I have more questions than answers.
The Founding Fathers were brilliant and passionate, but they also were political creatures. In writing the Constitution, they brought with them not only their many individual faults and flaws, but also the often-contrary goals and ambitions of the populations they represented.
Or, to be precise, of the white male populations they represented.
We know that the Constitution is packed full of compromise, making parts of it the stuff of horse-trade politics rather than the divine light of heavenly inspiration.
Today, and tragically not for the first time since our nation’s founding, we are working through the legacy of our Founders’ decision to equate the worth of a black human as three-fifths that of a white man.
Those white males left us with the premise enshrined in the Constitution that black lives at one time mattered only 3/5 as much as white lives. Our systemic racism traces its roots to this founding document. We have not yet fixed the damage that rippled out as a result of this bit of 18th century math.
We fought a civil war over that math. Abraham Lincoln fought with his own calculus when he wrote in August 1862, “If I could save the union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
His Emancipation Proclamation extended the promise of freedom only in states that had seceded from the union. His proclamation was noble, but it fell short: Like the Founding Fathers, his math missed a sizable fraction.
If we look for an example of how the past wrongs of America’s white males can be corrected, then the civil rights laws and constitutional amendments enacted after the Civil War may help. In the years of Reconstruction, black male representation in Congress blossomed and voter rolls expanded.
But the backlash from white males was swift and crushing, bringing with it not only Jim Crow segregation but a culture of repression and murder. We can count as some of that culture’s victims Emmett Till, Martin Luther King, Jr., and–most recently–Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were efforts at the federal level to break that culture. But even those landmark pieces of federal law have been attacked by white males–including our current president–whose goal it is to silence voters.
The protests that have followed George Floyd’s death beneath the knee of a white male police officer are the latest aftershock to radiate outward from our Founding Fathers’ math that counted black human beings as three-fifth of a man.
How do we solve this? Who gets to decide how to solve this? How do we know when we have solved this?
Perhaps the first question is to define what “this” is. Is it police brutality? If yes, then what constitutes the necessary reform? Barring chokeholds? Redirecting money to fund mental health advocates and social workers who often are better suited to help than a police officer? And who drives the effort to effect the change: the police themselves, elected officials, the black community, an appointed task force, the federal government?
If, instead, we define “this” as our underlying systemic racism, then who is included in that much broader scope?
I in no way wish to diminish the importance of Black Lives Matter that is expressing outrage and frustration. But do we solve “this” by including every minority or oppressed community in our country, including women, LGBTQ, Latinos and Native Americans, just to name a few?
Does “this” also include climate injustice and the fact that disadvantaged communities disproportionately suffer more as storms grow more intense, floods become more frequent and places become less habitable as the climate warms? In that sense, where is the justice for the people of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, the citizens of Puerto Rico, the neighbors in Lumberton, North Carolina, and the fire victims of Paradise, California?
What’s more, the pandemic has laid bare our nation’s terrible decision to link health care to employment: lose your job and you lose your right to good health. The gig economy took that a step further by absolving employers from having any responsibility to provide health care let alone a living wage.
And speaking of wages, does “this” include addressing our nation’s income inequality? The power structure (again, white male) has dithered long enough over the idea of whether $15 an hour is an adequate base minimum wage. While the endless debate goes on, the income gap grows ever wider.
No less important is the question, who solves “this”? Do we vote as a nation and whichever side squeaks out 50.1% declares that the problem is resolved? To what extent is “this” a federal issue, a state issue or a local issue, or some combination? What if Texas decides to go in a different direction than Vermont?
It’s no idle question. Georgia–where Ahmaud Arbery was murdered by white males this past February–is one of four states without a hate crimes law. Should such a statute be national in scope or does it remain appropriate to allow states and their elected officials to chart their own course?
And what about “stand your ground” laws that forgive people who take it on themselves to serve as judge, jury and executioner any time they feel threatened? Where is the justice when a person can be killed and the killer suffers no consequence?
The truly unanswerable question may be knowing when “this” is solved.
The Preamble to the Constitution reads, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Do the words “to form a more perfect Union” imply that we always will be a nation in the process of becoming? Do those words mean that, as a price for being Americans, certain groups must resign themselves to living as a fraction of a white male and never as a whole of themselves?
The nightly news showed a protester who said he would be on the streets every day until “we don’t have to do this anymore.” When will that day come and how will we know it?
It’s a question that Dr. King sought to answer at the end of his 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.:
“When we allow freedom to ring-when we let it ring
from every city and every hamlet, from every state and
every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all
of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and
Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join
hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual,
‘Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, we are
free at last.'”
I don’t think I am too far outside of my lane to raise these questions in a blog devoted to infrastructure.
Having access to safe housing, social services, health care, schools, employment and businesses are all part of our built environment. We are familiar, for example, with food deserts that exist in some communities and read about the disparity in health care between wealthy urban places and less affluent rural communities.
We see that a wildly skewed distribution of wealth delivers luxurious homes and high-rise penthouses for an elite fraction of the population. That distribution leaves far too many people in substandard housing that often is barely affordable.
The homelessness that is a chronic national failure stems in part from a lack of social and mental health services. Too often, vulnerable people are left with no choice but to live on the street.
These are infrastructure issues that are linked to the causes of social justice and systemic change that demand our attention.
The historian Barbara Fields said this 25 years ago as part of the Ken Burns series on the Civil War: “You can say ‘there’s no such thing as slavery anymore’ or ‘we’re all citizens’, but if we’re all citizens then we all have a task to do to make sure that that, too, is not a joke. If some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, the Civil War is still going on. It’s still to be fought, and regrettably, it can still be lost.”
I have more questions than answers. But I join with all those who are beyond ready to find solutions and act to achieve justice.
What do you think? Leave a comment and start a conversation.
I took the photo in New Orleans in September 2017 near the Tomb of the Unknown Slave at St. Augustine Catholic Church.