Is Sen. Lankford right warning labels on founding documents should be removed?
- On September 16, 2021, Oklahoma Senator James Lankford released a statement about recent “harmful language,” “harmful content,” and other “trigger warning” alerts displayed on the National Archives website above the text of America’s founding documents: The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence.
- In his letter to the National Archives director, Sen. Lankford wrote, “As a nation, we should take pride in our founding documents, not stipulate them as if we are ashamed of the very freedoms that provide individuals in our nation with the ability to discuss and discern for themselves how to engage with and respond to their government, its laws, and its history.”
- Congress established the National Archives in 1934 to “preserve and care for the records of the U.S. government.”
- The Founding Fathers built US founding documents off of Judeo-Christian morals as well as Deism. The Declaration uses terminology like “Nature’s God,” “their Creator,” and “Supreme Judge of the world.”
- America was founded on July 4, 1776 with the approval of the Declaration of Independence that separated the 13 North American British colonies from Great Britain.
- America abolished the slave trade in 1807 and freed the slaves in 1865 under the 13th Amendment, less than 90 years since the nation’s founding. Slavery has been a worldwide institution and is still practiced in some parts of Africa today.
By describing language that designates African Americans to be worth three-fifths of what White people are worth, denies women the right to vote, and allowed for the systematic destruction of Native cultures as '[an] obviously politically-charged qualifier,' Senator Lankford has shown his complete misunderstanding of the struggles for equality, race relations, and American history. He further specified that 'from our founding, [we have] created the most free and diverse society on Earth.' It seems that the Senator forgot about the nearly one hundred years of slavery that were legally allowed because of these documents. Revisionist history aside, the real problem with Lankford's desire to strike the labels is that these warnings exist so people will view the documents within their historical context and reflect on the struggle that has brought about a more just society. These labels are not political but simply functional.
Sadly, in an era when so many Americans are waking up to the realities of structural racism and are emboldened to work toward social justice causes, Senator Lankford's demands on the National Archives are just the latest example of a tone-deaf Republican using fear tactics to stir up division and controversy amongst his party against the “boogeyman” of Critical Race Theory. Perhaps this isn't surprising coming from a senator who has come out strongly against the Senate Equality Act, but it is problematic for our nation. Not only is the Senator standing in the way of those looking to examine every aspect of our society for explicit or implicit biases, but his very public stance is setting an example for others that it's acceptable to be totally uninterested in protecting minorities and other groups from language that is outdated and potentially offensive.
According to the National Archives' own website, their role is to collect and preserve records. Making judgments about those records, reinterpreting their meaning, or deciding if they are racist or offensive are all things outside of their job description as archivists. The arguably political warning label put on the Constitution and other founding documents makes the supposedly non-partisan National Archives look anything but. And from a psychological standpoint, trigger warnings have little effect or can adversely cue people into feeling offense they wouldn't otherwise have had. Instead of whitewashing or apologizing for the past, we should put it out there and continue to learn from it.
Hopefully, anyone visiting the Archives is aware the Constitution was not written yesterday and uses the language of its time. It's insulting to people's intelligence to try and rewrite or soften any historical fact or document that might possibly offend someone. Free humans in a free society are not free from the potential of offense. That's not how freedom works.
The National Archives warning labels seem to imply these documents are somehow inherently flawed or racist. Certainly, America, just as every nation before it, is not perfect. But the freedoms and ideals enshrined in our founding documents are the best that humans have ever put together and were completely radical at the time. The Founding Fathers, whatever their individual faults since they are human as we are, devised a system of government and founded the freest country in the world in which people from every nation clamor to join. Rather than undermining our country's founding and values, the National Archives should stick to preserving the documents that created the greatest democracy in the world and presenting them to the public without comment.
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