Filed Under:  OpEd, Opinion

Plessy Redux

5th May 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Dr. E. Faye Williams
TriceEdneyWire.com Columnist

Often the most insignificant, simple statements ring the truest in our lives. Appropriately, that well-worn admonition, “It’s the little things that will kill you,” rings true as I survey my world this week. I should, however, re-state that while the things that may kill us are not insignificant or simple, the attention or significance that many of us give or place upon them is frequently minimal.

A clear example of this is the aftermath of an event that occurred on May 18, 1896. On that day, the Supreme Court of the United States rendered a decision in the case of Homer Adolf Plessy v. Ferguson. This single decision affirmed the concept of “Separate But Equal,” codified institutional discrimination and gave legitimacy to the practice of personal race-based discrimination.

Since that date, this country has been wrestling with, attempting to escape or trying to ignore the legacy of this 7-1 decision which has infected and plagued its social development. Nearly 60 years passed before a succeeding Supreme Court took action with the Brown v. Board decision of 1954 that had the effect of beginning to reverse the travesty of Plessy.

From 1954 to the present, individuals of honorable and truthful character have acknowledged the broad and detrimental impact of Plessy upon the circumstance of the African-American community. Most contemporary observers will also acknowledge that the institutional discrimination spawned by that decision is still in existence, to greater or lesser extent, in institutional pockets remediated only by access.

In his own way, each U.S. President from FDR to Barack Obama has undertaken efforts to shift the scales of this inequity. All of these men expressed a measure of understanding that a meritorious race could not be run with one competitor starting running under the burden of the weight of discrimination. Even Richard Nixon, who is not known as a champion or friend of civil rights and social justice, is credited with giving the concept of affirmative action functional “teeth.” It was Nixon who in the 70s, established requirements for mandatory reporting of the achievement of targeted milestones and goals.

Jump now over time and circumstance to Tuesday, April 22, 2014, when the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a decision on a Michigan case, Schuette v. BAMN. This decision, as asserted by the e-Washington Times, “upheld a state electorate’s right to ban the use of race in public university admissions, a decision that rekindles the debate over affirmative action in an election year and could clear the way for ballot initiatives across America.”

Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts is famously known for his cavalier statement, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” As intellectually accurate as his statement may be, it is disingenuous as it discounts the lingering consequences of years of institutional (and personal) discrimination suffered by African Americans. The Court’s decision securely locks legal remedy at a point in time when, as a society, we are still grasping for remedies to the inequities that shape our collective lives.

The Times continued its reporting by saying, “The justices, in a 6-2 ruling, said they had no authority to strike down a Michigan law that allowed voters to decide in 2006 that race-based preferences should play no role in public education, hiring and contracting. Reaction to the court’s decision made it clear that decades-old battle lines over affirmative action are still in place and could influence decisions at the ballot box for years to come.”

Like the Plessy Court of 1896, the current Court’s decision appears to be another step down the slippery slope of intuitional discrimination. As the Times states, we must allow The Court’s actions to influence our decisions at the ballot box. True!

This article originally published in the May 5, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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