Race Still Warps American Reality

May 16, 1996 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson. The 1896 case of Homer Plessy involved the constitutionality of a Louisiana law that required separate accommodations for white and “colored” railroad passengers. This is the case that birthed the “Separate but Equal” legal doctrine which allowed southern states with large black populations to codify laws requiring racial segregation. These laws, in the vernacular called “Jim Crow”… after a popular antebellum minstrel show character…gave constitutional protection to white racial dominance in all aspects of social, civic and political life.

Plessy, a citizen of Louisiana, was arrested for refusing to obey the conductor’s order to sit in the car assigned to blacks. After his conviction in state court, Plessy appealed his case to the U. S. Supreme Court claiming that Louisiana’s law violated the “Equal Protection” clause of the 14th amendment to the constitution.

Writing for a seven member majority affirming the Louisiana court’s decision, Justice Henry Brown declared: “The object of the Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law.” He continued “…but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality.”

Writing in dissent of the Plessy decision, Justice John Marshall Harlan penned his famous “our constitution is color-blind” phrase. He wrote; “In respect to civil rights all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as a man and takes no account of his color when his civil rights, as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.”

In 1954, 58 years after Justice Harlan wrote the Plessy dissent, the U. S. Supreme Court overturned Plessy in formulating Brown vs. Board of Education. In the Brown decision, a unanimous court declared racial segregation unconstitutional. Americans of African ancestry celebrated the Brown decision as an end to a second class status in America.

The jubilation Brown brought Black Americans was short lived. Many are disappointed with the reality of Justice Harlan’s long awaited color-blind America. For nearly six decades after the Plessy decision, black and civil rights groups argued in the courts for the legal color-blind principle. They believed a color-blind constitution to be the best weapon against unequal treatment.

However, when today’s Supreme Court ruled that congressional districts drawn along racial boundaries are unconstitutional because such districts violate the color-blind principle, supporters cry foul. In an article for Emerge Magazine, Mary Frances Berry, Chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, describes legal color blindness as a “stalking-horse for black exclusion.” She says, “it has been protective coloration for continued racism and denial of opportunity to poor and middle class African-Americans.”

In Alabama, 42 years after Brown and 100 years after Plessy, society continues to grapple with race as the central issue defining our politics. Case in point: State Representative John Knight, who is black, held hearings investigating a white member of Governor Fob James’ cabinet, who according to witnesses’ testimony targeted black legislators for income tax audits and used racial slurs while during so. In addition, who could forget Mayor Emory Folmar’s “Montgomery Team” during the last election?” The mayor’s all white team won.

However, just when it looked as if white political power was again dominant at both, Montgomery City Hall and the Alabama Capitol, Montgomery Councilman, Joe Reed, who is black, put together a black and white coalition of state senators and demonstrated otherwise. The Joe Reed biracial coalition in the Alabama senate soundly defeated Governor James’ appointment of Emory Folmar to the Board of the historically black, Alabama State University. Mr. Reed serves as chairman of the university’s board of directors and opposed the governor’s appointment of Mayor Folmar to that body.

Today, as it was a century ago, race remains a national obsession. As society moves closer to color blindness, many fear loss of personal identity, selfhood and status, others fear loss of heritage, culture and community. Like looking through curved glass, race distorts reality. Some whites see color blindness as returning to days before affirmative action, during the times when there were no requirements to hire or promote blacks. At the same time, some blacks see color blindness as an end to white discrimination against black people in most aspects of economic, political and social life. In both these views of color-blindness, race warps the reality of a hundred years of progress toward eliminating racism.


Originally Published: 2 May 1996, Montgomery Advertiser

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