This commentary was originally posted in Forbes on September 29, 2017.
When Colin Kaepernick took a knee last fall during the singing of the National Anthem, it sparked an intense debate over race-based police brutality. Since then, some have defended Kaepernick by arguing that, in addition to the police brutality issue, the National Anthem is racist. This defense then escalated into a larger conflict over the status of slavery in the Constitution—and for good reason: If the Constitution is racist, it follows that its symbols and celebrations—the flag and anthem—are similarly infected.
Are the moral foundations of our country—whose laws the police enforce and whose anthem we sing—racist and pro-slavery, as some believe? Around the answer to this question our quarrel revolves. If America is racist at its core, it is likely that its police are too, and that its anthem and flag likewise celebrate this evil. This issue—whether freedom and equality are promoted or obstructed by America’s Founding principles—lies at the heart of the controversy roiling America today.
Much of the debate over this larger question, however, is being conducted without the civic knowledge needed to bring greater understanding, and with it, the social harmony that we all hope for. We have a rich history of thoughtful debate on this question, and we impoverish ourselves if we fail to drink from this fount. This lack of civic education owes to the deficit in such instruction in our universities. According to Department of Education statistics, two-thirds of college students graduate without ever taking even one course in American Government.
To fill the vacuum created by our universities, let us consider the arguments on race, slavery, and the Constitution presented by three giants in American history: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Frederick Douglass was no multimillionaire sports or show-biz celebrity. Far from it. Born into slavery in 1818, he suffered physical and psychological abuse at the hands of his master until, at age 20, he escaped north to freedom. By the time he died in 1895, he had risen to become one of this country’s most powerful reformers, abolitionists, speakers, and writers, as well as a counselor to presidents, a diplomat, and a newspaper publisher.
In his autobiography, he describes his early life as a slave. “My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant. . . . It [was] common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. . . . I do not recollect ever seeing my mother by the light of day. ... She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone.
He taught himself to read, often in secret, to avoid additional beatings from his master. He persisted in this effort out of the conviction that “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.”
If anyone was entitled to view the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as racist and pro-slavery, Douglass was that man. In fact, earlier in his life, he had agreed with abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, who deemed the Constitution pro-slavery. However, Douglass came later to concur with Abraham Lincoln that both the Declaration and the Constitution voiced and embodied, not defenses of slavery for some, but of freedom for all.
In an 1860 speech delivered in Glasgow, Scotland, Douglass argued: “All [of the Founding generation] regarded slavery as an expiring and doomed system, destined to speedily disappear from the country.” Moreover, the Constitution’s ban on importing slaves, which took effect in 1808, “makes the Constitution anti-slavery rather than for slavery; for it says to the slave States, the price you will have to pay for coming into the American Union is, that the slave trade, which you would carry on indefinitely out of the Union, shall be put an end to in twenty years if you come into the Union.” The Constitution did this, he argued, “because it looked to the abolition of slavery rather than to its perpetuity. . . . This showed that the intentions of the framers of the Constitution were good, not bad.”
Lincoln agreed with Douglass’s assessment of American morality. Lincoln focused on the Declaration of Independence’s role as the American spirit to which the Constitution gave flesh. In 1857, he spoke in opposition to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that agreed with some today that the Declaration aimed only to liberate white men from British rule, and nothing else. In Dred Scott v. Sanford, Chief Justice Roger Taney’s majority opinion asserted that, under the Declaration and Constitution, blacks had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” In his speech on the Dred Scott decision, Lincoln clarified the conflict between the Declaration’s foundational principle of human equality and the practice of slavery at the time. The Founding generation, he argued, “did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon.” Instead, the Declaration “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated. . . . “ He added, “The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, nor for that, but for future use.”
As I argued here, making “future use” of the Declaration’s promise would be the task of Dr. King, whose “I Have a Dream” speech observed: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Equal rights under law constitutes America’s promise to all. The moral power of Douglass, Lincoln, and King’s appeals consisted in their urging whites to extend to blacks the promise found in our Founding principles.
If these three men are correct, it suggests a different tack for those protesting today in the name of racial equality. It suggests that, instead of deeming America racist at its core, we should come both to recognize and celebrate the fact that the justice we hold dear need not be wrested from a racist country that needs to be dragged, screaming and kicking, into accepting “foreign” ideas. The reforms they seek need not come from the outside, for they represent the moral vision on which our country was founded.
If these three men are correct, it also follows that the flag we salute and the anthem we sing celebrate not a racist legacy but, instead, the aspirations for equality that that we all share.
Finally, if these three men are correct, it follows that the flag and anthem represent what it noblest about America’s aspirations. Therefore, it is counterproductive for those of us who support equality to refuse to take part in these celebrations. Instead, the surer road is to appeal to what Lincoln termed, “the better angels of our nature.”