I came across this video on my timeline and it triggered this post. So before you read, take two and a half minutes to watch it…
The man in the video is Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, an American conservative nonprofit organization. I have several problems with his response in this video, but before I get into them, I do want to acknowledge some things that were good about it.
He called her out on misinformation
She quoted some phrases apparently verbatim and claimed they were in the Constitution and when he challenged her to tell him where they were, she couldn’t. This was an embarrassingly eye-opening moment for me because I realized that I could easily have been this young woman. How often do we absorb buzzwords from the internet and spew them out at our opponents, assuming they’ll be silver bullets that will swiftly end the argument? But we don’t even do our own research to back up our claims. So I definitely appreciate Kirk exposing this young woman because it taught her and us an important lesson: make sure you do your homework before you make your claims.
In addition, she claimed the Constitution was racist because it doesn’t mention other people of color we see today. The problem is that the people of color we see today weren’t in the U.S. back then. The founding fathers had probably never even seen Chinese people, Koreans, or Hispanics so there’d be no reason to include them.
He educated her on the opposing side
I love how Kirk showed that politics and history are not always black and white. The Republican Party was originally anti-slavery and Thaddeus Stevens was an incredible Republican who fought for the right of blacks to vote.(Let’s not forget that Abraham Lincoln, the patron saint of slaves, was a Republican. Let’s also not forget that Andrew Jackson, the die-hard supporter of slavery and leader of the Trail of Tears was a Democrat.) This is all true and people of color and Democrats need to know these sorts of things. It’s important to recognize that your opponents are not always all bad all the time. Not everything on the other side is evil and not everything on your side is good. The sooner we recognize this, the sooner we can have more educated and civilized conversations.
The Founding Documents are indeed awesome
It can be very easy as a person of color to villainize the founding documents because they have often been used against us. This is exacerbated even more when we remember that the people who wrote these documents weren’t exactly friendly to people of color. However, when you read these documents on their own, they’re not as fundamentally racist as some would have us believe. At worst they neglect to include certain things(like womens rights or outright condemning slavery) or more often beat around the bush on specific things(like not allowing slavery unless it’s as punishment for a crime). Like this guy says, we can’t focus on the sins of the authors or the prejudices of the people of their day. We need to focus on the document itself and it itself is not overtly, fundamentally racist.
I say all this because I want to make it clear that I respect and admire the founding documents as a whole. After all, the only reason I can write a post like this is because of the First Amendment. I don’t want anyone to take what I’m about to say and twist it to seem like I’m villainizing these documents. If I’m villainizing anything, it’s Kirk’s response to this young woman’s question because these are the problems I had with it…
She was right about the racist phrases in the founding documents
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson clearly states that one of his grievances is that King George “has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” So while that phrase isn’t in the Constitution, it is in the Declaration of Independence. But Kirk claims “what you said is not in the founding documents at all”, which is clearly not true.
The young woman also says that African-Americans are not considered full people in the Constitution. Well, lo and behold, in Article 1, section 2, it says that:
Anyone remember the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787? Where slaves were only considered three-fifths of a person? What is that doing in the Constitution? Regardless of what this three-fifths is actually referring to–whether it’s to Indians, to slaves, to free people of color or something else–the point is that three-fifths is the most triggering fraction in the psyche of people of color. So to know that it’s in the Constitution can be understandably a little troubling. Which brings us back to why this young woman is asking her question in the first place.
But this also begs another question. If these two phrases indeed are in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution respectively, how is it that Kirk, clearly educated and well-read, either does not know that or is willfully ignoring that?
Kirk quoted irrelevant facts
In response to the question, Kirk started listing off facts about Republicans starting off as anti-slavery to refute the idea that the founding documents were racist. Despite my praise of these facts previously, I don’t think they were actually relevant in this argument for two reasons. First, the Republican Party was created in 1854 to fight against slavery. The Declaration of Independence was written in 1776 and the Constitution was written in 1787. We have almost 100 years separating the founding documents and the Republicans. Couldn’t it be possible that the Republicans were actually trying to fight the racist principles the founding fathers had introduced to the country? The very same principles this young woman is claiming the documents were based on? There’s no concrete evidence that that’s the case, but the point is that simply stating that the Republican Party started off as not racist isn’t a relevant rebuttal to the claim that the founding documents are racist. It’s like me saying “Jesus wasn’t sexist.” and you reply, “But Augustine was.” They’re hundreds of years apart–what does that have to do with anything?
Secondly, the fact that he heralded the origins of the Republican Party as some cure-all is problematic because it ignored the fact that the Republican Party of the 1800’s is not the Republican Party of 2020. Yes, it started off as wonderful and anti-slavery, but just because something starts off one way, doesn’t mean it stays that way. The KKK started off as college kids playing pranks on people. It didn’t stay that way. Hitler originally wanted to grow up to be a painter. But he didn’t stay that way. I’m NOT saying Republicans are like the KKK or Hitler. What I’m saying is that you can’t use the past to justify the present. Doing that is like me telling a white person, “You shouldn’t be afraid of gangs because the Crips and Bloods started off as community resource groups.” They won’t care because all they see now is gang violence. In the same way, you can’t just cite the saintly origins of the Republican Party and expect it to end the argument because even though they used to be untainted, pure, tenacious advocates for people of color they no longer are. So bringing up the glory days is completely irrelevant and the fact that Kirk thinks it’s okay to do so is part of the problem. And that leads us to my final grievance with his response…
Kirk ignored the elephant in the room
Let’s assume the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were indeed the greatest, most inclusive, most just, and most liberating political documents of all time. We still have 200 years of consistent systemic racism in the United States after those documents were written.
The Fifteenth Amendment gave black people the right to vote, but then literacy tests and poll taxes made that more difficult.
The Second Amendment gave citizens the right to bear arms, but when the Black Panthers did just that, President Hoover deemed them “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
The Thirteenth Amendment says slavery should be abolished except as punishment for a crime. And yet interestingly enough, people of color are disproportionately incarcerated and receive longer sentences than their white counterparts for identical crimes.
So how is it that we can herald the Constitution as the greatest political document ever written if it has allowed systemic injustice for people of color for the past 200 years? How do we reconcile that?
This is what this young woman was(albeit unsuccessfully) trying to get at. And the fact that Kirk completely ignored that and just went straight for the jugular is itself a problem.
So in conclusion, make sure to do your homework before you fire shots at your opponents. Realize that there are good things on your opponent’s side and bad things on your side. But above all, if someone brings wrong information to an argument, respectfully correct them. But don’t pretend the bigger problem they’re trying to bring to your attention doesn’t exist.