shooting, but rather from the mass reactions following the incident. Due to the absence of concrete facts drawn from the shooting and the uncertainty of the officer’s motive, numerous individuals voiced their opinions on the case and made clear their desire for justice. In an instant, it appeared as though all racial progressions came to a sudden halt and the stark division between blacks and whites temporarily reappeared. Mass riots emerged not only in Ferguson, but in cities around the world, and the media’s coverage of the event was relentless. Pertaining to the ethnic attitudes surrounding the episode, countless studies were produced, many of which attempted to reveal the existence of racial inequality in the U.S. The following article explores factors such as race relations and racial disparity succeeding the Michael Brown case, and utilizes surveys to provide real-time assessments of the event – you can check it out here.

Outrage In Missouri Town After Police Shooting Of 18-Yr-Old Man

Whether or not the death of Michael Brown was racially motivated, the historic event undoubtedly supports the ideas of De Tocqueville, along with his prediction of long-term division between blacks and whites in the United States. Though it is difficult to foresee a future of pure racial equality, it is essential to maintain optimism and support the programs that work towards this endeavor. The detrimental realities of American slavery have destructively molded the sentiments of countless individuals, but if our nation continues to push towards the common goal of complete equality, we can hope to one day eliminate the racial divide.

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3 Responses to De Tocqueville and the Racial Divide

  1. mbstanton says:

    I appreciate the interesting read. Your analysis of the Democracy in America reading was quite thought-provoking. While equal peaceful cohabitation of races of all sorts has generally been successful for the last few decades, how is it that we can even define it as progress? The respect between genders and races is not at all what it should be, what it is among white men. Equal rights have somewhat been defined and enforced for all, only clearly noting the legislative processes (i.e. voting, right to education, etc.) Still, it is not the issue of rights. The issue lies within the population’s true equal earning potential, educational opportunity, and general societal equity. You really summarize how it has impacted and is impacting the democratic system. I liked your use of sources and quotations in this piece. Thank you for the read.

  2. I enjoyed your post and the discussion of modern day racial issues that you bring up compared to Tocqueville. Tocqueville certainly seems to be right in his assumption that these two races will never live on equal footing. While this gap in equality is being narrowed down, we still see a subconscious racism that persists in our country. In my POS 336 class we discussed how politicians use cues to trigger subconscious racial thoughts, such as the ideas that blacks are abusing social programs or are scary criminals. Politicians can say they are cutting taxes, and citizens will see it as a good thing, but it is a racial cue because the country believes that blacks are benefitting the most from the taxpayer. I bring up this subconscious racism because it is a racism that we as a nation have to be able to recognize. If not, we will continue to disadvantage other races, even if we don’t always intend to.

  3. Thank you for your post. Illustrating that Tocqueville recognizes the repercussions that slavery has and continues to have is intriguing. As you pointed out, the election of an African American male is supposed to show the world that we can turn the page on oppression. We obviously can “turn the other cheek” on the rest of the incidences of oppression, right? In class, we discussed the consequences of being a country that has historically benefited from suppressing a group of people. The question still remains, did the election of Barack Obama prove Tocqueville’s point about slavery or does it demolish it?
    After reading your post, your stance to me seems to be that it furthers Tocqueville’s belief on slavery. While it seems that recent events would show we have digressed in racial inequality, I believe that we have progressed in one way people do not think is a “big deal”. This advance that has been furthered is dialogue. We are having discussions in our classes regarding racial inequality. We are identifying these issues. Now we have a duty to act upon the knowledge we possess about racial inequality, whether is may be political ques, media bias, or even having a role model for some cultures. It is our moral obligation to continue this dialogue with our friends, our family, our classmates, and our communities. That way we can unite together in hopes of making changes to the flaws in our system. We can and we will fix these problems we face. Our voice will create action which will lead to change.

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