American racial justice opponents regularly wield a purported desire for peace, stability, and harmony as a weapon to hinder movement toward racial equality. In this weaponized form, peace maintains structural inequalities, as when then-Senator John C. Calhoun defended slavery as “indispensable to the peace” of both white and Black people.
It also limits redress measures, as when President Andrew Johnson called for the end of Reconstruction in a “time o[f] peace.”
Finally, organizations like the White Citizens’ Councils have regularly used peace as pretext for measures against racial equality.
This Essay examines the weaponization of peace historically—from slavery to segregation—and in legal cases about property, education, protest, and public utilities.
It also draws links between past instances of weaponized peace and current ones, as found in attempts to restrict Black Lives Matter protests, denigrate calls for police defunding, outlaw critical race theory, and dismantle affirmative action. By linking these historical and contemporary arguments, this Essay finds that dominant logics of peace mask the injustice, frustration, and despair felt by subordinated groups. The Essay urges closer scrutiny of appeals to peace that primarily function to stifle the pursuit of racial justice and to maintain status quo inequality.
This Essay’s analysis of weaponized peace focuses on those who consider racial justice a threat to peace, providing a companion to Racial Justice and Peace,
which centers Black activists for whom racial justice was a means to peace. Together, these works demonstrate how despite the widespread discussion of peace in American political discourse, those working for and against racial justice do not share common understandings of peace. While emancipatory understandings of peace entail justice as a precondition for peace, weaponized appeals to peace stifle the pursuit of justice to preserve an unjust status quo. American society must therefore learn to differentiate between these appeals to peace.
Although it focuses on American society, this Essay’s analysis also adds to the international conversation around “transitional justice”
by providing a powerful example of how certain forms of peace are actually disadvantageous for democracy.
One of the central discussions in transitional justice is how to “reconcile legitimate claims for justice with equally legitimate claims for stability and social peace.”
The American experience teaches that not all claims to peace are equally legitimate and not all forms of peace are democratically advantageous.
This Essay proceeds in three parts. Part I provides a historical primer on weaponized appeals to peace, illustrating how dominant ideas about peace and related notions of tranquility, stability, order, unity, and harmony were routinely invoked to defend slavery and segregation and resist Reconstruction and civil rights. Often, this “peace” meant protecting white people’s property and their proprietary interest in whiteness, what Professor Cheryl Harris terms “whiteness as property.”
Racial justice was considered a threat to peace because it might lead to property destruction and devaluation
and because it might disrupt settled expectations based on white racial privilege.
This historical overview suggests that the language of peace, like that of compromise,
can provide a veneer of virtue to those hindering the pursuit of racial justice.
Part II demonstrates how legal arguments routinely weaponized peace to circumvent racial justice and how the Supreme Court treated these arguments. For much of its history, the Supreme Court prioritized quietude over justice: Cases like Plessy v. Ferguson, for example, maintained racial apartheid for “the preservation of the public peace and good order.”
But in the early- to mid-twentieth century, the Court rejected the weaponization of peace in cases like Buchanan v. Warley,
Cooper v. Aaron,
Watson v. City of Memphis,
and Cox v. Louisiana.
Crucially, it did so because dominant peace arguments were often made in bad faith and with little or no evidence; the discord they claimed to address was actually the result of hostility to racial equality; and “public peace” was not more important than constitutional rights. As the Court rejected weaponized peace claims, racial justice opponents modified their arguments. By the 1970s, a more conservative Court accepted resistance to racial integration under the pretext of peace in cases like Palmer v. Thompson.
Part III documents the weaponization of peace in our present moment. Racial justice protestors’ basic rights to speech and assembly are often curtailed by opponents who attempt to delegitimize protestors by characterizing them as violent. Following the 2020 racial justice uprisings, several states introduced legislation expanding penalties for unlawful assembly or civil unrest.
Given that the 2020 protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, these laws seem aimed not at preventing violence but at preventing racial justice uprisings from disrupting an oppressive status quo.
Moreover, despite protests highlighting flagrant and unchecked police brutality, police departments nationwide have received increased funding and support from those who see policing as a precondition for peace.
Meanwhile, bans on critical race theory and other so-called “divisive concepts” from public schools and workplaces accuse these ideas of causing disharmony and appeal to civic peace.
One federal bill is literally called the PEACE Act.
Similarly, legal challenges to affirmative action depict race-sensitive inclusion as a threat to racial harmony.
As weaponized peace discourse has been normalized in American society, it has eclipsed the more emancipatory understandings of peace that racial justice advocates have put forward.
Accordingly, judges and other actors may accept dominant group claims about peace without interrogating their factual and normative predicates and without considering the peace claims of subordinated groups. Working against this tendency, this Essay’s conclusion outlines some considerations that should guide judges and other actors in assessing what claims to peace are legitimate and what kinds of peace are worth having.