The incoming Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner (R-OH) seems to pride himself in his fealty to the United States Constitution, so much so that he had the constitution read from the floor of Congress this week. I am sure that Mr. Boehner thinks he is adhering to a sacred tradition in reading the Constitution, and I am curious to know which version of the Constitution he believes in. Mr. Boehner, for example, could not dare read Article 1, section 2 of the original constitution, which defines those bound for service as three-fifths of all other persons. All these folks who so love the Constitution seem to ignore the fact that it had to be amended, by the 14th Amendment, to acknowledge to humanity and rights of at least 12 percent of our nation's population. So before Congressman Boehner gets all weepy about the Constitution, he ought to be clear about the inequality its original version reflects.
That was a long time ago, I can hear someone saying. Yet, this notion that there is something sacrosanct about the words our nation's founders committed to paper is offensive to those of us who were committed to paper, consigned to inequality by those pioneers who desperately wanted freedom for themselves but could not father the fact that others, also, wanted freedom. We can't turn the clock back, but there ought to be some sensitivity to the many ways our nation committed an original sin by annexing Indian land and then enslaving people of African descent. They were well aware of the wrongs, as they debated the fact that slavery was untenable in the long run. They simply left it to others to fix.
The strange fruit of this inequality shows up in contemporary economic statistics. It shows up when we look at the wealth gap – how can people who were once someone else's asset catch up by accumulating assets of their own? It shows up with a systematic denial of access to capital for African Americans. And, it shows up in the unemployment rate differential that policymakers refuse to address.
Boehner and his crew would tout the Constitution as a pristine document, yet it is a document replete with flaws. He is using the Constitution to suggest we ought to go back to our origins, but he is not likely to have every exploitative aspect of our origins revealed. The Constitution is a living document that breathes because of the 13, 14, and 15 amendments, which provide relief to the descendants of enslaved people. It breathes because of the 20th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. While we celebrate these upgrades in our nation's original Constitution, we are also cognizant of the flaws in the original document.
Boehner and his cronies want to force legislators to tie each piece of legislation to the Constitution. Which one? The one, before amendment, that found so many people unequal, or the current Constitution. Will there be debate on which version of the Constitution should be relative to new laws. Which, for example, is tolerant of immigration, and which is not. Constitutional measures are rejected for one set of laws, are they to be rejected for other laws? This Constitution-referencing is little more than travesty, an attempt by the Tea Party to carve their niche out and to blatantly reveal their failure to understand our nation's history.
Those of us who are not enthralled by this Constitutional mania must be forgiven for our own read on history, a read that more accurately reflects facts. Those founding fathers (no mothers) that wrote the Constitution created a political document that jettisoned some people's rights in favor of creating some unity among 13 diverse colonies. They knew their pragmatism was a yoke left for future generations. Even the most conservative founding fathers would not have agreed that the flawed Constitution ought always be our lodestar. They wrote a document they expected to be fluid enough to change. The new House Speaker, John Boehner, would love to have a periodic blast from the past because he may not want to deal with a dynamic present and a fluid future. I am sure, however, that he won't have the nerve to read Article 1, Section 2, of the Constitution as it was originally written. To do so would only tip his cards.
Julianne Malveaux is the 15th President of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina and author of Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History