Today is Constitution Day, the 227th Anniversary of the signing of the Constitution of the United States at the end of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. If you think politics was more genteel and harmonious back then, go back to History class — or do some reading about the bitter arguments and unsavory compromises forged by the men (yes, all white men back then) who we call the “Founding Fathers.” (Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis is a good summary of the bold egos and serious disputes around the founding of our nation.)
A product crafted through months of contentious compromise, the Constitution was far from perfect from the very start. “We, the People of the United States” really meant white male property owners. The exclusion of women from full citizenship rights was not the worst of it (corrected through the passage of the 19th Amendment 133 years later). The most notorious flaw in the original Constitution was the “three-fifths compromise” that treated a slave as 3/5 of a person for the purpose of taking the census to apportion Congressional representation for the population of each state. That profound injustice — allowed because leaders like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington could not bring themselves to do what they knew was the right thing to abolish slavery at the founding of this nation, in part because their own wealth depended on slavery — would not be corrected until the Reconstruction Amendments (13-14-15) after the Civil War.
But more than two centuries after the enactment of the Constitution and the subsequent Bill of Rights that emanated from the first ten amendments to the original document, and the later amendments to correct the other injustices, “We, the People of the United States” remain in a state of frequent conflict, disagreement and outright hostility at times to the fundamental principles guaranteed in the Bill of Rights — the guarantee of justice, the blessings of liberty, freedom of speech and assembly, due process and equal protection of the laws, among other rights protected by the Constitution.
Racial justice, in particular, has proved vexing and elusive across the decades. In the 20th Century, major legal milestones like Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other laws and court rulings at the federal, state and local level all aimed to end race discrimination and to protect the rights of all people to equal justice and freedom without prejudice. Despite all of the years of laws, movements and widespread commitment to make justice a reality, justice is still denied on the basis of race in too many places in this nation.
The most recent notorious public controversy over racial justice took place in Ferguson, Missouri in August when a young black man, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. Mr. Brown was unarmed. Officer Wilson has disappeared and no investigation or indictment appears on the horizon. Was the shooting at all justified? Without Officer Wilson’s presence and testimony, it’s almost impossible to ascertain what exactly happened, but the appearance of an unjustified police shooting is overwhelming. Each passing day during which the responsible officer remains in hiding adds to the perception of grave injustice. While the killing of Michael Brown is the most serious moral and legal question at stake — due process and equal protection issues are all over this case — the subsequent police treatment of protesters and press at demonstrations that ensued also raise important legal and Constitutional issues.
I asked members of the Trinity community to offer their reflections on what happened in Ferguson. I am pleased to share some of the reflections here:
Robert M. Chappetta, a pre-OTA student in the School of Professional Studies, Class of 2017 writes:
“As a young white person in America today, I don’t worry about racism very much. In fact, I’m one of those people who for too long thought we were living in a “post-racial” society, and that claims of contemporary racism were merely paranoia. It is now clear to me that I was very wrong. What may confuse the issue for some is that, prescriptively, we do live in a society where everyone ought to be treated equally and afforded the same opportunities. Save pockets of proud self-proclaimed racists, most Americans agree that discrimination and prejudice are wrong. This is reflected in our laws! However, a descriptive account of modern American society does indicate that racism is thriving: case in point, Ferguson, MO. It’s time to stop pretending that we’re not racist. Policies must be reformed and refined to reflect this truth. First step, hold the police accountable for their actions. That they are given the benefit of the doubt both propagates and perpetuates pure racism.”
Patrice Sykes, a Communication major in the Class of 2018 writes:
“The most powerful legal solution for Ferguson is equality. The mistreatment, discrimination and racial profiling among other things have occurred for years in Ferguson; including a shooting of an unarmed teen, Michael Brown, in April of this year. Minorities are not treated fairly in this small town. Minorities are often pulled over for “investigation stops.” Investigation stops is a tactic used by the Ferguson police force to pull someone over that looks suspicious (“Policing the Worng Way”). Similar to the most recent event in Ferguson, an unnamed child was shot in the back several times by a police officer because he looked “suspect.” Even if the boy was a threat and if he had a physical weapon. The Ferguson police department is has a bias and accusatory structure against minorities. Whether the child was armed or unarmed, had never commitment a crime in his life; it doesn’t matter because the color of his skin already displays that he is guilty.
“Because of the bias physical notations of the police department, it’s hard to form a solution. For one the police department should be diverse. The police department should represent the population of Ferguson not a certain percent of it; even in the sense of relation through familiar cultures. Some people may find it easier to talk to a minority cop than a white one. Due to the negative perceptions and actions from the white cops in this area some minorities are scared of the police. Aren’t the police there to instill protection and not fear?
“The issues in Ferguson reflect the flaws of a small town. In other populous areas would this behavior be tolerated? Small towns are known preserving traditional rules —even spiteful ones—like discrimination. The legacy of civil rights is being denied in Ferguson. The minorities are being out cast and not be treated as equal. The minorities in Ferguson are on the lowest hierarchy and I’m not sure if there is any changing the stubborn mindset of the police department because the law enforcement are set in their ways. The public statement they send out offering condolences and “ the [great] disappoint” they have in the justice system seems staged. The solutions to this issue are in the police department’s hands. Is the law enforcement willing to change? Would the county have made efforts to change if the discrimination issue were not in the public eye?”
Shari Jackson-Small wrote this in 2008, and feels it still is relevant to the questions posed on this Constitution Day:
From Alabama to Obama
“Clearly the man was outraged. His face was red and he spat when he spoke. His hand, holding the cigar shook spasmodically. “Who do you think you are, walking right alongside a little white girl like that in this town?” he roared. “N_____, you better learn your place!” He jabbed his burning cigar into the chest of the brown-skinned six-year old where it sizzled for a few seconds through cloth and against flesh.
“The year was 1965. The place was Ft. McClellan, Alabama. The burned child was me. The “little white girl” was my light-skinned sister.
“I am now a 48-year old resident of this nation’s capitol with children of my own who cannot imagine such a society. They cannot fathom their skin color being of any less value than that of their Caucasian counterparts, many of whom are quite vocal about the ugliness of racism that shames some of them today. As an educator, I have shared details of the incident with various classes and groups (Black and White) that were studying the negative impact of racial disparity and exclusion, and without exception, each and every individual in the audience appeared visibly shocked; sometimes even angry. And yet, racism, along with its ugly step-sisters discrimination and bigotry, is still very much alive and well, thank you very much; even here in the nation’s capitol. The only real change between the sixties and now is that the pool of the discriminated has increased exponentially with the inclusion of other ethnic populations that have arrived in this country for the very same purposes as the Pilgrims and their current day ancestors who proudly continue to perpetuate the ugly (not to mention untrue!) notion of racial superiority. The irony is staggering.”
What are your thoughts? If you want to join this conversation please add a comment by clicking the link for the comment box below, or send your reflections to me at firstname.lastname@example.org