Thoughts on MLK Day 2019
Andrew K. Koch, PhD
This moment was brought to you by our Constitution. And me, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2019.
Stick with me here -- because the argument I am about to make is an inconvenient truth based on our nation's original sins. If we do not recognize and reconcile these sins of the past, and how they shape the present, our nation's future will be anything but great.
The concept of America -- as a land of freedom, equal opportunity, and respect for all -- is great. I am willing to go so far as say it is the greatest concept for a nation ever. But the reality is that we must strive every day to make this concept true. Because we have not lived up to our values. And our laws and legal systems have made that so.
Simply stated, our nation's enabling document - the Constitution - and the laws that have been passed and based on that document for the more than 230 years since its ratification, make the realization of the nation's greatness a challenge. And all we need to do is look at that document to see why.
On its first pages - Article 1, Section 2 -- the Constitution excludes "Indians not taxed" and "all other persons" from "counting" in the nation. The "all other persons" phrase means Black slaves. These "other persons" did count as 3/5 of a human - per the verbiage of that same Constitutional Section. And this formula -- the Three-Fifths Compromise -- was there solely for the benefit of Southern whites who needed that arithmetic to guarantee that they would not be out-voted or out-represented by their Northern white male counterparts.
In Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution, we find that the "importation" of "such persons" is allowed, albeit with a tax, through 1808. After that, interstate sales, birth, and some smuggling filled the labor market need for chattel Black slaves. That taxation part meant that our national government was funded, in part, through the sale of Black slaves -- per the Constitution, "a Tax or duty . . . not exceeding ten dollars for each Person." But note how the Founders could not even use the name given to the "persons" they were excluding even as they codified their subordinate position as an imported commodity that generated tax revenue. Indians were Indians, but Blacks were "such persons" -- 3/5 of one generating up to ten dollars per head.
Even though Abigail Adams implored her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies” as he and his male Founders wrote the Constitution, women are not explicitly granted rights in the Constitution. Later - over 130 years later - women got the right to vote via the 19th Amendment. But equal rights are not guaranteed -- the Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified.
The 13th and 14th Amendments eliminated slavery and granted the theoretical constructs for equal protection under the law. But they did not eliminate subordination nor eradicate the race-based and gender-based systems that were at the very foundation of our nation's enabling documents and legal systems.
These inequitable systems continued to operate and were further deepened in their exclusionary laws long after the passage of both Amendments. You do not get Jim Crow segregation laws, miscegenation (inter-race marriage) laws, the Dawes Act (which sought to abolish tribal and communal land ownership for Native Americans), the Chinese Exclusion Act, legalized redlining, and a host of other forms of legislation well into the 20th century if "equal protection under the law" was universally understood as being applied to all races and genders.
If you have gotten this far, then know I share this for a few simple reasons.
I believe in the concept of America. It is the greatest national concept I know.
And I believe, the nation can be greater tomorrow than it is today.
I also believe that professing that America can be made "great again" ignores the nation's race- and gender-based exclusionary past and present, and, by doing so, perpetuates that history into the future.
That kind of vision for the future is what empowers teenage white boys to disrespect a Native American elder who served his nation during the Vietnam conflict.
That kind of vision means we never were great.
And it means we will never truly live up to what our nation can be.
America can only be truly great if it recognizes and reconciles the race-based and gender-based inequity upon which it was founded.
Make America great for everyone.