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Words Matter

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill addressed the shooting of Jacob Blake by saying that the “US was founded on racist ideas.” It is a very curious statement. He did not say founded by racist men or with racist institutions. He said “racist ideas.” The ideas that this country was founded on are written in our founding documents. I have read the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights many times. I have a difficult time finding “racist ideas” anywhere in those documents. “Freedom”, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”, “All men are created equal” are not racists ideas.

Tannehill’s comment was very irresponsible. If our founding principles are racist, shouldn’t we do away with them? Is Tannehill suggesting that we should tear up our Constitution and Bill of Rights? Should we get rid of liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, due process, equal justice? Should we remove those racist principles from our system of government? Do you think there will be less injustice or more? Less discrimination or more? Less racism or more? Less oppression or more if we get rid of those founding ideas?

Are we not claiming that the police violated Jacob Blake’s Constitutional rights? Doesn’t Jacob Blake deserve due process and equal protection under the law? If there was no Constitution and Bill of Rights on what legal grounds could Jacob Blake pursue justice and redemption? Or should we only get justice through burning buildings and looting stores. Those will be the only avenues of justice in a country with no Constitution.

If he wasn’t talking about those principles, then to which ideas was he referring? He should name the racist ideas in our founding documents, so we as a nation, can amend our Constitution accordingly, and get rid of them. People should educate themselves before they elucidate about things they do not know very much about. Making general blanket accusations is dangerous.

If Tannehill was referring to the institution of slavery which was ongoing at our founding, or the eventual implementation of Jim Crow laws later on, then he must also admit that those practices were eradicated a long time ago, and acknowledge how they were eradicated. Those evil and racist practices were not the principles upon which our country was founded. Those practices were in direct violation of our country’s founding principles.

This may sound like a small point, but it isn’t. The founding ideas that he claims are racist were what was used by abolitionist to abolish slavery, and were the principles that the Civil Rights leaders relied upon to help rid our country of institutional racism. This is no small point because moving forward those are the very principles that we must rely on to prevent future injustices from occurring or embedding themselves into our society.

And to call slavery a founding idea is inaccurate. About half the states abolished slavery at the founding of our country or within the first decade. So, slavery cannot be considered a foundational idea or institution because half the states rejected it, and it divided the country for its first 87 years of its existence. Slavery almost destroyed our country, causing a Civil War which was needed to abolish it all together. And if slavery was a foundational institution wouldn’t the abolition of it weaken the nation? But we became stronger as a nation after the abolition of slavery, not weaker. And the same can be said for the Jim Crow laws and segregation. The country was greatly divided on those issues, but has become stronger since we have done away with them.

So, characterizing our founding ideas as racist is a call to remove the very principles that were used to rid our nation of the racist institutions which blot on our nation’s history. Our founding principles are still needed to combat racism and injustice today, and to prevent forms of racism and injustice from creeping back into our society and our system of government.

Words matter. As we have seen through our history, the words in our founding principles matter. And the words used to characterize our history and founding principles matter as well. The words of our founding principles have been a powerful force throughout our history against the very racism and injustice that Tannehill claims he is fighting. And if we are smart enough not to listen to people like Tannehill, those founding ideas will be powerful tools to prevent future injustices, and may even save our nation.

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Judd Garrett is a former NFL player, coach and executive. He is a frequent contributer to the website Real Clear Politics, and has recently published his first novel, No Wind