Wednesday, April 14, 2010

reflections on Brown v. Board of Education

Reflections on Brown v. Board of Education

As we begin this class, The Civil Rights Era in America, I see myself as a white, Southern, liberal, especially in the area of race relations. As is stated in a summary on page 201 in James T. Patterson’s book Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone And Its Troubled Legacy of what integrationists believe, I think the educational achievement gap between black and white children narrows in integrated schools. I think the seed of tolerance grows in white children who go to school with black children. I think the South has become racially more harmonious since the Brown decision. I think the Brown decision helped liberate not only black people but also white people. I think school desegregation made a way for whites to begin to become more understanding of blacks and for blacks to begin to become more understanding of whites.
I have lived for 40 years. For the past 13 years, since I read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time, I have tried to follow in the footsteps of Atticus Finch in the matter of race relations. Because of who Atticus was and what he did in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, he was in a position of power. Because of who Tom Robinson was in the segregated South, he was in a situation of oppression. Atticus used his power to defend Tom. There is a wonderful scene in the book where the all white jury has returned an unjust verdict against Tom. Atticus begins to wearily walk out of the courthouse. Jem, Dill, and Scout are in the balcony with the black folks of the town.

Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle.
“Miss Jean Louise?”
I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylors’s:
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

I have hoped to use the power I have as a white person in American society to help those who are in situations of oppression, especially from black folks. I have hoped to gain trust and respect from the oppressed as Atticus gained from the black people in Maycomb.
I was touched when I read in our book about Levi Pearson, a black man who was a farmer and a father of three children in black schools in Clarendon County, South Carolina in 1948 who simply asked the authorities for buses to carry his children to their schools and who was punished by the white community for his perceived impudence by not being able to find a white farmer who would lend him a harvester to bring in his beans, oats, and wheat. He risked his life and the lives of his wife and children to cry out for justice. He faced fear with faith, hope, and love. His belief was not only theory but also practice. It occurred to me as I read this story that I as a white person and all white people should stand for Levi Pearson.
As I read the book I was confronted with the question, “Why should black people (or any people of color) integrate into white culture?” Is white culture superior to black culture? Were black institutions inferior to white institutions simply because they were led by black people? Why were black people expected to integrate into white institutions instead of white people integrating into black institutions? I am still working my way through this confrontation.
I lived in a small, rural village in Mali, West Africa from 1997 until 2000. This was the only time in my life when I was a “minority.” As I reflect on my life there I remember how kind my African friends were to me, how many people offered me the best chair in their courtyards and cooked chicken, goat meat, and beef for me even though meat is a luxury in that part of the world. I was a white male teacher from America among black subsistence farmers in West Africa and, even though I was different in race, class, and culture, I was accepted as an equal into their society and lives.
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if my African friend Momadu, who is my age, moved to the Upstate of South Carolina for three years. What would happen if he walked into a middle class, white neighborhood? Would he be cared for there? Would he be accepted as an equal into my society and life?
I think justice was done in the Brown decision – the Supreme Court rightfully led America down the path of desegregation. With the decision the Justices shined a light on “racism” in America, and by “racism” I mean the use power (cultural, political, and economic) to oppress people because of the color of their skin. No longer could people hold the “theory” that white people were supreme to people of color and “practice” that theory by using their power to bar people of color from having access to every cultural, political, educational, economic opportunity in American society.
I also do not think justice was done in the Brown decision – the Supreme Court did not lead America down the path of integration. With the decision the Justices did not say along with Justice Marshall Harlan, the one-time Kentucky slave owner who had issued the lone dissent in the Plessy v. Ferguson case (1896) that had made “separate but equal” the law of the land, “Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows or tolerates classes among its citizens.” They did not say segregation is wrong because America offers “freedom and justice for all”, because all people (red, yellow, black, brown, and white) are human beings who have human rights and all people are equal. The Justices said that segregation was wrong but they did not say integration was right.

- I shall tell you one thing, Msimangu continued. Many of the things that he said are true.
He stopped in the street and spoke quietly and earnestly to his companion. Because the white man has power, we too want power, he said. But when a black man gets power, when he gets money, he is a great man if he is not corrupted. I have seen it often. He seeks power and money to put right what is wrong, and when he gets them, why, he enjoys the power and the money. Now he can gratify his lusts, now he can arrange ways to get white man’s liquor, he can speak to thousands and hear them clap their hands. Some of us think when we have power, we shall revenge ourselves on the white man who has had power, and because our desire is corrupt, we are corrupted, and the power has no heart in it. But most white men do not know this truth about power, and they are afraid lest we get it.
He stood as though he was testing his exposition. Yes, that is right about power, he said. But there is only one thing that has power completely, and that is love. Because when a man loves, he seeks no power, and therefore he has power. I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it.
He was grave and silent, and then he said somberly, I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.

I think the Brown decision brought the possibility of hope to American society for those who dream Martin Luther King’s dream. But I think the hope will be deferred until white people and black people, desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only the good of our country, come together to work for it. I think hope will be deferred until we love each other.

Other wonderings:

Whenever I try to think my way and feel my way through matters of “race”, I inevitably question matters of “class” as well. I wonder if struggles over racial issues hinder us from struggling through class issues in our society. Does poverty damage an individual in a more hurtful way than does race?
As a teacher in training, I am intrigued by the idea of “neighborhood schools”. Though I do still see myself as a white, Southern liberal who believes integration helps us understand each other and helps us learn to work together for a common good, I wonder if busing black children to white neighborhoods is as good for the children and their families than providing excellent schools in black neighborhoods that are majority black schools. I need to work my way through these wonderings.
When my wife and I, with our two preschool children, chose our first house we intentionally chose to live in a multicultural neighborhood. Since I am a student and she works for the SC Department of Mental Health we did not have a choice to move into a middle to upper middle class neighborhood. We had to move into a working class neighborhood.
I once heard that the definition of “prejudice” is “having disdain for a group of people because of the color of their skin” and that the definition of “racism” is “having disdain for a group of people because of the color of their skin along with power to hurt those people who are disdained.

Class discussion/ “Simple Justice” Reflection :

During our discussion of the movie “Simple Justice” and the book, we tried to think through the question, “Was the Brown decision constitutional.” We agreed that the decision was moral. Though I am not a constitutional scholar (as a matter of fact I learned in this discussion how little I know about the Constitution) I argued that the Brown decision was constitutional.
Central to my thinking on this question is an understanding of the Constitution as a “living” document, an organic document. When I think about constitutional questions I do not ask, “What were the framers of the Constitution thinking when they wrote the document?” We mentioned in class that when we come across the words “All men are created equal” in the Constitution the framers did not mean “all men” but they meant all white, male, landowners. So I do not think the framers’s thoughts about the words in the Constitution is as important as the words themselves.
By overturning Plessy v. Ferguson the Supreme Court made a decision that was true to the words of the Constitution. I think the Plessy decision was true to the interpretation by white, wealthy men of the words of the Constitution. That decision was rendered to protect the power (political, cultural, and socio-economic) of those men. When a group has power, that group will rarely agree to truly share their power. (This part of my thinking is based of political philosophy) I do not think the Plessy decision was about the possibility of a “separate but equal” society (is this utopian thinking on the political right?) but was meant to separate people of color and people of the lower classes from the powerful people in American society (white, wealthy males). In this case the interpretation of the words of the Constitution was used to oppress people. I think Justice Marshall Harlan understood this in his lone dissent in the Plessy decision when he wrote, “Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows or tolerates classes among its citizens.”
As I stated above, I think the Brown decision was true to the words of the Constitution. By stating that “separate but equal” was “inherently unequal” the Justices were true to the words of the Constitution, “All men (and women, I might add) are created equal.

Some of my classmates argued that the Brown decision was not constitutionally correct because it trumped the rights of states to make decisions about such issues through its legislatures. I think I understand part of the issue of “states rights,” being that people who form themselves into states need to be protected from the whims of kings who could use a centralized government to enforce those whims.
I wonder, though, how far the rights of states can be upheld. What if the people in a state passed through their legislature the dictum, “All black people are part monkey and must be kept in cages.” There must be some institution that could state, “This is not right and cannot be done.” I see the Supreme Court as this kind of institution, as an institution that can protect minorities in a society from the prejudices/racism of the majority.

Dr. Dunn told two moving stories about his experiences with integration in Missouri during the time of the Brown decision. One was about a black basketball player who won the game for the team but had to stay on the bus while his team celebrated the victory because the restaurant was segregated and the other was about his confrontation with a restaurant owner who would not allow “niggers” to come to a planned honor society dinner at his restaurant. Dr. Dunn told the man that the black members would definitely not be there because none of the members would be there. The owner lost several thousands of dollars because of his racism. Stories are vital to the understanding of an issue like The Civil Rights Movement in America.

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