The Constitution and Structural Racism
“The institutions of this country do not know me, do not recognize me as a man, except as a piece of property.”
Frederick Douglass 1
William Lloyd Garrison, the famous abolitionist, claimed that the Constitution was a “covenant with evil.”2 The driving force behind his satanic description was the recognition that the Constitution came with a price, and that price was slavery. This year’s Constitution Day Lecture shines a light on the Constitution and Race. Structural racism infected our original Constitution in places such as the Three-Fifths Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Provision. These pernicious provisions were eradicated through a bloody Civil War in which more Americans died than in all other U.S. wars put together. Constitutional Amendments emerged in the wake of this “mighty scourge of war” as Abraham Lincoln called our national schism, that abolished slavery, certified citizenship rights for former slaves, and prohibited discrimination in voting based on skin color.3 Although the Constitution can be amended, people’s hearts and minds are not changed as easily. Racism continued to raise its ugly head, and Supreme Court decisions in the post-Civil War era such as Plessy v. Ferguson, which sanctioned segregation, gave white supremacists legal cover to discriminate against the African-American community. The legacy of this structural racism is examined through theory and practice in Dr. Robert Johnson’s 2020 Constitution Day Lecture.
1. David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018,179.
3. Roy Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 8 vols., New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953, VIII, 333.
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