About Corazon

Friday, May 18, 2012

"Separate" Does Not Mean "Equal"

Revisiting Plessy v. Ferguson
in the 21st Century

I am always fascinated to hear people today complaining about the Supreme Court.  For whatever reason, it seems as though a large number of Americans these days esteem our Supreme Court as a group of corrupt, disinterested socialites who care more about individual status than about delivering justice.  And while I am certain that some Supreme Court justices of the modern era have given a less-than-stellar performance while in office, I firmly believe that the past 2-3 generations of Americans have been blessed to have (overall) a strong Supreme Court.  Of course, I am not suggesting that our judges (and their decisions) have been perfect.  Far from it.  Mistakes have been made and I am sure that with the 20/20 hindsight of history, future generations will come to question a number of the court decisions made in our day.  With that said, I again maintain that the past couple of generations has been very fortunate to have the justices and court decisions that we have seen. 

Sadly, the same cannot be said of past generations.  During the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, Americans witnessed first-hand how the decisions of the highest court of our land could utterly devastate a nation and its people. Cases like Elk v. Wilkins in 1884, which essentially stated that Native Americans could not become American citizens and were considered "less human" than Whites.  Or the 1927 case Buck v. Bellwhich granted mental health institutions the right to sterilize the "unfit" and "mentally retarded" for the "protection and health of the state."  And then there is the infamous 1857 case, Dread Scott v. Sandford (in my opinion, the worst Supreme Court decision ever), which essentially held that African American slaves were to be considered as "property" rather than people, and that any fugitive slave was to be returned to his/her rightful "owner" without question.

And today we have the honor (or better put, responsibility) to recognize another shameful decision from our nation's past.  116 years ago today, the Supreme Court rejected the petitions of one Homer Plessy, who years earlier had attempted to travel from New Orleans to Covington, La. on a "White Only" railroad car.  Plessy, who was considered an "octoroon" (someone of seven-eighths Caucasian descent and one-eighth African descent) by his contemporaries, refused to be segregated based on his race and protested the railroad's policy of separating its passengers based on skin color.  Eventually, Plessy was escorted from the train and booked into jail where he began a campaign to eradicate the budding but still infant practice of racial segregation in the South.  Long story short, Plessy's case ended up making it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1896, where sadly his appeals fell on deaf ears.

In what has become one of the most important and atrocious legal cases in American history, Plessy v. Ferguson stated that there was nothing unlawful about a state, business or institution choosing to separate members of different races, so long as they provided the same goods/services to all.  In what became known as the doctrine of Separate but Equal, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was not in violation of the 14th Amendment (which prohibits local and state governments from depriving its citizens of life, liberty and property without due process) as Mr. Plessy had claimed, but that the railroad company (and anyone else who wanted to follow suit) was completely justified in choosing to keep the races apart from one another.  Needless to say, Plessy v. Ferguson paved the way for extreme racial inequality to once again rear its ugly head in the South.  And though the ruling stipulated that all separate goods/services needed to also be equal, reality is that Southern governments refused to provide anything resembling equality for Blacks.  In short, racial segregation and inequality became standard operating procedure in the South. 

For nearly 60 years, Plessy v. Ferguson and its gospel of "Separate but Equal" kept the South from seeing things in any other way but Black and White.  It wasn't until 1954 and Brown v. Board of Education that the chains of segregation would finally start to come off.  And as we are all aware, the struggle to eradicate segregation from America took more than a Supreme Court decision to accomplish. It was only after decades of petition, protest, blood, hate and pain that the scars of segregation began to fade away (some rightfully maintain that those scars are still visible today).   This was the shameful legacy of Plessy v. Ferguson.

But thankfully we live in a more "civilized" world today...

...right?

After all, we would NEVER think of repeating those painful lessons of "Separate but Equal."

Or would we?
--When we suggest "separate but equal" health care for any patient in need, we are forgetting Plessy v. Ferguson.

--When we implement "separate but equal" laws for illegal immigrants, we are forgetting Plessy v. Ferguson.

--When we demand "separate but equal" schools and/or funding for affluent neighborhoods v. the inner city, we are forgetting Plessy v. Ferguson.

--When we recommend "separate but equal" tax rates for the rich and the poor, we are forgetting Plessy v. Ferguson.

--When we believe in "separate but equal" restrictions for those of a different religion than our own (i.e. the New York mosque), we are forgetting Plessy v. Ferguson.

--When we preach "separate but equal" laws for those in the LGBT community, we are forgetting Plessy v. Ferguson.
In short, whenever we seek to divide humanity because of our perceived differences, we will be sure to reap our own hell.  Life is hard enough.  Why would anyone want to endure it all alone?  Sorry, but you cannot "divide" and "conquer" and the same time.  We don't have the luxury of simply changing the rules for those we don't like and/or understand.  Such an action is the epitome of bigotry. 

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