What is the legacy of slavery in America?
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of the award-winning book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, (Princeton 2004). And she is currently at work on a new book: Sister Citizen: A Text For Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics When Being Strong Wasn't Enough. Her academic research is inspired by a desire to investigate the challenges facing contemporary black Americans and to better understand the multiple, creative ways that African Americans respond to these challenges.
Her academic research has been published in scholarly journals and edited volumes and her interests include the study of African American political thought, black religious ideas and practice, and social and clinical psychology. Professor Harris-Lacewell's creative and dynamic teaching is also motivated by the practical political and racial issues of our time. For example, her course entitled Disaster, Race and American Politics explored the multiple political meanings of Hurricane Katrina. Professor Harris-Lacewell has taught students from grade school to graduate school and has been recognized for her commitment to the classroom as a site of democratic deliberation on race.
Question: What is the legacy of slavery in America?
Harris-Lacewell: Yeah it’s funny. Usually when we start thinking about what’s the . . . You know what does it mean to think about the continuing legacy of slavery, the first thing that people wanna talk about is Black culture. And they go, “Oh! The problem with slavery is that it’s created these problems in the Black family. And the Black man is emasculated.” And I always say well no. The real serious continuing legacy of slavery in this country is the electoral college in the U.S. Senate. Because what the electoral college in the U.S. Senate are about is a set of compromises that were made in 1789 around slave holding states versus free states. And it was about this question of how are we gonna be represented in the federal government. How are we, as Americans, going to be represented. Large states that had . . . that were slave holding states in the South clearly wanted representation in the House, and they wanted it to be based on how many people there were in each state; and they wanted to count slaves as being among those people in order to get more representation. Small states in the North were quite anxious about this, and part of what small states like, for example, New Jersey wanted was equal representation for each state. So what we end up with is sort of a two-sided system where we have, yes, population-based representation, but also state-based representation. Okay. So what does all of this end up meaning? Well it ends up meaning that in fact our states are vastly overrepresented . . . some states are vastly overrepresented in the Senate, and some are shockingly underrepresented. So for example California has only two senators, but so too does North Dakota have two senators, right? This means that North Dakota is overrepresented, and California is underrepresented. Now, the Senate maybe we wouldn’t worry so much because we have a bicameral legislature. No big deal. Here is the rub. In the electoral college, because we have a winner-take-all system; and because African-Americans continue to be living in the South and in urban areas in the North, what that means is because instead of counting each individual vote throughout the country, and whoever wins a plurality of all the votes wins the presidency, instead we have an electoral college where all of those votes get filtered through the states. This had everything to do with slavery. This had everything to do with the anxiety of the states over representation over slavery and freedom. It had everything to do with anxieties about as we move West, protecting the right of slaveholders to move West, and free states being worried about slavery moving into the West. That’s what these compromises are about. They’re about the anxiety of slavery in a country that was only tenuously held together because of the issue of slavery; so that now, if you live in a state which is considered a “safe” democratic state, or a “safe” republican state, your vote for the U.S. presidency simply does not matter. Because once you’re in a safe state, the parties do not have to come to you and ask for your vote. It doesn’t matter if you’re a dissenter. So for African-Americans who are living in the U.S. South, they are captured in red states. For Republicans who are living in democratic states, they’re captured in blue states. They don’t have to be talked to. Their concerns don’t have to be addressed. And this is the legacy of slavery.
Question: Does one’s vote still matter?
Harris-Lacewell: Well certainly your vote matters at all the other levels, right? So it matters for your Senate vote. It matters for your congressional vote. It matters for the dog catcher and the . . . and the school board. All of that. So I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t vote because your vote doesn’t matter. What I’m suggesting is that it doesn’t matter at the presidential level. And it’s not sort of your perception. It’s the perception of the candidates in the parties. I mean they simply will not come and campaign to you. You know so does it matter to exercise the franchise? Absolutely, because local elections and local governance is as important as national governance. But what it does is it does, in fact, allow our presidential candidates to ignore those states which they perceive as safe states, and to invest all of those resources in states they see as swing states. And that is deeply troubling for our capacity for representation.
"The real serious continuing legacy of slavery in this country is the electoral college in the U.S. Senate."
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