Myth: The Constitution Is Racist

My letter in today’s Las Vegas Review-Journal corrects a popular old myth: that the U.S. Constitution is racist.  I even remember this faulty interpretation of the passage in question being used in an episode of The West Wing

To the editor:

In his otherwise excellent Wednesday letter, Robert Gardner does make one mistake. He repeats the old fallacy about the Constitution being racist, suggesting that Article I, Section 2 says, “blacks are … considered three-fifths of a person.”

Not true.

That section is about counting population to determine how many representatives we get in government, which is why we have the census. That count was to enumerate “free persons” and “three-fifths of all other persons,” meaning slaves. Free blacks were counted as a whole.

The language isn’t meant to determine someone’s worth as a human being, but merely to reduce the total count. The strength of a state’s presence in government was determined by this count. Northern states didn’t want slaves counted at all; Southern states wanted them counted as a whole. The point of the three-fifths compromise was to reduce the South’s power.

Ironically, for those who see this part of the Constitution as racist, this rule did what it was supposed to do: It contributed to the eventual end of slavery. With Black History Month right around the corner, it’s important to set the record straight.

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3 comments on “Myth: The Constitution Is Racist

  1. This was done to keep the racist slave holders from having MORE political power simply because they held more people in slavery.

  2. they actually published you this time? (tongue-in-cheek) from your token liberal here, i’m happy they did :0) you make some great points

  3. These are important historical points. Though I think your title is a bit of an oversell. :)

    The historical point you’re helping elucidate here is more like “The Constitution does reflect the racism and slaveholding interests of many of the founders, but not in the way you think it does.”

    I think it’s also worth pointing out that, although we so often give all these guys a pass for slavery because it was so common and taken for granted, there were several passionate and outspoken critics of it, even at the time of the founding. Tom Paine and Alexander Hamilton come to mind.

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