Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Inspired by the belief of Martin Luther King, Jr., that a flawed American democracy can be made more inclusive, Manning Marable pledges in the introduction to The Great Wells of Democracy to begin a new conversation about race. Using personal recollections and recent events as illustrations, Marable claims that the United States has fallen short of its ideals because “racialization,” or the “social expression of power and privilege” based on past discrimination and present inequalities, has permeated democracy. A revitalization of civil society is necessary to bring the United States closer to the promise of democracy.

Marable’s book—and his argument—is organized into three sections. The first section, “The American Dilemma,” describes two incompatible narratives on race and democracy in the United States. The first narrative claims the United States is the finest example of democracy in the world, and the second claims that democracy is shaped by “structural racism,” defined as institutional barriers that limit democratic rights as well as social and economic opportunities. Through a brief historical account, Marable demonstrates that this racism existed before American democracy began. In response to structural racism, he says, some have advocated “state-based”—political and legal change—change, while others have advanced “race-based” change based in Black Nationalism and racial separation. Finally, a third group advocates “transformationist” policies, which are essentially “class-based.”

The book’s second section, “The Retreat from Equality,” describes the dimensions of structural racism and explains why...

(The entire section is 690 words.)