A Cruel Distortion of History
The Roberts Supreme Court didn't reinstitute segregation as the law of the land in its recent ruling on Seattle's and Louisville's integration plans but in a land where schools are, in fact, still mostly segregated by race (and class), it does signal the death of integration; the end of King's dream; or at least, the abandonment of a means to a moral end envisioned by King.
To me, the most disturbing aspect about the Roberts Court's integration decision is the enshrining of a "cruel distortion of history," to borrow dissenting Justice Breyers' words.
The "cruel distortion," of course, is the appropriation of the Brown case and the dishonest neo-conservative claim to being the true heirs of the Civil Rights legacy.
As Professor Risa Goluboff put it in a recent Slate article, the Roberts Court transformed "an opinion championing racial equality (Brown) into one that countenances -- even requires -- continuing racial inequality and segregation in the name of the Constitution."
Ironically, the seeds for this co-optation were sown by Brown legal advocates themselves. Professor Goluboff notes: "the lawyers who directed the Brown litigation ... intentionally set aside the actual inequalities between black and white schools in favor of a blanket prohibition," leaving the door open for Roberts to utter the either naÃƒÂ¯ve or dishonest opinion that "the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."
Unfortunately, the Roberts reading of Brown fails to take into account the broader historical context. Brown was intended to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson, which was based on the legal premise that blacks were an inferior race. Brown was considered to be a starting point on the road to racial equality.
The trajectory was toward integration, as Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education (1969) -- defining what the Court meant by desegregating "at all deliberate speed" -- and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971) show.
We were heading down Redress Past Wrongs Road. The plan wasn't to stop at formal non-discrimination and adhere to a judicial view that pretends race doesn't exist, or that systemic discrimination doesn't limit Constitutionally-protected life-opportunities.
Some folks say the ruling is a victory for the neo-conservative ideal of a "colorblind society." I can see how laissez-faire libertarians find such illusions comforting but social conservatives?
If the wages of sin are death, like the Bible says -- and even the "saved" die -- then perpetual racial awareness is the price we all pay for the sin of the fathers, founding a nation on the basis of white supremacy and on the backs of black slaves.
Because race-consciousness is inextricably tied to white-skin privilege -- transmitting itself in one form or another in each successive generation -- the ideal of a "color-blind society" is no ideal at all. Colorblindom is a land unreachable traveling on a segregated Bus of Best-Wishes. The boat leaving for Colorblindtopia left a looooong time ago.
And, at this point in history, "color-blindness" is so far from the reality, it's not even desirable to be "colorblind."
How can anyone truly appreciate the courage of a Sojourner Truth or a Martin Luther King without "seeing" race? How can we truly understand the strength of character and the historical significance of a Jackie Robinson without "seeing" race? How can the irony of a Jesse Owens going to Nazi Germany and embarrassing Hitler by winning four gold medals be truly grasped without understanding the history-altering impact of race on real-world conditions and outcomes? Would there be blues or jazz or hip hop in a "color-blind" society?
And, more importantly, how can we "see" societal patterns of racial injustice with "color-blind" analyses?
While there's been progress in race relations, it's not the kind of progress where we ought to be congratulating each other. Don't forget, it's been less than a hundred years since black folk were being lynched every three days, on average; as hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- of gleeful white "Christians" crowded around a dead, mutilated, black body, amid family picnics.
Where have all the lynch mobs and their children gone? And what happened to all those whose silent complicity allowed such terrorism to carry on? They're not all dead. On what miraculous day (or week, or year, or decade) did white America have this huge change of heart?
Yes, the days of state-sanctioned segregation are still a thing of the past and integration may not be the ultimate answer. But being color-blind is no way forward.