Monday, October 27, 2014

Faint Praise for Plessy v. Ferguson

“It was brutal.”
My seatmate was a black woman whose sophisticated demeanor had impressed me for weeks years ago as we would wait on the platform for our train home, and I have never regretted eventually getting up the courage to start a conversation with her. An activities manager for a corporation well known in medical circles, she grew up in rural Virginia, in a cinder-block house with a wood stove and no running water, and attended segregated schools for all but one year before college. While I grew up believing that segregation was bad and integration was good and that was that, it was not the years in segregated schools that she was calling brutal, but her year in seventh grade in an integrated school.
When I asked for stories about the brutality of that year, she told of constant comments from the white kids and being shot with water pistols one day on the school bus, and never having a white girl partner with her in PE. To a sixty-something white man it didn’t sound too bad, but I’m open to the idea that to a twelve-year-old black girl it would have been enough to make school literally dreadful.
The best part of that year was when she won the spelling bee. (Maybe it happened more than once.) I picture a twelve-year-old black girl standing in front of the class, hair in pigtails to her shoulders, a simple button-down dress with a small frill on the collar, and a look of simple satisfaction—not gloating, not anger, not contempt—on her face. I’m probably nowhere close to the truth, but I like that picture. What she did tell me was that it seemed to her that the white kids on her team in the bee would rather have had their team lose than to have it win because a black kid was the last standing. Even I can agree that that must have hurt.
The chorus to my favorite Bob Dylan song is, “Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.” When I was “older,” I was taught that Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decision that legitimized (i.e., assured government entities who practiced it immunity from prosecution for) racial segregation, was horrible. “Separate but equal” is never equal, I was told. And being young and wanting to pave a road with good intentions, I never questioned the unstated assumption that equal meant good and just. But now that I’m “younger,” I’d like to question the assumption.
Let’s look at the justice question first. My seatmate was part of a small minority of blacks in her community. If we peg the black community at 25% of the population and 25% of the kids in the school district, and if we further assume that the white families had an average of twice the income of the black families, and if the property taxes that funded the schools were assessed at a flat rate according to property value, we have the whites enrolling 75% of the students but paying 86% of the costs. (If the whites earned more than twice as much as the blacks or the taxes were assessed on a “progressive” scale, the discrepancy is larger.) To the degree that whites saw themselves as different from blacks—and let’s limit the discussion to only the sorts of differences that whites see between themselves and other whites, perhaps in areas like remedial reading—is it not understandable and reasonable that they would want separate schools for their children?
I’m not defending the system. I don’t know how to balance “What do those who never owned slaves owe those who were never slaves?” with the measurable after-effects of slavery andJim Crow. I’m simply saying that just as well-meaning Christians today pave the road to hell with well-intended collateral damage in the Muslim world and votes for school levies and other practices that violate the Golden Rule at home, we should consider the possibility that the Christians who defended Jim Crow truly wanted to “do justice and love mercy.” That the system they built was unjust is beyond question, but as is the case today, there was a kernel of justice in there somewhere that may have dulled otherwise well-honed taste buds.

One place they went wrong was in their belief in the legitimacy of the state. It was the state that had made slavery possible, including but not limited to the Father of Our Country his very se’f signing the Fugitive Slave Law that necessitated the extension of the Underground Railroad from the Mason-Dixon Line and Ohio River to the border with Canada. It was the state that then made Jim Crow possible. Political corruption in the Bible belt being no phenomenon new to our day, we can assume that even in the community imagined earlier, the black families would have paid 14% or more of the actual taxes gathered and gotten less than 14% of the budget. What apart from a belief in the legitimacy of the state would lead anyone to believe that the blacks should have been paying their school taxes to the white power structure to begin with? My friend’s victory in the integrated spelling bee—this was after six years in a “separate but unequal” school, don’t forget—is all the evidence I need to state with confidence that the blacks left to their own could have educated their children adequately in a system of their own device, without “help” from the white establishment.
That spelling bee was won during Martin Luther King’s heyday. Since then, Dr. King’s dream of integration—or at least the government-enforced means by which he expected to see it come to fruition—has come to pass. I have yet to hear anyone say that black people as a whole (as though one can rationally put all black people in the same box) are better off as a result. Some are better off, of course, but I suspect those are mostly people who crossed racial lines stompin’ at the Savoy or participating in some other meritocracy or, like my seatmate, simply learned to serve their neighbors in voluntary interactions. The most visible symbol of state-enforced integration, for one, did not fare well, and the story can be repeated many times.
If our first responsibility after loving God is to love our neighbors as ourselves, to treat them the way we would want them to treat us, and to respect their bodies, property, reputations, and trust, that pretty much limits our use of lethal force against those not proven to be murderers and thieves to when our lives are in immediate danger (Ex 22:2). No matter how well intentioned they may be, state-enforced slavery, apartheid, and integration are all out of bounds. Absent the state, all three are also absent.
In such a society not everyone would choose to cross racial or other cultural lines. Sometimes those who would like to cross lines will find themselves unwelcome. As Christians, of course, we have been commanded to cross the ultimate cultural line, to engage people who see no reason to embrace our Lord, and we are rarely welcome. I would suggest, however, that whether our intended audience is jihadists, Klansmen, or the person in the next seat, we are more likely to succeed in our mission if we come with a “tell me your story” than with the state’s clunky armor (1 Sam 17:38-39).

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