Updated: Aug 2, 2021
Frederick Douglass has had a noticeable presence in a number of my commentaries since I started this blog a few years ago. He truly is one of my favorite historical figures. This is probably so because of his oratory eloquence, historical impact, and his intellectual ferocity when it came to the abolition of slavery and advocating for the interests of Blacks, intellectually, politically, spiritually, and economically.
In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, one passage stands out as one of the more memorable and defining statements for who he was and what he represented.
The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed. We loved each other, and to leave them at the close of the Sabbath was a severe cross indeed. When I think that these precious souls are to-day shut up in the prison-house of slavery, my feelings overcome me, and I am almost ready to ask, "Does a righteous God govern the universe? and for what does he hold the thunders in his right hand, if not to smite the oppressor, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the spoiler?" These dear souls came not to Sabbath school because it was popular to do so, nor did I teach them because it was reputable to be thus engaged. Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up and given thirty-nine lashes. They came because they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness. I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like the bettering the condition of my race.
These words demonstrate a Douglass who was fully in touch with and convicted about the enormity of chattel slavery and what was needed to overcome the hellish conditions that plundered life, liberty, and happiness for slaves in America desperate for freedom and basic human dignity.
Douglass hammered home the issue of freedom throughout his life and in many of his speeches. This only makes sense, for he bore witness to some of the most depraved and despicable atrocities in human history, horrors that violated humanity's most fundamental God given right, human freedom. This compromise was indefensible to its core because in Douglass' worldview, humanity was created for every individual to freely pursue their chosen purpose free from oppression, injustice, and human atrocity.
In parts one and two of this series, I highlighted a wide range of conceptual, practical, and Constitutional problems associated with Critical Race Theory (CRT) and its related movements (Social Justice, Racial Equity, and Systemic Racism). Core to this community is the shared belief that a robust emphasis on equity over equality is the pathway to true racial justice. It is well established, however, that in order to achieve equity, inequality is a natural and accepted outcome wherein Whites, it is believed, must surrender their privilege, entitlements, and the benefits that accrue from whiteness. The CRT community does not regard this as problematic but rather vindication and justification for historical disparities. In the end, the move of equity over equality is necessary in order to achieve the greater goal of equitable outcomes and the redistribution of social benefits and burdens. In short, not only is this moral compromise, but it is Unconstitutional at its core because CRT is both hostile to and incompatible with the very virtues and values of freedom and fairness safeguarded by our Constitution.
While today's racial challenges are a far cry from those of Douglass's day, his thoughts from well over a century ago offer prescient words of wisdom that should not be ignored nor confined to the past. Like all historical figures, Douglass, in particular, embraced the challenges of his day with extraordinary passion, relentless conviction, and purpose-driven principles to accomplish great things for humanity. HIs life is relatable to contemporary America through his courage and inspiration which should motivate us to remain resilient amid crisis and conflict. From the thoughts and words of Douglass, we can be inspired to overcome the flaws and failures of what we are witnessing today in this moment of rising radical racial antipathy.
Douglass's speech in 1890 titled The Race Problem confronted the efforts of southern Resurrectionists to deny African Americans their newly won civil rights that became legally protected by the federal government. This address took place in Washington, DC at Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, and his goal was to educate the public and advocate for the continued protection of African American civil rights as authorized by federal law. Throughout his lecture, he referred to the frequently cited "Race Problem" with suspicion and annoyance seemingly to suggest there is something wrongheaded about this expression, language that to Douglass deserved outright condemnation and rejection.
In the opening, Douglass shares his objection to how the problem is viewed and defined exclusively as "The Negro Problem", a term that had taken root in the South post Civil War. Douglass states the following:
For this reason, and for my own self-respect, I shall endeavor to say only what I believe to be the truth upon what is popularly called "The Negro Problem...."
. . . It has been well said that in an important sense words are things. They are especially such when they are employed to express the popular sentiment concerning the Negro: to couple his name with anything in this world seems to damage it and damage him likewise. Hence I object to characterizing the relation subsisting between the white and colored people of this country as the Negro problem, as if the Negro had precipitated that problem, and as if he were in any way responsible for the problem....
Clearly, Douglass seeks to challenge myth and inflammatory rhetoric with truth and sociological facts. The same applies today with respect to CRT and how they deconstruct race and history through the lens of equity and the use of social disparities and dogma at the expense of established norms and principles that are grounded in the Constitution, namely equality, due process, and equal protection.
Douglass continues his brilliant treatment of the so-called Negro Problem with the following:
With their usual cunning, these enemies of the negro have made the North partly believe that they are now contending with a vast and mysterious problem, the mere contemplation of which should cause the whole North to shudder and come to the rescue. The trick is worthy of its inventors, and has been played for all that it is worth. The orators of the South have gone North and have eloquently described this terrible problem, and the press of the South has flamed with it, and grave Senators from that section have painted it in most distressing colors. Problem, problem, race problem, negro problem, has, as Junius says, fitted through their sentences in all the mazes of metaphorical confusion.
. . . The true problem is not the negro, but the nation. Not the law-abiding blacks of the South, but the white men of that section, who by fraud, violence, and persecution, are breaking the law, trampling on the Constitution, corrupting the ballot-box, and defeating the ends of justice. The true problem is whether these white ruffians shall be allowed by the nation to go on in their lawless and nefarious career, dishonoring the Government and making its very name a mockery. It is whether this nation has in itself sufficient moral stamina to maintain its own honor and integrity by vindicating its own Constitution and fulfilling its own pledges, or whether it has already touched that dry rot of moral depravity by which nations decline and fall, and governments fade and vanish.
Douglass shows how the deceptive tactics of southern "Resurrectionists" agitated the North through exaggerated rhetoric by using race to portray and define the problem as Black and extreme. While race continues to be a problem in America today, one that is present in a number of different manifestations, Critical Race Theorists exploit narratives, history, stories, current events, data, and anecdotes to create an ominous portrayal of systemic racism as a ubiquitous yet flawed threat to American society writ large. But notice Douglass's charge: to preserve and defend the integrity of the Constitution with truth, fidelity, and moral courage! By making this a Constitutional issue, Douglass has expanded the scope of the problem from a regional North-South dynamic to a national one vis-à-vis the Constitution, civil rights, and the federal government. Douglass makes this explicitly clear in the next section, as he presses the matter further with his own brand of today's intersectionality. In the following, he directly appeals to the cause of women's suffrage to make the case that equality, under the banner of civil rights, is federally protected and, therefore, morally defensible.
Our American women are asking for a sixteenth amendment to the Constitution, whereby they may vote. They ought to have it. If the American people shall adopt such an amendment, the women problem will cease to exist.
In like manner, when the negro was declared free by the highest authority in the land, when the whole system of his bondage was broken up, when he was invested by the organic law of the land with the title, dignity and immunity of an American citizen, and when it was declared that any discrimination made by any State against him on account of race or color was unlawful, I hold that his race condition could no longer be consider a problem. The thing was done: it was finished. The nation had taken its position and all the parts of the nation must ultimately adjust themselves to the whole. The individual States may be great, but the United States is greater. The mountain will not and cannot go to Mahomet, so Mahomet must and will in the end go to the mountain. Herein is the ground of my hope.
....The time may never come this side the millennium when men will not ask "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" But what business has government, State or National, with these prejudice? Why should grave statesmen concern themselves with them? The business of government is to hold its broad shield over all and to see that every American citizen is alike and equally protected in his civil and personal rights. My confidence is strong and high in the nation as a whole. I believe in its justice and in its power. I believe that it means to keep its word with its colored citizens. I believe in its progress, in its moral as well as its material civilization. Its trend is in the right direction. Its fundamental principles are sound. Its conception of humanity and of human rights is clear and comprehensive. Its progress is fettered by no State religion tending to repress liberal thought: by no order of nobility tending to keep down the toiling masses: by no divine right theory tending to national stagnation under the idea of stability. It stands out free and clear with nothing to obstruct its view of the lessons of reason and experience.
The Race Problem by Frederick Douglass is refreshing because it reinforces core American principles and ideals and offers the kind of timeless and transcendent thinking that is desperately needed today to restore the efficacy of equality and the Constitution. As Douglass battled southern racists and the Democratic Party, he was clear-eyed and unapologetic in his fidelity to and support for the Republican Party who paved the way for emancipation and civil rights for African Americans nationally.
I affirm that while the National Government shall remain in the hands of the Republican party and under the principles of that party, no State will or can permanently disfranchise any of its citizens because of race or color or previous condition. Attempts may be made to do this, but the race problem in that respect is solved, and the case cannot be permanently reopened.
For Douglass, this was a monumental triumph by the federal government and The United States over the tyranny of individual states, for these states alone did the unthinkable by seceding from the Union to form a Confederacy that trampled over the authority of the Constitution and basic human rights to uphold and prosper from an evil and unjust system we know as chattel slavery, a system that indelibly harmed America and African Americans to this day. Through Douglass, however, we can unite as Americans by fiercely defending the sanctity of equality as protected by our Constitution and thereby use Douglass to champion equality over the hazards of equity and all that it seeks to undo through Critical Race Theory.