Jim Crow dressed up in multicultural drag

It’s more than 50 years since the landmark Brown case challenged the segregation of blacks and whites in American schools. Yet under the yoke of multiculturalism, new, liberal-justified forms of segregation are rife.

Various Authors

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Before the 1960s, American blacks faced all kinds of formal discrimination. Blacks were denied equal access to housing, banned from marrying whites, and excluded from certain occupations (including professional sports) and from many educational institutions.

A system of state and local laws collectively known as the Jim Crow laws enforced most of this segregation. The Jim Crow era began at the end of the American Civil War (1865) and was enacted largely, though not only, in the Southern and Border States of America. Notoriously, Jim Crow laws segregated public schools, public places, public transportation, restrooms and restaurants. Formally, Jim Crow was meant to ensure that ‘coloured only’ facilities would be ‘separate but equal’. In reality, coloured-only facilities were inferior and Jim Crow formalised economic and social discrimination and disadvantage for blacks.

One of the earliest challenges against ‘separate but equal’ measures occurred in 1892, when Homer Plessy bought a first-class rail ticket from New Orleans but was refused access to his seat because he was black. Plessy fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court. He lost in 1896 when the court ruled that ‘separate but equal’ was constitutional. This was a typical outcome for challenges to segregation before the end of the Second World War, but attitudes shifted after the war. Blacks and whites had both fought and suffered great injury and loss in Europe and the Pacific, and it was difficult to argue for freedom abroad with such obvious unfreedoms at home.

A landmark postwar case was that of Brown v Board of Education of Topeka (1954) – as discussed in the new book Commemorating Brown: The Social Psychology of Racism and Discrimination, written and edited by a group of American academics. The Brown case was the result of a class action lawsuit filed against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas, by 13 Topeka parents on behalf of their 20 children. The Kansas District Court ruled for the Board of Education and cited the Plessy case to uphold ‘separate but equal’ facilities for blacks.

The parents appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. Remarkably, the Topeka Board of Education chose not to defend its position before the Supreme Court and left the burden of defence to the state attorney general’s office. As Lawrence S Wrightsman explains in Commemorating Brown, staff at the state attorney general’s office were also not emphatic in their defence, feeling that ‘racial segregation in the public schools of any Kansas community was morally, politically, and economically indefensible’. Consistent with this view, the Topeka Board of Education began to end segregation in its elementary schools in 1953 before the Supreme Court reached its historic decision. Evidently the Kansas state case was lost before it was heard. On 17 May 1954, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous (9-0) decision stating that ‘separate educational facilities are inherently unequal’.

The Supreme Court ruling reflected the shift in public attitudes towards blacks, but the Brown ruling still met with much opposition, especially in the Southern states. Virginia closed schools to prevent integration and Arkansas used the state’s National Guard physically to block black students’ access to Little Rock High School. Most notoriously, Alabama’s governor George Wallace personally blocked access to the University of Alabama against two black students trying to enrol in 1963. This was Wallace’s ‘Stand at the Schoolhouse Door’ and his personal attempt to enforce a policy of ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act eventually forced Brown on to Southern states. In 1965, Francis Keppel, the commissioner of education in the Lyndon Johnson administration, told all public school districts to establish and carry out plans for substantial desegregation by the fall of 1967 or risk loss of federal funds.

Commemorating Brown, as the title implies, views the Brown decision as positive, but there is always a danger in placing decisions into court hands. Although it can make tactical sense to aim for progressive change through the courts, there is the problem of allowing the authorities to control the pace and nature of change while excluding those directly involved. In an important sense, the 1954 decision lost the battle for equality because it shifted the battle away from the struggle of blacks to become equal citizens and towards influencing nine Supreme Court judges to decide against segregation.

Later efforts were then necessary to persuade the federal government to enforce the decisions of the Supreme Court. Blacks and their white sympathisers were present but increasingly sidelined to the role of a stage army, brought in to push the pace of reform when necessary, but discouraged from winning the arguments on the ground and prevented from driving the social and economic change necessary for equality. Black leaders compromised their political independence and autonomy for gains that were too small to succeed. And ending formal discrimination without economic change left blacks segregated by poverty.

The arguments for desegregating the public schools were a safe distance from arguing against economic disparity, but even this argument was not principled. Segregated schools that provide substandard education to people with the wrong coloured skin are unjust. But instead of winning that argument on principle, the arguments presented to the Supreme Court highlighted inconsistencies with the American Constitution and the harms to black students’ well-being and to inter-group relations that school segregation provided. Desegregation was thus managed as a legal and psychological problem rather than as a political problem of inequality.

It is no surprise that school desegregation failed because of the way it was managed and because far too much was expected from it. The Supreme Court decision did not challenge the distance between blacks and whites, and so segregation reasserted itself in other ways. In chapter five of Commemorating Brown, Joe Feagin explains that the burden of early desegregation was perversely placed on the backs of black children entering the newly desegregated schools. They had no chance of acceptance, as one black former pupil of that era points out:

‘We had to learn their way of doing things – acting, talking, dressing – their way of being, but nobody was interested in our way. We wanted so badly to be accepted, we tried to do and be all they wanted and we were still rejected.’

Black children faced daily opposition to integration and found informal barriers of social exclusion erected to replace the former formal barriers of law. Segregation enforced itself in other ways. Instead of formal segregation between schools, there was segregation within schools because the students had such different backgrounds and status. The newly desegregated schools rejected the black kids and made them feel like second-class citizens, regardless of what the Supreme Court and federal government demanded.

The failure of desegregation remains evident and obvious in contemporary America. Anyone visiting America will quickly notice that there is a continuing black-white divide. The excellent HBO television series, The Wire, dramatises an extensive and continuing division of black from white in housing, schooling and opportunity (1).

However, it would be wrong, as Thomas Pettigrew explains in chapter three of Commemorating Brown, to suggest there has been no change since 1954. Unlike in 1954, there are now several thousand black Americans in public office, many more black Americans own their homes, and almost two-thirds attend college. Nevertheless, compared with white Americans of equal educational attainments, black workers today occupy lower status jobs on average and receive smaller earnings from their employment. There are those blacks who have benefited from the end of formal segregation, but many more that have not – and ‘central city ghettoes have grown larger, poorer and more desperate’. Those who live their lives behind bars or on the streets in America are disproportionately black. Brown even made little material difference to school segregation, with 70 per cent of black students still attending mainly black schools in 2000. Formal segregation has gone – and that is positive – but segregation remains nevertheless.

We share the frustration of the authors and editors of Commemorating Brown at the lack of change in contemporary America. It is remarkable, and remarkably wrong, that twenty-first century America, the richest and most powerful nation on Earth, has such an apparently intractable and corrosive race problem. We do not, however, share the authors’ view that the cause of this problem is the legacy of past oppression, an ongoing racial attitude by whites, and a cowardice and refusal to see through desegregation policies by the authorities.

David Sears argues in chapter eight that the current situation of blacks in America ‘reveals the force of their distinctive history’. There is some obvious truth in the argument that blacks faced particular historical barriers because of their coerced entry into America. Unlike other ethnic groups, who largely came to America of their own free will to forge a better future, blacks were mostly forced into the United States as slaves. Those who arrived of their own free will were likely more motivated to break free from their past and to overcome any barriers in their way than blacks who were forcibly relocated. Historically, blacks may have underachieved relative to other ethnic groups because of this difference.

It is important to recognise, however, that the past is just as negotiable as is the present, and past trauma does not have to grip the psyche of oppressed people’s descendants. It may be true that there is a human need for identity, and nobody can adopt ‘a view from nowhere’ (2), but identity is not fixed and views can change. Human beings do not reflexively adopt the views of the past and can release the past when necessary. The ability to forget is, as Nietzsche put it, ‘a form of robust health’ (3). Those who anticipate a better future, and see the causes of their problems as rooted in the fabric of today rather than yesterday, are able to decide their goals and calculate their way towards those goals. They can leave the past where it belongs in order to follow an alternate future.

A refusal to leave slavery and Jim Crow behind means that they stay with us and we continue to see the world in terms of colour. Furthermore, the desire to legislate for race relations gives further substance to the idea of race and, ironically, ensures that problems continue to be seen in terms of colour.

The authors of Commemorating Brown support affirmative action in an attempt to correct the continuing segregation of black Americans. Wrightsman, for example, supports preferential admission of blacks to university because ‘the stark reality is that if top tier law schools used only LSAT scores and grade point averages to determine admissions, very few blacks would qualify’. The aim is admirable and there is undoubtedly a case for including soft admission variables that might help a university realise potential. There is a problem, however, in adopting technical and arbitrary solutions to political problems that require a collective and social response. It is especially problematic when those technical solutions hide the real political issues and mask the aim to admit a quota of blacks no matter what their potential.

The poor performance of blacks in secondary education should lead to an argument to augment education, address inadequate housing and opportunities and create a true level playing field. Instead, American universities argue that they need more blacks than they can admit on merit in order to preserve diversity. Black admission supports social engineering rather than the normal expansion of the student body, emphasising blacks’ unusual and separate character and further underlining racial division.

Affirmative action continues the effort to force change by technical and legal means rather than by argument and on-the-ground action. Inevitably these efforts are breeding resentment and challenge. Critically, however, it isn’t the 1960s anymore, which is good and bad. The good is that society is rhetorically committed to anti-racism, and formal regulations of the truly prejudiced kind are rare bordering on extinct. Sears rightly points out that it is simply inconceivable that modern government officials ‘would call for restoration of formal and legalized racial segregation in any domain of life. Nearly the entire White public now supports the principle of racial equality, at least in the abstract’.

The bad is that this commitment to anti-racism is not allied to any belief that society can and should be changed. Instead there is a frank pessimism regarding the possibilities for change and a strong sense of limits and fixed opportunities. The conservative version of the story describes a racially divided America because of the inability of blacks to achieve what their white counterparts achieve (4). But this view is almost entirely without support. The liberal view is that differences are a natural result of our multicultural society. Sears argues that ‘a strong sense of group identity is cognitively inescapable, an important foundation for individual self-esteem, and a permanent part of one’s identity’. Thus Sears expresses a desire to manage society in order to adapt to these identities in a pluralistic, multicultural manner. Disturbingly, the modern multiculturalist outlook is allied to a disgust at stupid, prejudiced white people who cannot leave their hatred behind.

Ironically, ‘separate but equal’ is back with us but it is now expressed as a liberal ideal. Multiculturalism defines us in terms of our unique cultural identity – as if we are pieces of ancient porcelain rattling together. The opportunities for communication, and to create something new beyond race identity, are seen as being limited, if not impossible. Blacks and whites are thus seen as two separate groups whose identity should be mutually respected and accepted, not in a ‘separate but equal’ arrangement, but within the same institutions.

The problem, of course, is how to manage inevitable tensions and differences that will arise because of the inability of different cultures, especially whites, to be rational and civil enough to get along with others inside those institutions. The solution that Commemorating Brown provides, as far as we can tell, is for social psychologists to impose an agreement and provide a pathway towards social reconstruction. That pathway involves granting positions of authority to ensure a racial balance, which is justified because American whites are blinded by racism and American blacks are damaged by the legacy of slavery. The ability of Americans to be rational, at least about race, is thus denied – and this lack of rationality apparently justifies the need for imposition over democracy. We believe that this approach to race relations in America will be ineffective, if not disastrous – leading, at best, to a continued stand-off between well-defined racial groups that have no obvious incentive to challenge those definitions.

Stuart Derbyshire is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Birmingham. Anand Raja is reading Psychology at the University of Birmingham.

Commemorating Brown: The Social Psychology of Racism and Discrimination, by Glenn Adams, Monica Biernat, Nyla R. Branscombe, Christian S. Crandall, Lawrence S. Wrightsman (eds) is published by the American Psychological Association. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) See The Wire‘s homepage on HBO.

(2) The View From Nowhere, Thomas Nagel, Oxford University Press, 1989

(3) The Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche, Vintage Books, 1967

(4) The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, Richard J Herrnstein and Charles Murray, Free Press, 1996

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