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THOMPSON: When it comes to racism, you're either part of the solution or part of the problem

July 13, 2020 - 11:59 AM

 


OPINION


Recently, I read the U.S. Constitution...4,543 words...and its 27 amendments...another 3,048 words. Like a great piece of literature, I never tire of its intent...and I’ve read it cover-to-cover every decade of my life since I was 20 years old.

I’ve also read and studied the Canadian Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms since becoming a Permanent Resident five years ago.

I read these documents with the focus one might employ for a manual on how to pilot a jet or tie the perfect wooly bugger fly for fishing. It is - more or less - a scholarly approach...often referring to annotations argued in both U.S. and Canadian Supreme Court decisions. The 333-year-old U.S. Constitution and 153-year-old Canadian Constitution are - after all - the foundations of our societies.

Perhaps this reading of the U.S. Constitution - in the second nation I call home - during the isolation of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic made me question things that previously I might have taken for granted and accepted as undeniable truths.

I’ve long noted how some Americans had not fully benefitted from the rights and privileges conveyed - allegedly to all Americans - by the U.S. Constitution...including the one and only first Americans...indigenous people.

But the recent protests over obvious police brutality and racism that has hobbled America for more than 400 years forced me to read with a mind more open and less accepting than ever before.

There are a few things I discovered...and it’s somewhat comforting to find I’m not so fixed in my thoughts that I’m beyond learning. I read the 13th Amendment...carefully. It’s just 43 words...ratified on Dec. 6, 1865...a little more than seven months after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

It seems strange that while this amendment outlaws slavery there is an exception...okaying slavery as punishment for a duly convicted crime? Why link slavery to matters of justice...unless the desired result was to associate people once enslaved to future crimes and punishments? Strange, too, that’s nowhere in the original Constitution do you find the actual words...slave or slavery.

Indeed, the framers of the Constitution purposefully used ambiguous language in clauses that dealt with slaves. For example, people were counted to determine representation and taxation in each state. If you were free you were counted as a whole person, while “all other persons” were counted as three-fifths of a person. All other persons...those enslaved? Of course, the only original Americans - widely referred to as Indians - weren’t counted at all.

A gymnast might envy the wording of a clause about slave trade, which states “the migration and importation of such persons” rather than using the words “slave” or “slavery.”

But what scholars call the fugitive-slave clause bends over backwards to avoid the words “slave” or “slavery.” It reads, “No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom service or labour may be due.”

In other words, runaway slaves...no problem...the Constitution allowed you to chase them down no matter how far they run and re-claim them with impunity.

Most white Americans have accepted without question a sanitized version of the nation’s history...with black contributions often overlooked and white atrocities omitted. I know now that the American history classes of my youth generally made the founding fathers, presidents, generals and captains of industry look better than they were...avoiding controversies like slave ownership and lynching.

In order to garner approvals and ratification from Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi and other slave states, the writers of the Constitution compromised on racial issues. The prevailing narrative - for generations - was that black people were inferior human beings...a belief still held by white supremacists today.

So, as America lived through the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow...black and indigenous people were kept in their places by constantly shifting laws to appease powerful white citizens. Old attitudes and behaviours became cultural norms...institutional racism was so ingrained...many never questioned it...”It’s always been that way.”

Ignorant and powerful white people have long fought doing the right thing in America...ensuring equal justice for all. But now deeds once done in darkness are now captured by citizens with smart phones and the capability to video examples of brutality...whether from racist citizens or police.

Decent people of all races and creeds are no longer asking for the powerful to do the right thing...they’re demanding it. But powerful white men in America have always played on the fears of poor and ignorant whites for centuries...selling the idea that for blacks to gain equality...whites have to give something up...whites must suffer. That is simply untrue.

The United States has paid a high price to keep blacks and other minorities in their places...untold trillions of dollars over the centuries. Most of that money wasn’t spent on closing the gaps between white and black...but in building separate but unequal schools and prisons.

The issue of wealth and race - median black household wealth is about one-tenth of median white household wealth - drives problems of education, housing, health, jobs, justice...just about everything.

America can solve its problems. But its citizens need to face reality...like an alcoholic admitting a drinking problem. Yes, it will cost...but it already does...and the problems continue. Besides, America can print money...like other investments it has made. People with better jobs, greater incomes, pay more taxes...build stronger economies. Maybe America should spend some of the money it devotes to military...Do you really need a capability of killing everyone on earth eight times over?

The nation owes black people...indigenous people...who played a huge role in building America. They have been systematically oppressed...victims then and now of institutional racism...denied opportunities others take for granted.

And while whites - in defence - say, “I never owned slaves,” or “I’m not racist,” or “I don’t discriminate!”...they need to face the truth. Every white person today and their ancestors had a leg up on black, brown and indigenous peoples...for hundreds of years.

I’ve had dozens of discussions with other white people - decent folks - who have never faced the facts...the truths of two Americas...a land of opportunity for one and another lesser one for people of colour. Ultimately, I ask just one question, “If this had happened to you...would you think it fair?” There is, of course, only one right answer.

The Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence are all beautifully written documents. What makes them so is the aspirational aspects of the words...that all Americans truly are created equal.

You see, in all issues, large and small, you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. It’s long past time Americans stood together, spoke truth to power and started solving problems — for everyone.


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