Is it about the facts or is it about racial insensitivity?

So, today, as I was driving home, I heard a brief snippet of a story on NPR’s Morning Edition. It has something to do with a university president who wrote that the 1787 compromise that black men were 3/5 of a person was an excellent example of congressional compromise. According to the NPR story, Emory University President James Wagner set off a firestorm. In my opinion, this is an excellent example of a real race issue in the United States.

There’s so many ways to look at this controversy. Let’s start with what President James Wagner (let me add, for completeness sake, that I graduated from Emory University way back in 1983 with a bachelor of arts in chemistry) really said. “One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote.” These words are 100% true. From the earliest founding of our country, we have overwhelming evidence that compromise was necessary in order to form the United States and in order to keep the United States together. I applaud President Wagner at trying to point out that in order for our country to run, Congress needs to make compromises. The “my way or the highway” idea works wonderfully in a dictatorship or a monarchy but is an impossibility if you’re trying to run a democracy or, as conservatives like to point out, a constitutional republic.

So what is the controversy? Well, President Wagner, while trying to make an extremely important point about compromise, touched on (or jumped up and down on) the 3rd rail. Race. On one hand, this 3/5 compromise did allow the United States to form and flourish for its first 100 years. On the other hand, this 3/5 compromise allowed over 600,000 Americans to die in the Civil War. This 3/5 compromise allowed millions of blacks to be enslaved for more than 100 years. This 3/5 compromise, in my opinion, is one of the reasons why we still have racial problems in this country today. If, in 1787, truly enlightened men sat down and talked about race, we might not have all the problems that we continue to have today.

I am writing this blog post to neither praise nor denigrate President Wagner. I’m writing this post just to point out that race is it still an incredibly difficult thing to talk about in the United States. In a lot of the conversations that we have today, race is still the elephant in the room. Think about it. When we discuss the minimum wage, don’t you hear echoes of race throughout the discussion? When we discuss education and our failing public schools, don’t you hear echoes of race in that discussion? Just yesterday, Rand Paul, senator from Kentucky, wrote that we need to privatize public education. This is a code. This basically argues that the rich and powerful will be able to educate their kids to the highest standards in the world while the rest of us (think the poor and minorities) are simply out of luck. Oh, don’t think for one minute this isn’t a race-based argument. It is. One of Ronald Reagan’s classic arguments against bloated government had to do with the welfare queen driving her Cadillac to pick up her welfare check. This image was laced with racial overtones. As a matter fact, after receiving the Republican nomination, Reagan’s first political speech was made in Philadelphia, Mississippi and it was on states’ rights. (In the 1840s and 1850s, before the Civil War, Congressman argued that the national government did not have the power to tell states whether they can or cannot have slavery. It was a states rights issue.) Don’t try to tell me that this didn’t have significant racial overtones.

Look, over the last 30-40 years we’ve made a lot of progress on race. We still have a long way to go. Supreme Court is looking over whether the Voting Rights Act is still applicable. The US Court of Appeals recently found that Texas intentionally tried to disenfranchise minorities with redistricting. Trayvon Martin. This case has tons of racial overtones. Remember the police officer arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in his own house? Even if you can wrap your mind around the fact that the arrest may or may not have had racial overtones, the discussion surrounding the arrest clearly did have racial overtones. I do not have the answer. I do know that in the year 2013, we still have racial problems in the United States.

The uproar over President Wager’s comments is not about the facts. The facts are not in dispute. Instead, this whole controversy is about race, racial insensitivity and the subsequent response to racial insensitivity. We need to fix this if we are to really grow as a nation.