by: Melissa Weininger on December 10th, 2014 | Comments Off
One of the first acts of the 112th United States Congress was to stage a reading of the entire constitution on the floor of the House of Representatives. The reading was planned as a way of acknowledging the strength of the new Tea Party faction in the House and its ideological commitment to upholding its particular understanding of the Constitution. There was just one problem: the U.S. Constitution, despite having been modified since, still contains references to its own codification of the anti-democratic beginnings of American democracy. Namely, the Constitution makes distinctions between citizens and “other persons,” or slaves, in counting population numbers for the purposes of apportionment of representatives and taxation. Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution provides that population will be counted “by adding to the whole Number of free Persons…three fifths of all other Persons.” Not wanting to be reminded of the imperfections in our Constitution, or the contradictions encoded in our democracy, the House leadership decided to read a redacted version that eliminated all language later superseded by amendments.
Simply removing the language that codified the dehumanization and disenfranchisement of African-Americans, however, can’t make it disappear. This week brought further evidence that despite Constitutional amendments and other forms of political and judicial reform, the lingering effects of Article 1 remain. Last month’s decision by a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, not to indict the white police officer who killed the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in August was a reminder that our country was founded on the principle that African-American lives are worth less (three-fifths, according to the Constitution) than white ones. That sentiment was everywhere evident at protests decrying the grand jury decision, on signs that read “Black Lives Matter.” The fact that we still need to be reminded that black lives have worth brings us back to the way the founding documents of our democracy have, in a sense, written some American citizens out of it from the start. As a line from the Ferguson tribute song “Don’t Shoot” puts it, “I’m a resident of a nation that don’t want me.”