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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Racing to Assimilation

This post is yet another example of me thinking out loud. I'm concerning myself with a rather difficult subject to handle here in the United States, and that is race.

One of the many decisions handed down by the Supreme Court in the waning moments of the most recent term was one concerning school desegregation plans in Washington State and Kentucky. The court ruled--by a 5-to-4 vote, a margin that has become the rule in the John "I'll Try to Build Consensus" Roberts court--that the two plans were unconstitutional because they took race into account in deciding what students were going to attend which school.

The plans were well-intended and the idea underlying them is noble. However, I'm not sure that they take into consideration the realities of modern American life.

The problem addressed in Brown v. Board of Education was that of Jim Crow. We tend to forget now how that system worked. Blacks had separate schools by law. They also had separate restaurants, hotels, lavatories, and drinking fountains. They were required, by law, to give up their seats on the bus if a white person needed one. They had their own cabs and entrances to public buildings. As a co-worker once informed me after the black supervisor of the mail room flirted with me, "Fun is fun, but separate is separate."

The country that the Warren Court addressed in Brown was a far different one from the one we live in today. This is not to say that everything is right and holy or that we have come anywhere near accompanying Dr. King on a trek to the mountaintop. Not at all. Prejudice is ubiquitous. It lays like swamp water at our feet, and sometimes at our knees, elbows, or chins depending on where we are. Race is the great unresolved question of the American Experiment, and Dr. King's dream of a colorblind society is still a mirage on a distant hill.

We have, however, made some progress, even if it is small and hesitant. People of all races and backgrounds shop at the same stores, eat at the same restaurants, and drink from the same fountains. Although we do not sit side-by-side as often as we ought, we often occupy the same rooms and not only in a master/servant relationship. This is progress, and it must be recognized.

It seems to me that Black America had never been allowed to begin the assimilation process--a process that all immigrant groups have had to endure--until about a generation ago. They were the permanent aliens, the outsiders whose life in the ocean of the Republic resembled the travels of the Flying Dutchman, endless travail suspended between true life and true death. It is only within my lifetime, through the efforts of the civil rights movement, that assimilation has become possible. Blacks have only recently begun to be absorbed by the society at large.

One of the first steps toward assimilation is one that actually seems, on its face, contradictory. The group in question explores its history and celebrates its unique culture as a means of establishing its own identity. Over the course of several generations, this identity carries on but fades. Eventually, intermarriage with other groups happens more and more until all you're left with is a mutt like me.

African Americans are still in the early stages of this process, and given how screwed up their commute to America was and the centuries of hardship they have had to endure, this sorting out of who and what it means to be African American may take awhile. On the other hand, given the growth and robust power of the Black middle class, they seem to be proceeding at an admirable clip.

As far as the Supreme Court opinion goes, I'm not sure that it will matter in either direction before too long. I will say this, however: Although the idea that Justice Roberts and his cohorts hold is an attractive one--the idea that the society cannot be colorblind until the law is--it is naive. Unfortunately, the law can never be colorblind until individuals are, and we are still far too race-conscious to be exonerated on that score. And even though they distrust the notion that the law can be used to correct social inequities, it must try. After all, civil law exists for no other purpose than to correct inequities.