When our nation was founded, there was little doubt that its founders did not really mean that “all men” were created equal. After all, slavery was legal. The question arose as to how to count slaves when it came to the U.S. census thereby determining federal aid to states, and the number of seats each state would have in the House of Representatives. The so-called “3/5 compromise” was enshrined in the Constitution, which declared that slaves would be counted as 3/5 of a human being, thereby giving Southern States more representation in Congress than voters, because of course, slaves were not considered citizens (or even people for that matter) and could not vote.
On the Senate side, a different compromise was made. Each state, regardless of its size, would have 2 Senators. Most of us learned that this compromise was necessary to keep small states in the new country because they were afraid of being overwhelmed in the House of Representatives, by states with larger populations. However, a closer look reveals that the main beneficiary of this undemocratic way of composing the Senate was actually yet another way of enforcing white supremacy.
An examination of the census results from early American history reveals that the Southern states’ population minus slaves was much smaller than the free states’ population minus the small number of slaves in the few states where slavery was legal, though not the norm. For example, in 1780, the Southern states’ free (almost exclusively white) population was just under 823,000, while the Northern states’ free population was over 1.2 million. Yet, the original 6 Southern States had 12 Senators, compared to the original 7 Northern States having 14 (2 per state regardless of population). Even more striking is that the collective percentage of the Southern State white population was 61.6% compared to the Northern State white population being nearly 92%. Thus, the Senate’s establishment as anti-democratic was not only a boon to small states. It was a boon to white slaveholders in slaveholding states.
By 1812, as new states were entering the Union, the composition of the Senate and the slave holding states’ insistence on equal power there meant that for every free state admitted to the Union, a slave holding state would also be admitted. Thus, from 1812-1850, six of each type of state were admitted to the Union.
One of the factors that led to the Civil War was that after 1850, four free states (California, Minnesota, Oregon and Kansas) were admitted to the Union. By 1861, slaveholding states realized that they would never again be able to maintain a majority in the Senate, so they declared a treasonous Confederacy to start the Civil War.
The victory of the North, requiring the South to end slavery, could have ended this problem, but due to white supremacy maintaining its constant grip on our nation, it did not. Briefly, during Reconstruction, a record number of Black men (remember women still could not vote) were elected to Congress, many of whom were former slaves.
When neither candidate in the 1876 presidential election secured enough votes in the Electoral College to be declared the winner, a deal was struck. Southern Democrats agreed to back Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes. In return, the federal troops who had protected black voters were withdrawn from the South. Just a few years later, the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Bill of 1875. Black voting rights were gradually stripped away, and black representation in Congress faded. Reconstruction was over, and the Jim Crow era of segregation began.
The development of the Senate filibuster, which allows a minority of Senators to block legislation is also a relic of Jim Crow segregation that remans until this day. In the early 1920s, Massachusetts Republican Henry Cabot Lodge introduced a bill to combat lynching. At the time, most lawmakers were not pro-lynching. An anti-lynching bill had passed the House and enjoyed majority support in the Senate as well.
To ensure that the bill did not pass, southern senators started filibusters by offering amendments to the journal during the reading. These could be as meaningless as inserting a senator’s middle name or changing a single word in a speech. Yet the vote on each of these amendments could be filibustered.
After a week, Lodge realized that he had only two options: abandon the rest of his legislative priorities or scuttle the anti-lynching bill. He dropped the bill. Over the next few decades, Congress would consider nearly 200 anti-lynching measures. Thanks to the procedures of the Senate designed to enforce white supremacy, not one became law.
I recently read Isabel Wilkerson’s phenomenal book Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. Although I majored in American history, and was very familiar with the Indian caste system as well as the Nazi racial codes used to exterminate 12 million people, including 6 million Jews, I had never fully understood that white supremacy in America was in fact, a caste system, which is what makes it so hard to break, as every American is raised in this system. Indeed, America’s caste system is so racist, that when the Nazis developed their own racial codes, they examined the racial codes in American Southern states and rejected them as too harsh.
In addition to now believing that Caste should be required reading for every high school student, and recommended reading for every American adult, it has helped me view American culture and politics through the lens of white supremacy in a way that I had not fully done previously.
This leads me to yesterday’s failure of the Senate to convict Donald Trump for the second time after clearly convincing Articles of Impeachment had been sent to it by the House. Much has already been written about this, which I will not repeat. But what is clear to me is that Trump’s mantra of Make America Great Again was always code for Make America White Again and the refusal of 43 Senators to convict him in opposition to a clear majority of Americans who overwhelmingly booted him out of office, was nothing less than an enforcement of white supremacy in America. While I am not alone in this opinion, it simply cannot be said enough.
Until we break the yoke of white supremacy in our nation, we will never thrive as a truly democratic nation with equal rights and justice for all.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.