Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Original Understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment is Not Just the Original Understanding of White People

Earlier today, I was having an internet discussion about a tweet from Ibram X. Kendi where he said that one element of racism "is to see books by White authors on White people as pertaining to *people* not race." This was in response to efforts in Texas to investigate and potentially ban a huge list of books that are on the subject of race (and/or sexuality).

Kendi's point, clearly, was not to say that books about White people are actually about aliens (I thought this was obvious, but some apparently need persuasion). Rather, his point was that books about White people are about White people, not "people" simpliciter. They are exactly as "raced" as books by Black authors about Black people. But the latter are pigeon-holed into being "Black" literature, while the former are thought just to be books about "people". And this is a very bad thing, that yields predictable distortions. 

Think of all the times that articles about "working class Americans" only talk to White working class Americans. The conflation gives a sharply skewed account of "working class Americans" -- for example, it makes them out to be far more conservative than they are. To be clear, a poll that sampled only Black Americans' political attitudes also would give us skewed picture of "Americans'" political attitudes (it would tell us, for example, that 90% of "Americans" vote Democrat, which is ... not correct). But it is not an accident that nobody makes that mistake -- there are plenty of good reasons to poll Black Americans as to their views, but nobody thinks that a poll which sampled only Black respondents is giving a comprehensive picture of American political attitudes.

By coincidence, I was having this discussion at approximately the same time I came across a new article by James W. Fox on how Black Americans originally understood the 13th Amendment. This is an important contribution because very often "originalist" investigations of the Constitution -- those which look to see how people of the framing era understood the meaning of giving constitutional clause -- look almost-exclusively at the understandings of White Americans at that time. That isn't self-conscious or intentional -- to the contrary, it is almost entirely unthinking. But nonetheless, investigations that sample near-exclusively White Americans are used to generate inferences about the original understandings held by Americans, as a whole. And this feels very natural, just the way of doing "neutral" originalist thinking, such that we don't even notice until it's pointed out just how skewed our sample is.

In reality, it is not remotely surprising that Black Americans and White Americans in the 1860s may have had different understandings of what the 13th Amendment was supposed to do. There are absolutely important historical reasons to look specifically at what White people thought; there are certainly are good historical reasons to look specifically at what Black people thought. From an originalist perspective, there may be a good reason to try and synthesize these thoughts into a cohesive whole that does capture a unified "American" understanding of the document, if that is indeed possible. But you have to be self-conscious about it -- if you're only looking at what White people thought, you're not looking at what "Americans", as an undifferentiated whole, thought. The racism that Kendi is articulating is the racism that assumes that proper taxonomy is one where an investigation of Black perspectives on the 13th Amendment is categorized as specifically "Black", while an investigation of White perspectives on the 13th Amendment is categorized as just "people's" perspectives or "American's" perspectives.

No comments: