08/27/2014 11:40 am ET Updated Oct 27, 2014

From the Founders to Ferguson

Sometimes it helps to read our Constitution with a critical eye, and then draw the lines forward to today. That's what I did when I reflected upon the violence, anger, inequities, and lack of justice that is crystallized in Ferguson, Missouri.

This story begins just a few decades after Columbus' voyage to the Americas. The first slaves were brought to South Carolina by the Spanish in 1526. With each new European power staking out claims to North America came the capture, transport, and enslavement of Africans, whether to the 13 colonies, Spanish claims in Florida, and the French possession of New Orleans and what became the Louisiana Purchase.

It is a story that got worse, not better, as slavery was embedded in the economies of the South. Initially, blacks were considered as indentured servants, able to work their way to freedom over the course of several years. But this "privilege" became reserved only for white immigrants, while blacks, whether delivered into slavery through kidnapping and transport to the colonies, or born in these colonies, were permanently consigned to slavery, the real property of another person.

The founders of our country, while proclaiming "we the people" and inciting a revolution based on the idea that all men are created equal, with rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, excluded blacks from these aspirations. They were a little nervous about it, perhaps, because you can't find the word "slavery" in the original constitution. But what you do find is persons "bound to service" are counted as three-fifths of a free person (Article 1, Section 2), that the importation of "such persons" as any states "shall think proper to admit" enables the Atlantic slave trade to continue until 1808 (Article 1, Section 9), and every "person held to service in one state", having escaped into another, shall be delivered up to the owner of that person, even if that person is considered free by the laws of the state to which he or she escaped (Article IV, Section 2).

Slaves were legally prohibited from learning to read and write in Southern states. Consider this act from North Carolina in 1830: "Whereas the teaching of slaves to read and write, has a tendency to excite dis-satisfaction in their minds, and to produce insurrection and rebellion, to the manifest injury of the citizens of this State: Therefore... that if any slave shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any other slave to read or write, the use of figures excepted, he or she may be carried before any justice of the peace, and on conviction thereof, shall be sentenced to receive thirty nine lashes on his or her bare back.

This virus of slavery carried north into the Northern states, where black codes legally prohibited blacks for voting, enforced the return of runaway slaves to their owners in the South, and prevented blacks from education in public schools.

Didn't the Civil War change all this? Yes and no. The heart of the matter of the war was the abolition of slavery. Consider Lincoln's second inaugural address:

"Yet, if God wills that it (the war) continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

But the defeat of the secessionist states did not mean that the culture and institutions of white superiority were swept away. Indeed this culture reasserted itself with a profound force of white terrorism against blacks and white unionists in the South, with campaigns of intimidation, murder, lynching, and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan. The reconstruction envisioned at the close of the civil war, the reality of "40 acres and a mule" that General Sherman put into place in the Sea Islands of South Carolina, were meant to consolidate the political and economic status for freedmen in a new birth of freedom. But President Andrew Jackson would not abide by this, and black efforts to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not to mention the cultivation of property, were overwhelmed by the continuing white power structure in the South. And that's how we came to legal segregation, denying the franchise to blacks, provisions in new laws of the southern states proscribing blacks from leaving their places of employment, and prohibiting land ownership by blacks.

So let's consider the last half century, when the Civil Rights Act enabled the franchise for blacks, when the Supreme Court outlawed legal segregation, when the federal government re-asserted itself to bring justice in the South. How did we do? Good on the surface, but not so good underneath that patina. Because just as civil rights were opening up, economic opportunity was closing down. The generation of people retiring now and retiring before us benefited from an era in which corporations held to a social contract regarding good wages and benefits and a certain respect for workers, whether organized or not. Now that era has been replaced with economic insecurity, whether that is for retirement, workers' share of health costs, a diminished wage, paying for day care while you work or saving for the education of your own kids. We have gone backward in all these areas. And on top of that, the suctioning off of jobs starting with the great recession has left many people drifting in hopelessness, anger, despair, and poor health.

This anger is voiced by whites, blacks, poor people, middle class people, young people, middle aged, and old people. But instead of it getting directed to the core of the problem, the escalating privilege, income, wealth, and power of the already privileged corporations and the already wealthy, it gets funneled into race-based divisiveness, to disempower a potential multi-racial majority coalition that can actually contest for economic and political power. So Arizona lawmakers put into law new restrictions to block Hispanic Americans and college students from voting in state elections, even though they are already registered to vote in federal elections. When Arizona's attorney general defends this exclusion of voters, saying that "(t)he federal government has no right to tell us what to do in our state elections," it is easy to mistake him for George Wallace in 1964.

Consider this from Lou Holtz, the former head football coach of the University of South Carolina:

"Those who choose wisely and responsibility have a far greater likelihood of success, while those who choose foolishly and irresponsibly have a far greater likelihood of failure. Success and failure usually manifest themselves in personal and family income. You choose to drop out of high school or to skip college -- and you are apt to have a different outcome than someone who gets a diploma and pushes on with purposeful education. You have your children out of wedlock and life is apt to take one course; you have them within a marriage and life is apt to take another course. Most often in life our destination is determined by the course we take."

All this is code for saying that poor people are inferior to rich people, morally, politically, in terms of character, discipline, and effort. And of course, all this is code for race, because racism, while not overt, is embedded in this language and the culture which generates it. He could have easily said, "You people in Ferguson, or in New Orleans, or in Detroit. You deserve the mess you are in."

So as Ferguson simmers, as wages for typical workers of all races stagnate, as public services decline because the funding for these has shifted to private profits, we come to Labor Day. It is a day to honor work and workers. For most of us, it is just a holiday, and well deserved. But if we could return respect to our fellow workers and our fellow citizens, and avoid the politics of racial division and embrace the politics of "asking not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," we might be able to all get along, and we might all be a bit better off. And that is not too much to ask for.