State of Disunion

We Have the Power to Fix Our Constitution

Americans have a week to decide who will prevent another insurrection, pass national legislation on abortion, and protect our right to vote. Will we make the right, possibly final decision to protect our laws?

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We live in a time of warnings. Last Friday, the attempted assassination of the Speaker of the House which left her husband, Paul Pelosi, fighting for his life in brain surgery, was a warning about where we are headed. Last year, the insurrection at the Capitol warned us about the fragility of our electoral systems and the people we trust to run them. And then there was the warning that I heard and did not recognize at the time, too young, too hopeful to believe that it was a threat: the breathless moments when Barack and Michelle Obama stepped out of the presidential limo for the first time on January 20, 2009, and every Black person who had experienced or been handed the memory of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, or Dr. King asked them—aloud or silently—to step back in.

With a touch of hindsight and a sense of history, it’s obvious now that Barack Obama’s elevation to President of the United States snapped the seal on the country’s inner demons. The magic and energy of his campaigns, the breadth of their success, hid the depth of rage at the ascension of a Black man to the nation’s highest office using the very same pathways that had once only been the province of whiteness. He was the bounty of the Civil Rights Movement, made possible by the suffrage secured by the thousands of activists and citizens who thought that segregation was wrong and our country worse for supporting it. The nation had used the law and the courts to bring the 14th Amendment to life meaningfully for the first time in over 80 years since it had been added to the Constitution. Barack Obama, and the integrated country he represented, was the natural result. 

He was their warning.

There are people in this country who see unity as a threat rather than a promise, who imagine that prosperity is a zero-sum game between makers and takers, who insist that the only legacy we deserve to recognize is one of dominion. Presently gathered under the banner of the Republican Party, they have been used to getting their way since the earliest days of the country, an entitlement of hierarchy that has been passed down through whiteness and masculinity and the unwavering belief that they are the only ones who count. And until very recently, they were right.

Because for all the bombast and rhetoric, the Constitution of the United States is little more than a power-sharing agreement. It is a structure to distribute authority to states, to the federal government, to the people ourselves—and to define the limits of what each faction can do to the others. When it was written, only wealthy white men held power, and so only their concept of it really mattered. They apportioned government as they imagined would best serve them, their lives and wants, their aspirations and goals. They crafted a government of equals on the assumption that only white men could be equal to each other. They spoke of tranquility, justice, and liberty, but they lived upon the violent subordination of others. And in the gap between the rhetoric and the reality, they bred a brokenness that no subsequent generation has been able to fix.

Instead, over nearly 250 years, we have placed patches and seals to cover up the cracks in a Constitutional order that never imagined everything it actually had to encompass to remain intact. Some of our repairs were written in ink; others were scripted in blood. But every single one was an effort to make us into something better than we were before. Every remedy was a promise to the future.

They promised us that we would never again have classes of enslaved and free people, that we would not have our right to vote abridged on the basis of sex, that we would have the power to select our senators rather than leave it to a handful of corrupt state legislators, that race could not prevent our equality under the law. These have been promises broken and kept, but made nonetheless. And they are ours to hand to the next generation, if we will heed the warnings we have been given.

Every answer is preceded by a problem. The massive antislavery majorities in 1858 (and 1860, 1862, and 1864) were built on disgust for the Dred Scott decision and the overreach of a faction that wanted to rule all at the behest of a few. The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act emerged to rebuke the violence and assassinations carried out by white supremacists against civilians and officials alike. And with a week left in our elections to decide who will pass national legislation on abortion, who will prevent another January 6th, who will affirm our right to representative government, we are asked to find answers to our age.

The demographic descendants of the Founders insist that we were never meant to be included. They use the same arguments made in Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson, the same logic that insists that gender is inherent to reason and autonomy, the same broken power sharing that has left so many of us out in the cold. And as the inheritors of the promises of equality, we have heard across our screens and speakers, in writing and in person, that the diverse country we have become is actually the problem that needs to be fixed.

So our choice in these next seven days is whether we will use our power as citizens to repair the Constitution or let it shatter. We know from our predecessors that the possibilities of a more perfect union, established justice, common defense, general welfare, and the blessings of liberty cannot be segmented between some and all. We know the consequences of such thinking; we pay the costs. And with our history, we can’t say that we weren’t warned.

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