On Friday, June 29, the Philadelphia Inquirer had a disturbing juxtaposition of headlines. At the top of the page were the words “Justices limit race-based school plans,” referring to Thursday’s Supreme Court Ruling invalidating programs in Seattle and Louisville that were designed to maintain racial balance by regulating transfers to schools on the basis of race. Right below was the headline “Immigration Bill Crushed,” referring to the vote in the U.S. Senate that defeated Pres. Bush’s second attempt at passing an immigration bill. While referring to different issues, both events seem to point to a new challenge in the civil rights struggle.
In the Supreme Court Case, from all appearances the decision reverses the intent of the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, KS case, which called for the racial desegregation of schools. Yet, Chief Justice Roberts used the 1954 decision to justify the recent court’s decision, saying it was “more faithful to the heritage of Brown.” He went on to say that the U.S. Constitution is “color blind when it comes to race.” What Constitution is he referring to? Is this the Constitution that mandated that African slaves be counted as 3/5 of a person in 1787? Or the one that made slavery legal until 1806? Or the Constitution that was used to justify Jim Crow laws and mandated “separate but equal” (they maintained the separate but not equal part of that)? Is this the Constitution that had to be challenged in the 1954 decision and the 1963 Civil Rights legislation? Now true all of these laws have been changed or repealed, but my point is that the U. S. Constitution has repeatedly been used to justify all sorts of prejudicial and discriminatory actions against people of color. Did Judge Roberts consult the NAACP, the Urban League or the any number of civil rights organizations whose mission it is to monitor the progress of laws like Brown? To suggest that the Constitution has not been used to support white privilege and white power is to deny history, and to not be vigilant to insidious ways racism creeps into our thinking.
Which brings me to the immigration debate. As I have said on this blog, I am no fan of the current immigration legislation. I think any bill that is currently being debated ignores the larger regional issues creating the current situation. However, conservative opponents referred to the proposed guest worker program as “amnesty.” The proposed guest worker program required that undocumented immigrants to pay hefty fines and reapply every two years. I thought “amnesty” was when you got off without penalty, when there were no repercussions for one’s crimes? Paying fines with money you don’t have (especially when you are being paid substandard wages to start with) and being forced to leave the country to reapply, sounds pretty punitive to me.
Now granted, the bill was opposed by both liberals and conservatives, and had many problems with it. But I think there is something deeper going on in this use of the word “amnesty.” Senator Ted Kennedy who supported the bill, along with a number of people across the political spectrum, compared the current immigration debate to the civil rights struggle of the 1950’s and 1960’s. I think Senator Kennedy is on target.
Herein lies the connection between the Supreme Court case and the Senate vote. Even as a certain element of our society seeks to roll back the gains of civil rights, we are facing another civil rights challenge. While most whites in this country like to think we have “put racism behind us” (a contention most people of color would dispute), for some reason we keep tripping over the fact that our society does not treat people of different races equally. For example, in a side bar to the article on the court case, the Inquirer said the court decision would have “little impact” on the Philadelphia region, because we have “residential segregation.” That’s a euphemistic way of saying Philadelphia proper is overwhelmingly poor and people of color, while the suburbs are overwhelmingly white and middle class. We’ve made integration darn near impossible because the kids are in separate, but very unequal, school districts. Racism, legally supported is alive and well.
I wish I had some solutions to these civil rights challenges; like many I keep seeking and listening. In particular I am willing to listen when people of color and civil rights organizations who tell me that any progress we have made in this area is being reversed. Furthermore, I suspect the challenges we face in the current immigration issue are of the same magnitude as the Brown vs. Board of Education case was in 1954. With the way current events have gone, it appears we have cycled back around and haven’t made as much progress as those of us who are white would like to think we have.