The Supreme Court has decided that New Haven could not throw out the firemen’s exam because no African-American and only two Hispanic-American test takers passed the test. According to the Court it wasn’t discriminatory because the test wasn’t intended to be discriminatory.
Unfortunately it is easy to whitewash real discrimination by saying “he didn’t mean it” – a formula we all learned as kids. And the Supreme Court has been very consistent in saying no, they didn’t mean it, in situations in which the intention to discriminate was obvious. Perhaps just as unfortunate, the only way to check the hypocrisy of denying the obvious, is to look at what is obvious. But now that’s gone.
The Court wants us to believe that there are right and wrong ways of dealing with segregation and discrimination. In fact this Court has turned its wrath on every way of dealing with the problem for the past two decades. It blocked enforcement of anti-discrimination laws by imposing requirements for proving intent that insulated the most blatant forms of discrimination from legal redress. It blocked even the most mild forms of affirmative action and voluntary efforts to bring us together. And it has been finding parts of a growing list of anti-discrimination laws unconstitutional. Chief Justice Roberts says it is a sordid business to divide us by race – it is indeed a sordid business to prevent Americans from bridging that divide.
It seems to many that we have been dealing with segregation since 1954 and now it’s time to get back to normal and stop worrying about integrating America.
Actually that’s wrong on both ends. Integration has been an issue in America since the founding. Nineteenth century public schools were explicitly designed to bring Americans together by class, national origin and gender. To sustain an effective armed force, the military grappled with integrating Americans across national origin and native language almost as long. By the turn of the twentieth century, business was not only reaching out to customers of all kinds but developing programs to bring together an increasingly diverse immigrant work force. Their efforts were not conceived with time limits. Unity required more than lip service. Americans knew that republican government depended on coming to grips with our common humanity. So we have been dealing with integration for a long time – just not with regard to race..
The view that we have been wiping out discrimination ever since 1954 is also wrong. The goal of racial integration has been undermined since Brown v. Board, by explicit federal policy. It is well documented that federal agencies refused to guarantee loans and discouraged banks from making housing loans to blacks at the very same time that other federal, state and local agencies were busily involved in building highways to the new suburbs. Guess what that did to school integration.
To make things worse, so-called “urban renewal” tore down black neighborhoods where the working poor had established, functioning communities, and replaced them with high rise and dangerous housing units wherever we whites decided to put them. Banks, with federal encouragement, redlined the changing inner cities, condemning them to deepening poverty and despair.
So while some blacks managed to climb on the new interracial ladder created in the wake of Brown, others found the climb to a decent living ever more difficult – and segregated. The Court doesn’t call it segregation because the housing and lending decisions weren’t made by school authorities. But just drive around and see the wilful blindness of the Court’s majority.
So the Court compounds the error. By accusing everyone who tries to build bridges of conscious racism, the Court manages to protect the divisions among us that most of America wants to tear down. Truly its justice has been blind – blind to American traditions that have helped make this the great country many of us think should be our birthright.
– Broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Jun 30, 2009.