America’s New Three-Fifths Compromise

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Zack JohnsonZack Johnson is an undeclared freshman.

The original Three-Fifths Compromise passed in late 18th Century America as a way of collecting more accurate census and taxation information for the states at the time. It was agreed collectively—both in the north and south—that slaves would be individually counted as three-fifths of a human within the new system, and populations would be recounted every ten years. The Three-Fifths Compromise lasted nearly one hundred years until the abolition of slavery in 1865.

Despite quietly celebrating the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in 2015, we must still acknowledge an equally problematic conflict that continues to perpetuate a similarly archaic institution of discrimination, as social inequality remains equally pervasive more than a century later.

Success in our nation can roughly be attributed to five factors: race, gender identity, socioeconomic status, English literacy, and native origin. There are of course exceptions to this system with men and women who have succeeded beyond their physical or societally imposed limitations. Yet the average person lacking or having any variation within any of these categories must, unfortunately, assume the role of a second, third, fourth, or perhaps even fifth-class citizen. They must assume their own modern-day Three-Fifths Compromise.

As a white, upper middle-class male born in Oregon and taught English from birth, my status as an American—or better yet, my non-existent status as a threat to American society—has never been questioned. I have never needed to explain my gender to another person, I have never been told to go back to my own country, and I have never once been pursued among the multitude of times I have worn a hooded sweatshirt in public. My compromise, my assumption of anything less than the best offered by American society, has remained nonexistent.

A successful, black, female graduate of Harvard born in New York City may indeed thrive in her day-to-day life, but her Four-Fifths Compromise may result in a store clerk accusing her of theft, despite her six-figure salary. For a bilingual, Hispanic, unemployed, transgendered woman born in Seattle, her Two-Fifths Compromise may result in repeated public humiliation, or perhaps even her murder.

Personal struggle is as unique to each human as it is similar between various peoples. When talk of white privilege circulates through the mouths of Americans, it rarely acknowledges the many other—in this case, four—categories of American acceptance by which success is often determined. While race is perhaps the most blatant and widely suffered compromise in our nation, the remaining prove to be equally inhibitory towards personal success.

The poignantly eerie societal similarities between 19th century America and 21st century America unfortunately extend far beyond prejudice. The same inability to look beyond outward appearance, the nonsensically futile stressing of the English language, and the bastardization of “the other” all remain powerful cornerstones of American culture.

As a nation of often non-compromising citizens, it is unsurprising that these problems remain. However, what continues to surprise us all is the backlash many make simply to be acknowledged as Five-Fifths humans. Even more puzzling and aggravatingly unanswerable, why must we compromise others in the first place?

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