The reemergence of the White Nationalist movement highlights the resilience of racist traditions in the United States. There is a direct line that can be drawn between the slaveholding of the antebellum South, the post-Civil War Klu Klux Klan, and the President’s refusal to denounce White supremacy groups during the first 2020 presidential debate. How much of this racism is cultural and how much is a product of the structures of the U.S. political system?
This is an important consideration because it is easier to change the way we do things than the way we think.
Equality is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. However, racism through the structure of slavery and later Jim Crow persisted in the United States for many years, particularly in the South. With the advent of the Civil Rights movement and Voting Rights Acts, the participation of disadvantaged minorities has changed the realities of governance and even people’s minds.
But we are now confronting a heavier “lift”. It might well be that racism is not just part of our culture, but that it is baked into our political system.
In the Video: During a Trump rally in 2016, the President addressed black voters by stating, “What do you have to lose?” Video Credit: Youtube.
Due to our unique and overlapping interests, there need to be ways other than force to settle disputes because all laws in this country discriminate. There are going to be winners and losers in making decisions about who gets what but the more important question is, does the law discriminate fairly? “Fairness” is a moral and ethical question. We think it fair that a criminal is punished, but we may have a disagreement as to what constitutes an appropriate punishment and what constitutes a crime.
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We adjudicate these disagreements through a process that involves voting, legislatures and decisions of the courts. We may not always win in these disputes, but what keeps us playing the political “game” is the expectation that we have a chance of winning. Furthermore, we should feel obligated to obey the laws, even those with which we disagree because we’d like everyone else to do the same.
Given these ground rules, is the Constitution fair?
Under the original Constitution, slavery and racism were enshrined in the text. Racism in the Constitution wasn’t just in the 3/5’s compromise, but it was also in the Article IV requirement that runaway slaves be returned to their “owners”. Today, slavery is illegal and so is the idea that for the purposes of enumeration, some people count more than others. However, there are subtle problems of unfair discrimination that haven’t yet been addressed.
A functioning democracy must answer three basic questions:
- how people participate;
- how people are represented; and
- do citizens enjoy basic freedoms essential to democracy such as freedom of speech and the press?
In addition, does the structure of laws under the Constitution provide adequate solutions to these problems? Is the Constitution fair and at the same time up to the task of settling disputes and providing for basic governance?
It is telling that almost no modern constitutional regimes — even those established under American occupation — follow the American constitutional design. That’s a good indication that while the American Constitution was a bold prototype, it has not stood up well against the test of time.
About the Author: Daniel Franklin is retired (Emeritus) from the Department of Political Science at Georgia State University. Franklin does research on politics, film, and the U.S. Presidency. His latest book, published in August 2020 (at the SUNY Press), is on The Politics of Presidential Impeachment. He is a participant in the Scholars Strategy Network.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: The Constitution of the United States atop the American Flag. — Featured Photo Credit: Flickr.