Getting personal

Now that an African-American has been elected President of the United States, I think it’s a good time to look back at the long and difficult road that people of color have had to travel in our country. To be frank, Barack Obama represents a host of policies and perspectives with which I do not, and even cannot in good conscience agree. But when the votes were counted, I found the tears welling up in my eyes too. Why? Because it is a good and precious thing to see one more brick of bigotry and racism fall. It is a joy to see how far this nation has come in that regard.

Let’s recall our history, just a little. African slaves were first brought to Jamestown in 1619. The slave trade existed and prospered in a world of both Christianity and the Enlightenment. Of course, neither Christians nor the “Enlightened” argued for the buying and selling of human beings. They justified their commerce by arguing that blacks were somehow less than fully human. In other words, they told themselves that African slaves were exalted cattle, not human persons. Even when freed, people of African origin or descent discovered that they were still considered to be of less intrinsic value than their “white” counterparts.

This sliding scale of human value is perhaps made most visible by the debate surrounding slavery that threatened the founding of our nation and the success of the Constitutional Convention. The political solution reached by the former colonies wasn’t pretty. The Three-Fifths Compromise declared that each African slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of legislative representation and the distribution of taxes. In other words, a black person was only worth three-fifths of a white person. Politics aside, what was actually compromised was the personhood of everyone who was not of European heritage. Strangely, it was the northern states who opposed counting slaves at all. The southern states proposed counting them, of course, simply for the sake of increasing their political power and influence in the newly formed nation.

In essence, the struggle for civil rights has been one of claiming the full personhood denied to black Americans from the very foundation of the United States. After the Civil War, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments legally recognized all human persons as persons in full. The struggle then shifted to according the political and civil benefits equally to all persons based simply on their status as persons. Hence the need for the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Most of us recognize that many people have--for reasons other than race--suffered injustice, suspicion, and violence both here and around the world. But few of us seem to be able to apply what humanity can learn from those terrible experiences to our societies today. There is something about us all that wants to distance ourselves and our times from what we have registered as horrific and historic abuses of human rights. But the truth is that all civil societies exist on the same continuum.

Every abuse of human rights begins by identifying a group of persons as somehow less than persons. Because we can’t justify treating an equal unequally, we simply deny that he or she is fully a person. This is what happened to serfs in Europe and Jews in Spain. This is what is still happening to Christians in Darfur, Gypsies in Italy, women in Afghanistan, and infant girls in China and some parts of India.

Looking at what the election of an African-American president means and can mean, perhaps we have reached a moment in history where we are willing to acknowledge the civil rights elephant in the living room. The greatest abuse of human rights in the world today is one that is not uniquely American, but spans the globe. It is the denial of the human personhood of the unborn.

Maybe the glow of triumph that African Americans are now enjoying can shed a little light and truth on the matter of abortion. Why not extend to the unborn the same recognition of personhood that some have had to struggle and wait and fight so long for? Why not admit that in allowing abortion on demand on the basis of the right to privacy is compromising the humanity of a child for the sake of convenience? Why not investigate the potential link between abortion and breast cancer, between abortion and suicide, between abortion and the astronomical rise in child abuse and violence against women? Why not recognize that there is something wrong in a society where the leading cause of death among pregnant women is murder? 

As Christians, we should uproot racism in every form, in every place it exists. Some of those places may be subtle and hidden. As Americans we ought to take a second look at the founders and original advocates of legalized abortion--people like Margaret Sanger--and see them for the racists they were. Sanger in particular advocated abortion, birth control, and sterilization as a method to create a “pure race.” But beyond the founders’ intent, abortion remains a racist threat to African-Americans. Today, an inordinately high percentage of abortion providers are located in minority neighborhoods: eighty percent of Planned Parenthood facilities. An inordinately high number of abortions are performed on women of color. While babies born to black women represent seventeen percent of all American births, thirty-six percent of the total abortions performed in the United States are performed on black women. That is even more startling when we realize that African-Americans represent somewhere around twelve percent of the population. Perhaps without anyone realizing it, elective abortion is tantamount to self-inflicted genocide. That is among the reasons that Dr. Alveda King, a niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a pro-life activist.

The most dangerous place in America for a child to be isn’t on the streets of a particular neighborhood. The most dangerous place in America for a child to be is in his or her mother’s womb. Perhaps in these days, we can make the case again. Perhaps in these days ears and minds and hearts may be just a little more open to the idea that calling a developing human being two or five or eight-ninths of a person threatens the humanity and personhood of us all.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.