Racial Flap Could Have Unintended Consequences

Emory University President James W. Wagner is paying the price for ignorance and insensitivity, but we all stand to lose if talking about race becomes too risky.

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Emory University Chairman of the Board of Trustees Ben Johnson III, left, introduces the University's next president, James W. Wagner, Wednesday, July 30, 2003, at the Emory Conference Center Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia. (AP/Barry Williams)
Emory University Chairman of the Board of Trustees Ben Johnson III, left, introduces the University's next president, James W. Wagner, Wednesday, July 30, 2003, at the Emory Conference Center Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia. (AP/Barry Williams)

Emory University President James W. Wagner is having a horrible start to the winter term on his Atlanta campus. Unfortunately for him, his woes are self-inflicted.

Attempting to make the case for greater cooperation toward finding solutions for politically and socially difficult issues, Wagner argued in a recent campus magazine column that compromise is a good and noble tool. Specifically, he referred to the stalemate in Congress, which has failed to find common ground on the nation’s budget. So far, so good.

But to drive home his point, he favorably cited the three-fifths clause in the U.S. Constitution—perhaps the worst historic example of a compromise. Wagner wrote:

One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—“to form a more perfect union”—the two sides compromised on this immediate issue of how to count slaves in the new nation. Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.

A sidebar history lesson is necessary here: The three-fifths clause wasn’t actually a compromise. It was a provision of the Constitution that the Framers inserted to apportion voting rights and taxation policies in slave-holding states.

As Paul Finkelman, author of Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson, noted in a recent article for The Root, the three-fifths clause “is perhaps the most misunderstood” part of the document. He wrote:

The clause provides that representation in Congress will be based on “the whole Number of free Persons” and “three fifths of all other Persons.” The “other Persons” were slaves. Despite popular understandings, this provision did not declare that African Americans were three-fifths of a person. Rather, the provision declared that the slave states would get extra representation in Congress for their slaves, even though those states treated slaves purely as property.

Predictably, Wagner’s comments sparked viral outrage on social and digital media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Emory faculty members censured him for a gross misunderstanding of history and for bringing academic discredit to his office. Students marched in protest and called for his resignation. Moreover, Emory has been pilloried in the national media.

This is not the most unfortunate part of the story, however. As awful as Wagner’s comments were, the most obvious lesson learned from his mistake might well be not to bring racial history into contemporary discourse. Indeed, Wagner’s ambition was to link a historic compromise to a current concern. I’d argue that his impulse was noble, maybe even courageous. It’s just that Wagner lacked knowledge and failed to fully understand the point he was trying to make.

Seeking to put the matter behind him, Wagner has apologized with great personal shame. “Certainly, I do not consider slavery anything but heinous, repulsive, repugnant, and inhuman,” Wagner wrote to the campus in an addendum to his magazine column. “I should have stated that fact clearly in my essay. I am sorry for the hurt caused by not communicating more clearly my own beliefs. To those hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity, please forgive me.”

It’s unlikely the brouhaha will bring down the president, whose academic background is in electrical engineering—not in history or the humanities. But clearly, Wagner has learned a valuable lesson. But will anyone one else daring to talk about race benefit from his painful, public example?

By holding Wagner out for intense ridicule, the message that I fear others might take away from this mess is to steer clear of race talk when a slip of the tongue might cause an equal measure of public shame to be heaped upon them, too. That would be a mistake of even greater consequence.

Certainly more knowledge—not less—is needed about our racial history and how it might affect us today. But whatever we do, we shouldn’t avoid public engagement of the topic. That only magnifies ignorance.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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