Bitter ironies of American history, Vol. 1

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A card with a message addressed to the Scott family is affixed to a fence at the scene where Walter Scott was killed by a North Charleston police officer Saturday after a traffic stop in North Charleston, S.C. | David Goldman/AP

“What have you done?” God asks Cain, after he slays Abel. “The blood of your brother cries out to me from the ground.”

I don’t quote the Bible much. But sometimes there isn’t much else to say. You have to watch that video of a South Carolina police officer, Michael Slager, gunning down a fleeing black man, Walter Scott. You may have already seen it. Once is plenty. But if you haven’t, go online, endure it, not out of prurient interest, but as a kind of civic duty, because it starkly reveals the hinge that has been swinging America back and forth like a shutter in a storm since the moment the nation was created.


Do I exaggerate? When the United States Constitution was ratified in 1787, there it is, Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

The famous “three-fifths” compromise counted each black slave — not that our founders sullied our national charter by using a vile word like “slave” in the Constitution, as if that helped — as 3/5 of a person. The compromise was made because Southerners didn’t want to join a union that might ban slavery, or tax their agricultural exports. Southern states were dubious about what this new House of Representatives might do, and wanted to wield the whip hand, of course. So no banning the import of slaves until 1808 — kick the issue down the road — and blacks, who didn’t count as human beings on a practical level in Southern life anyway, and hardly counted in the North, suddenly acquired a 60 percent personhood for the purpose of giving white Southerners more power in Congress.

This compromise allowed the nation to be born, but it led directly to the Civil War, 78 years later, a reminder that glossing over problems only tends to make them worse, a hard truth that applies to more than pension reform.

What have we done? That Thursday was the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War is just one of those coincidences — you might consider them God’s little jokes — reminding us that the problem we faced in 1787 and 1865 is still right here. Let’s call it the “3/5 Problem.”

I went outside and stood by the river at the appointed time Thursday, hoping to hear the bells that were supposedly rung citywide to celebrate the anniversary of the Civil War’s end, but heard nothing, which seemed apt. Celebration is premature, with the casualties still piling up.

How can you shoot a man running away from you?

I’ll be generous and list three factors. First, there was apparently a brief chase of some sort, not on the video, so the officer was no doubt worked up — let’s hope so, because the only thing worse than firing eight bullets at a fleeing man in anger is doing so coolly.

Second, the cop had a gun on his hip, and we all know how helpful guns are when it comes to making a bad situation worse.

And third, that old Three-Fifths Compromise in action. Maybe the cop would have shot a 50-year-old white guy just the same. Maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he would never have even stopped a white man driving a Mercedes with a broken taillight last Saturday. Who can say?

It’s hard to view everyone you encounter as as a full person. It must be, because so many have such trouble doing it, from Cain on down to Michael Slager, the North Charleston cop. Minorities are seen as fractional people, as are women, gays, and on and on. Full personhood is granted so easily to ourselves and people like ourselves. But until we nudge the needle up to 1.0, full, 100 percent, for every single person, black or white, gay or straight, we’re never going to escape this stuff. Never.

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