Two anniversaries this month, taken together, signal the teeter-totter ride of a nation straddling our passion for justice and penchant for everything but.
Saturday, May 17: The 60th year of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision -- successfully argued by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund -- that ended legalized segregation. Ironically, it also escalated violence designed to thwart the Civil Rights movement, thereby making it all the more necessary.
Sunday, May 18: The 118th year of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme court decision that began the reign of terror known as segregation -- necessitating redress of egregious human rights violations and the founding of the NAACP.
Symbolically for our times, these dates fall back-to-back on the calendar like parenthesis in reverse. First one closes, then the other opens, the contradictory phrases that have modified our thoughts and lives.
Indeed, few dates meant more to twentieth century than May 17, 1954, the day Thurgood Marshall's NAACP Legal Defense Fund team won Brown. The following year, as a fourth-grader, I became one of the four "test" children selected to break New York City's de facto elementary school segregation -- an insidious brand of Northern racism that yet persists.
Case in point, the recent Supreme Court decision upholding Michigan's constitutional amendment banning affirmative action in admissions to the state's public universities. How telling that the decision came:
- on the very day NPR reported widespread race and gender disparities in the mentoring of students by faculty;
- one month after the Civil Rights Project report of New York State's as the most segregated schools in the country;
- three months since the Civil Rights division of the Department of Education revealed racial bias in school discipline.
And, all this just in education! Dare we talk reversals in voting rights, the blind eye turned to workplace discrimination and to wage and hiring disparities?
And, what of my home state that abused the childhoods of children like me for naught? The same New York with the most segregated educational system in America? The same New York City that, under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, perpetrated the systematic harassment of African-American and Latino men known as "Stop and Frisk"?
Are all these things related? Of course they are.
This is the context in which the Supreme Court is making its reversals -- the pre-Civil Rights America is where such reversals are leading.
I think back on that era -- as witness and as historian -- I remember those days and I know what terrorism is. I read the signs in the Michigan affront, the Arizona immigration law, the South Carolina commemoration of the Confederacy, the bullying of gay individuals, the Texas assault on information (e.g. the legislative removal of "inconvenient truths" from textbooks); the legal farce that freed the white killer of Trayvon Martin but incarcerated the Black woman who fired a warning shot into the air with a licensed weapon, harming no one; and the aspersions maliciously directed at wholly-innocent Muslims as if Timothy McVeigh and the Ku Klux Klan were not wholly-guilty "Christians."
I hear the rhetoric of the Rush Limbaughs, Bill O'Reillys, Sarah Palins, Angry White Males-turned Tea Partyers and I know the parenthesis that opened on the election of President Obama is fast in danger of closing the American mind.
I feel the bullying and I remember, too, the kinship of courage that has led people of every demographic to resist the teeter-totter's down side.
Here on the anniversary of Brown, I know this too. What Brown did for my country and for me was to create a national platform on which people of every race could claim rights once refused by laws de facto and de jure, up South and down North. In the 1950s, a time of lynchings -- real and McCarthy-like -- Brown gave my country a conscience.
Today, with the economy as trigger and excuse, that conscience is fast-eroding. In cities with majority Black school populations one or two high school teachers, at best, are likely to be Black. Adult faces of color are seen as janitors and security personnel. This, as too many white realtors balk at the erosion of property values when Black children are not tracked into substandard "at risk" classes.
This, on the heels, too, of the Kellogg Foundation's "America Healing" report documenting those children's parents being disproportionately and racially pushed out of jobs for which they are as qualified as their White peers. This, as emergency room records show patients disproportionately and racially denied anesthesia. This, as Black males with college degrees and clean records are less likely to be hired than White males with the same degrees and a felony.
Are all these things related? Indeed they are.
Here, at the intersection of telling anniversaries, the teeter-totter of America is definitely teetering. The anniversary of Brown on the 17th offers as much to be grateful for as the anniversary of Plessy on 18th raises concern about. Twice before, America has ventured this moral precipice and twice before, at similar historic junctures two centuries in a row, it has plummeted over the edge into overt racism, (sexism, too), and repression.
As Americans, we like to think of our history as one of steady progress. In truth, it's been more of a pendulum swing with each move forward followed by a "correction" in favor of maintaining a white male-dominated status quo. We also like to think of our courts as a beacon for justice. Historically, however, America's courts have been less a barometer of right and wrong than of prevailing political winds.
Now, as the Supreme Court once again veers toward Plessy -- systematically reversing every substantive gain in the wake of Brown; overturning voting rights in the face of renewed wrongs -- what course will America choose this third time around? Where do we see ourselves on the teeter-totter -- headed up or going down?