The High Price of Racism — An Historical Perspective
One of the sad and disturbing aspects of American history is that this country has seldom lived up to the ideal set forth in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” The Constitution of 1787 enshrined slavery into our political and legal system as an inducement for the southern states to remain within the union.
The infamous 3/5 clause counted slaves as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of taxation and legislative representation even though slaves had no rights. This had the effect of giving the south a disproportionate number of seats in the House of Representatives and a disproportionate number of electoral votes. The south used this portion of the Constitution to dominate the period of the early republic between 1789 and 1860.
As a direct consequence of the 3/5 clause and the electoral college, the slave holding states were able to protect and even expand what was euphemistically called the “peculiar institution.” Thirteen southern states seceded from the union in 1860–61 when Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party opposed the expansion of slavery into any new states — even though they promised not to interfere with slavery where it already existed.
The Civil War resulted in the abolition of slavery and the first attempt to establish a multi-racial democracy that lived up to our founding ideals. The 14th Amendment guaranteed the equal protection of the laws to African-Americans and the 15th Amendment guaranteed their right to vote. In 1875, a GOP majority Congress passed a civil rights law that assured blacks “full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations” like hotels, public transportation, theaters and “other places of amusement.” Ulysses Grant as president authorized force to enforce these new rights for African-Americans.
However, in 1877, this all too short effort to live up to our country’s founding ideals came to an end. The Democrats convinced the Republicans to end Reconstruction as the price to allow Rutherford Hayes to become president in order to resolve the disputed presidential election of 1876. Subsequently, the former slave owners used force to establish an apartheid like system of white racial supremacy in the south. The Supreme Court threw out the 1875 Civil Rights Act and didn’t enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments.
The brutal Jim Crow system in the south persisted for decades and the first crack was the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in 1954 in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case to end segregation in the public schools. The Congress followed up with a series of civil rights and voting rights acts in 1957, 1964, 1965 and 1968. Once again, the U.S. was trying to live up its founding ideals.
Unfortunately, those advances in racial justice in the 1950s and 1960s spurred a huge backlash that culminated with the “election” of Donald Trump in 2016. Republican candidates beginning in the 1964 election cycle campaigned on racial backlash and used code words like “law and order” and mythical “welfare queens” to win elections. In contrast, Trump took off the mask and has simply campaigned and governed as an out and out racist.
One of the negative impacts of this backlash was that Republican presidents beginning with Nixon packed the judiciary with conservatives committed to rolling back civil rights and supporting big business. Voting rights, education rights and affirmative action have been gutted by conservative majorities on the Supreme Court beginning in the early to mid-1970s.
Perhaps the biggest price America has paid for the persistence of institutional racism is that we lack the kind of universal health care systems and safety nets that are enjoyed by citizens in every other first world country. Both Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were forced to shelve plans for universal health coverage due to southern fears that hospitals and doctor’s offices would be integrated.
We are currently paying a huge price for our long standing problem with race. Our brothers and sisters in the African-American community simply don’t enjoy the kinds of opportunities that most other Americans take for granted. They have been especially hard hit by the corona virus pandemic and economic collapse. Our country is currently riven by racial tension and unrest.
The current unjust system is all about elections having consequences. The Democratic Party has paid a big electoral price for supporting civil rights for all Americans since 1964. If this country is to live up its founding ideals, we have to elect more Democrats. It’s that simple. Now let’s get it done!