Friday, September 16, was Constitution Day. While I am deeply grateful that we are governed by a Constitutional government, I’m also convinced that our current Constitution has been influenced by the Doctrine of Discovery and, therefore, has some deeply embedded flaws that need foundational level changes.
The Constitution begins with the inclusive words “We the People,” but Article I Section II, the section which lays out who “We the people” actually refers to, never mentions women, specifically excludes Natives and counts African Slaves as 3/5th human. Article I, Section II of the United States Constitution demonstrates that this document was written to protect the rights and interests of white, land owning men.
And even the 14th Amendment that was passed July 28, 1868 to address those omissions, did not fix it. The 14th Amendment extended the right of citizenship to anyone born in this land and under the jurisdiction of the government. However, women were still disenfranchised and did not receive the right to vote until Women’s Suffrage in 1920. And even after Natives became citizens through the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, many of our people did not receive the right to vote until 1948.
And we often forget that the 14th Amendment was one of the amendments referenced in 1973, Roe v. Wade, which concluded that unborn babies were not fully human and therefore could be aborted.
Indian Removal, Jim Crow Laws, Boarding Schools, the Massacre at Wounded Knee, segregation. All of these events took place after the passage of the 14th Amendment.
The problem is the Constitution of the United States was written with the assumption that the dominant has the right to determine who is and is NOT human. And it was written specifically to protect the rights of white, land-owning men, not to the rights of natives or other minorities. And this is evident in many of the issues plaguing our nation today.
Women earn 70 cents to the dollar. Why? The constitution is working.
U.S. prisons are filled with people of color. Why? The Constitution is working.
In 2010 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled for Citizens United and declared that corporations have the same rights to political free speech as individuals, opening the door to unlimited financial political contributions. Why? The Constitution of the United States of America is working. It is protecting the interests of white, land-owning men.
In his final state of the Union, President Obama quoted the Constitution. He was discussing our need for a new politics and said, “’We the People.’ Our Constitution begins with those three simple words, words we’ve come to recognize mean all the people, not just some.”
When I heard him say that, I thought, “Hmmm. I must not have gotten that memo.” While it sounds nice, and I’m sure a few people agree, that we the people should mean all of us. But I’m not convinced a majority of people in the United States are on board with that conclusion. In fact, that seems to be part of the debate that we are having this election season.
Donald Trump is running around the country promising to “Make America Great Again,” advocating at the top of his lungs that “We the People” does not include Muslims, immigrants from the south, women, and, based on the obscene amount of money he has made buying and selling land in the United States, definitely not natives.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is reassuring people that “We don’t need to make America great again. America never stopped being great.” Demonstrating that she does not understand the systemic racism and blatant oppression that has been endured by people of color throughout the entire history of this nation. In fact, she actually agrees with Donald Trump, that our history and our foundations are great.
Unfortunately, the dialogue that is taking place this election season is not about broad-based equality or ending racism. The conversation we are having today is about the type of racism we want to settle for. Do we want Hillary Clinton to work to keep racism as our nation’s implicit bias, or allow Donald Trump to champion racism as our explicit bias?
From the platform at the Democratic National Convention, Cory Booker, an African American Senator from New Jersey, said, “Our founding documents were genius. But not because they were perfect. They were saddled with the imperfections and even the bigotry of the past. Native Americans were referred to as savages, black Americans were referred to as fractions of human beings, and women were not mentioned at all. But those facts and other ugly parts of our history don’t detract from our nation’s greatness.”
Are you kidding me??? Our founding documents were genius? Those racist words do not detract from our nation’s greatness?
Our foundations are the problem. The foundations of the United States are not great; they are racist and built on the assumption that people of color are less than human.
But our country is fearful to fully acknowledge our history and our systemic problems. That is why politicians, of all races, speak to Americans using the language of exceptionalism. American exceptionalism is actually the coping mechanism for a nation in deep denial of its unjust past and its current racist reality.
White Americans tend to be more accepting when minorities pull ourselves up out of our hardships and onto the national stage, and then declare that in spite of our nations colonial history and racist founding documents, America is still great. What drives our nation crazy is when a black athlete like Colin Kaepernick, enters the largest sports stage in our country, the NFL, and quietly refuses to stand during the National Anthem, silently protesting a song which celebrates the history of a colonial nation that was founded on stolen lands, slavery, and ethnically cleansing.
When a document is written through a particular lens, with a certain set of assumptions, like our Constitution was, it is not enough to just add an amendment or two and assume the general consensus had changed. We actually need to specifically name and acknowledge the implicit racial biases the document was written with and intentionally decide if the country wants to change them.
George Erasmus, an aboriginal leader from Canada said, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”
This quote gets to the heart of our nation’s problem with race. The United States of America does not share a common memory, and therefore, we struggle to have real community. White citizens of this country remember a mythical history of discovery, expansion, opportunity, and exceptionalism, while our communities of color have the lived experience of stolen lands, broken treaties, ethnic cleansing, slavery, Jim Crow laws, boarding schools, segregation, internment camps, and mass incarceration.
There is no common memory.
But we can change that. We can more accurately teach our history. We can learn about the Doctrine of Discovery and address the inequality it embedded into our foundations. We can stop minimizing our racist and violent past and quit referring to our foundations as great. We can acknowledge that our country and our foundations need an incredible amount of work. We can create a common memory, and begin planting seeds for better community.
So Happy Belated Constitution Day. Let’s get to work.
Mark Charles (Navajo) serves as the Washington DC correspondent for Native News Online and is the author of the popular blog “Reflections from the Hogan.” His writings are regularly published by Native News Online in a column titled “A Native Perspective” which addresses news directly affecting Indian Country as well as offering a Native perspective on national and global news stories. Mark is active on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram .