Attacks on affirmative action citing its implementation as reverse racism, and claims that school desegregation orders have resulted in discrimination against whites have dominated much of our news in recent weeks. Rooted often in an interpretation of the 4th amendment’s protection against being deprived of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law,” which many will justify legally, those claims are a moral rip-off! They tear the fourteenth amendment from the historical context which provides its meaning.
The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the United States Constitution were passed, ratified, and adopted in the remarkable span of five years: 1865, 1868 and 1870. Considering how difficult it is to amend our Constitution, that five-year period stands alone in our history, exemplifying the unique force of both law and public opinion. When we consider appeals to those amendments, and in particular to the fourteenth amendment, it is well for us to review the context which gave it meaning and birth.
The context was Reconstruction, that short-lived period when the nation was trying to re-construct itself after a bloody Civil War, which was itself the larger context. The context was the Abolition Movement of the nineteenth century, which challenged the nation to right the historic wrongs of African enslavement. The context was Lincoln’s brilliant political rooting of the nation’s purpose in his Gettysburg Address.
Reconstruction was an amazingly complex political period for our nation. Out of that turbulence came those three amendments, every one of them specifically and intentionally aimed at rectifying the history of enslavement, and anti-black bias toward people of African descent. During Reconstruction, a newly emerging Chinese presence, mostly on our west coast, also necessitated protections for them against prejudice and discrimination.
The Civil War was the largest context. It remains as the bloodiest, and in human life, the most costly of our wars. Much debate has focused on defining the major reason for that war, but in recent years most historians have concluded that it was in fact a war over African enslavement. Anyone still unconvinced of that will certainly have to see that the institution of slavery was at least central. Apart from that context the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments do not exist.
Abolition sentiment, born in early roots of the 1700s, developed a movement in the 1800s, giving political and moral impetus to the changes which were intended to be implemented by the three post-war amendments. Each of those amendments, and each part of the fourteenth amendment, was enacted specifically to insure new opportunities for life and liberty for black people and to provide protections for other people of color.
President Lincoln, long upset that the Constitution did not mention the word slave or slavery, that “the thing is hid away, in the constitution, just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dare not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death…”, struggled in his mind and soul, and in the political fields of compromise. Then at Gettysburg he did that remarkable thing; he gave our nation a new birth. His “fourscore and seven years ago,” spoken in 1863, took us past the Constitution, back to the Declaration of Independence. He claimed that it was then, in 1776, that “our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Defined by a political scientist, of course the Declaration was not the founding of a nation. In 1776 we were such a loosely knit confederation of colonies that there was no power to raise or finance an army; there was no nation. The nation was founded through action begun at the later Constitutional Convention. In a deft stroke of genius, Lincoln ignores the offending document, and claims our best heritage in the Declaration of Independence. He says that our nation is about “equality”, and in the context of his life, in the context of our nation in 1863, in the context of Gettysburg’s battlefield cemetery, in the context of the subsequent 14th amendment, that amendment is about due process for people of African descent.
Some of the people who are the manipulators today want us to return to the Constitution which “hid away” the cancer infecting our nation. There are some among them who would like to return to the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, which boldly made clear the supremacist assumption that white people are superior, and ought to retain for themselves the superior places in social life and systemic institutional life. The denials will be loud; our response must be louder! The denials will be couched in co-opted language of human rights; our response must expose the lies!
Let the context be clear! As we assail the cries of reverse discrimination, of whites being deprived of the protection of law, let’s put the origins of that law in context. That context was clearly the concern to address a couple centuries of race-based preference for white people which placed in power a system designed to intentionally keep African people in a subservient place. That place was defined by powerful whites, sanctioned by supremacist ideology and religious faith.
The three Reconstruction amendments were adopted to extend to black people the privileges of citizenship which whites had denied to them from the founding of the nation. That concern was and ought still to be our motive today, as we point to the continuing struggle of all people of color to claim their birthright as human beings, those very rights so persuasively sounded in our Declaration of Independence. Doing so does not imply that we want to be unaware of occasions when there may be discrimination against whites, but let’s not allow anyone or any group, and any gang twist the intent of historic movements which have won tiny victories in the struggle for liberty for black people. Let’s not let the whines of white people divert us from the present inequities of a system which refuses to recognize, see, or address the “wen or cancer” of racism.
Do you want the Constitution, with its historical context destroyed, so that the new racists of today can manipulate it for their ends? The context of the subject amendments is also the context of our present day. Those amendments cry for extension into a future which will fulfill the promise they held for the liberation struggle of oppressed people of color.