Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Three-fifths of a president


Just as their terms were beginning, the new Republican members of Congress, in an attempt to show their loyalty to the Constitution, demanded that it be read in its entirety before any legislative action were taken. House members who wished to read aloud, from the preamble beginning with "We the People" to the last of the amendments, took turns.

However, those demanding that not only Congress but also the country be enlightened by the Constitution decided that some parts should not be read. They apparently did not want it said out loud that Article 1, Section 2 originally enumerated slaves as three-fifths of a person.

Those bound for service, generally white, were counted as whole persons. But slaves were not whole persons, no matter how smart, how hard-working or how long in the country. Slaves, which meant black people, simply did not count.

Even though the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, it remains hard for Americans to get past the supposition that some are still only three-fifths of a person. The main example is the ongoing notion that, really, Barack Obama is only three-fifths of a president.

For the past week, spokesmen on the political right have been repeating innuendoes, half-truths and outright lies about the childhood and upbringing of Obama, implying that he is exotic, even dangerous, because he didn't grow up playing American sports or hearing about Rotary and Boy Scouts.

Though Obama's well into the third year of his term of office, with a biography completely vetted, having been elected by an overwhelming majority of the voters and the Electoral College, the drumbeat continues that he is somehow not legitimately president of the United States.

It's an odd chorus. Who has ever before asked about the birth certificate of any other president? Who would not want his or her child to have attended the schools and achieved the goals that he has?

Why else would Americans continue to embrace such rhetoric if we did not believe, underneath, that Obama is only three-fifths of a president—that he and his family should not be in the White House?

The premise that our elected president is not really "American" goes beyond disagreement over policy and political party. It goes to the question of whether we have moved beyond the political expediency that allowed our founding fathers to consign black persons to less than human status in our most sacred document. It goes to the heart of whether we will simply recite the Constitution, or whether we will actually honor it.

Whether or not Obama holds policy views that please or appall is not the issue. He is neither three-fifths of a person nor three-fifths of a president. He is the elected president of the United States. Only by rejecting any notion to the contrary do we truly honor the Constitution.




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