Slavery







 

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Once again, I have to point you in the direction of a friend of mine who wrote an excellent article entitled, “Duty Free.”

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Siding with justice if not the law

GERALD E. SHENK

In today’s parlance, Douglass, a runaway slave, was an “illegal immigrant” into the free states. Under Maryland law in the 1840s, Douglass was the private property of Thomas Auld. Not only was it illegal for him to run away, it was illegal for others to assist him.

Article IV, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution required the authorities of any state to which Douglass traveled to arrest and return him to his owner, whether or not slavery was legal in that state.

By the 1850s, federal law required citizens of every state to assist in the capture and return of slaves. Thousands of average citizens knowingly faced arrest and imprisonment for violating this law. Some died for their refusal.

Today, every argument against “illegal immigrants” has its analog in the defense of slavery. Runaway, or freed, slaves created unfair competition for jobs; they were, by definition, criminals; they threatened social and cultural cohesion.

The only argument they and their allies had was justice.

The full article can be found here.

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From this week’s reading assignment, I have just two points and a question. First, I will reexamine how King determines what makes disobedience civil. Then I will make an argument about segregation and tokenism as it regards immigration. The question I’ll leave you with is about whether we are in a time of sowing or reaping.

In contrasting the differences between civil- and uncivil-disobedience, Dr. King says:

“In disobeying such unjust laws, the students do so peacefully, openly and nonviolently. Most important, they willingly accept the penalty, whatever it is, for in this way the public comes to reexamine the law in question and will thus decide whether it uplifts or degrades man.

“This distinguishes their position on civil disobedience from the “uncivil disobedience” of the segregationist. In the face of laws they consider unjust, the racists seek to defy, evade and circumvent the law, and they are unwilling to accept the penalty. The end result of their defiance is anarchy and disrespect for the law. The students, on the other hand, believe that he who openly disobeys a law, a law conscience tells him is unjust, and then willingly accepts the penalty, gives evidence thereby that he so respects the law that he belongs in jail until it is changed. Their appeal is to the conscience.”

King lists the qualities of civil disobedience as: peaceful, open, nonviolent, and accepting of penalty. King lists the qualities of uncivil disobedience as: defiant, evasive, and circumventing of the law; and unaccepting of penalty. King lists the outcomes of civil disobedience as: public reexamination of the law, and increased respect for law. King lists the outcome of uncivil disobedience as: anarchy, and disrespect for law.

 

King’s lifelong fight was against a system that prevented all people from freely associating with those of a different race in all aspects of life. In the United States of America from (roughly) 1896 to 1965, that system was called segregation. In South Africa until the mid 1990s, that same system was called apartheid. In the United States of America, that exact system is called restricted immigration. I cannot freely associate with those who I choose to if the government tells them they do not have a legal right to be here. I think we should come up with a name for restricted migration that makes this reality clear. Perhaps the term “national segregation” could work. I’m not sure, what do you think?

 

Understanding restricted immigration as segregation makes clear that a system which gives a few people permission to enter the United States, while denying hundreds of thousands of others, is a system of tokenism. Tokenism is also giving amnesty to the undocumented immigrants currently living in the country while blocking the way for others. Ours, instead, “is total commitment to [the] goal of equality and dignity,” and not just for those currently here. This is why Reagan’s amnesty plan failed.

Abraham Lincoln and the Reconstruction Congress well understood this principle. Tokenism for them would have been emancipating a generation of slaves while maintaining the institutions of slavery and the slave trade. Our situation is no difference. We are not fighting for the Mexican; we are fighting for the Chinese, the Japanese, the Indian, the Irish, the Italian, the Mexican, and whatever ethnic group will come next. To paraphrase Dr. King, God is not interested in the freedom of movement of black men and brown men, but in the freedom of movement of all men. Our goal must be unrestricted migration, not just because it is necessary for democracy, but because it is morally compelling.

 

My question comes from this line. “The current breakthroughs have come about partly as a result of the patient legal, civil and social ground clearing of the previous decades.” While there has been social ground-clearing, there hasn’t been any legal ground clearing (not for 125 years at least). My questions are these. Would civil disobedience be premature right now? Does the legal have to preceed the social? Dr. King’s movement came after the major legal battle to end segregation (Brown v. Board). Is something similar required before civil disobedience will be effective and useful, especially given that disobedient immigrants are not jailed, they are deported? Civil disobedience is designed to change unjust laws. Dr. King used it to change unjust local laws that were out of compliance with newly implemented federal standards. Immigration law is an unjust federal law. Do we need to advance international law before we use civil disobedience to challenge the more local, federal laws?

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At the end of perhaps the greatest sermon in history, Jesus of Nazareth said,

Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

The difference, Jesus says, is in the doing. 2000 years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said,

America has been something of a divided personality, tragically divided against herself. On the one hand we have proudly professed the great principles of democracy, but on the other hand we have sadly practiced the very opposite of these principles.

Dr. King pointed out that we have a problem with the doing. Notice, too, that he didn’t say we had a problem practicing equality; he said we had a problem practicing democracy.

The word democracy is Greek and means ‘rule by the people.’ According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics, the first question of democracy is “who are to count as ‘the people?’” That question is at the heart of the most fundamental problem of U.S. history. It also brings us back to the problem of actually doing what it is that we say we believe. It gets back to Dr. King’s question of whether we will do what we say we will do.

Thomas Jefferson justified our disloyalty to, and war with, England with these words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Dr. King pointed out that the Declaration of Independence “doesn’t say ‘some men,’ it says ‘all men.’ It doesn’t say ‘all white men,’ it says ‘all men.’”

It has always been amazing to me that throughout the struggle for abolition/emancipation in the 1860s, and 100 years later during the civil rights movement, African Americans did not make arguments that the language of the founding was too narrow or too exclusive. Rather, they often quoted that language because they recognized that it wasn’t the language that was insufficient. It is not the language which fails us; it is our inability to believe in, and act upon, the claims made in that language. In other words, our failure as a nation isn’t that we need a new mandate, it is that we have not lived up to the mandate we started with.

This is very poignant to me because Jefferson himself had neither the capacity nor the courage to believe his own words. He relied on the institution of slavery personally and although other duties kept him from the Constitutional Convention, there is little doubt that he would have been willing to ignore his own Declaration of human equality—and dehumanize African American enslaved persons to the legal status of three-fifths of a person, and devoid of human rights—in order to form a union between the thirteen colonies.

This reminds me of Jesus and Caiaphas, the high priest. In the Gospel According to Saint John, Caiaphas and his council said,

If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.

In this passage, Caiaphas does not mean to be prophesying about the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, but rather of the expedience of killing this popular and dangerous man in order to keep peace.

When I think of Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, I have to relate it to Caiaphas. Dr. King, like St. John, was able to see the wisdom in the words of people who didn’t have a full understanding of what they themselves were saying.

It is with that perspective that I relate Jefferson and King to immigration. When are we, as a nation, actually going to believe that all humans are equal? When will accept that “there are no gradations in the image of God,” and that “all men are equal in intrinsic worth.”? When will we see that creating the classification illegal immigrant “substitutes an ‘I-It’ relationship for the ‘I-Thou’ relationship and relegates persons to the status of things.”? This isn’t only evident when people use the adjective “illegal” as a noun (thus stripping the humanity of the individual away, leaving only the legal status). It is seen when we—a country who claims that rights are not given to citizens because of their relationship with the state, but rather to persons because of human kind’s relationship with our Creator—acknowledge the rights of some, but not of others. This is the epitome of dehumanization. My personal humanity refuses to allow me to treat my fellow humans as a function of their legal status simply because “this nation” has yet to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”

It is this basic belief, this basic sense of justice and fairness, this basic sense of humanity–and our distance from those ideas–that forces me to entertain the ideas of civil disobedience. If this is not a law that morality requires me to break (aiding a so-called illegal immigrant), there never was such a thing.

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The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report yesterday, stating that the current system of exploiting undocumented laborers working in the United States is “Close to Slavery.” The article, which I encourage you to read, can be found here.

How did we end up with a system where some, based on citizenship (which is almost entirely a function of place of birth), can expect one wage while others cannot? It hasn’t always been the case. From 1776 until 1882, immigration to the United States was open. That all ended with the Chinese Exclusion Act. That Act ushered in an immigration system based on racism which still exists today.

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From 1882 to 1965, our immigration laws were explicitly racist. They aren’t so overt now, but the same quota system that started in 1924 exists today – with the same intention and the same affects. Immigration restrictions are designed to keep people (specifically brown people) out, and that is exactly what they do.

For a detailed history of U.S. immigration law, click here.

 

Representative John Lewis speaking at an immigrants’ rights rally.And the leaders of the Southern Poverty Law Center aren’t the only ones pointing out the similarities between the criminalizing of immigrant workers and slavery.

Our civil rights heroes such as John Lewis, have said the same thing. For more discussion on that, follow this link.

 

 

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