Race & Respect

Posted: October 14, 2009 in Justice, Peace

We covered the famous Plessy v. Ferguson (“separate but equal”) and Brown v. Board of Education (school desegregation) cases in Constitutional Law yesterday. That, combined with a beautiful conversation with a good friend in the atrium after class, leads me to write today.

I spent a couple of years implementing an In-School Suspension program in a public school that desperately needed one. My job was to be a bad guy, and it was a bit scary to discover that I had it in me. I made a point to each unfortunate student that came my way that there was an important difference between “having respect” and “showing respect.” I was pretty sure they wouldn’t like me in the ISS room (i.e. probably wouldn’t have much respect for me at the time), but I was darn sure they were going to show me respect while there.

Stay with me.

In Plessy, the Court said straight up that prejudices cannot be overcome by legislation and that forced integration cannot secure equal rights. It said, “If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits, and a voluntary consent of individuals.”

The Court was flat wrong in one respect. And flat right in another. And it all has to do in my opinion with understanding the difference between “showing respect” and “having respect.”

In Brown, the Court corrected the flat wrong part of Plessy. Legislation CAN be useful in procuring equal treatment under the law. In other words, legislation can secure equal rights in forcing people to “show” respect to others regardless of one’s personal feelings on race – just as much as I could force those poor ISS students to show respect to someone they didn’t much like, too (namely, me). This is what law can do.

But part of Plessy rings true when one considers the idea of “having respect” for another. This is what law cannot do. And for those who recall the 1960s South will know that Brown is living proof.

Which leads me to talk of racism today. I hear some folks say that racism should be considered a thing of the past. That people who talk about racism are just out of touch with reality and should just get over it. That all this talk about institutional racism and the like is just silliness – it is just lack of responsibility on the part of black folks and psychological guilt on the part of white folks.

What I hear are people who don’t get the distinction between showing respect and having respect.

It may well be (though I’m admittedly skeptical) that the combination of legislation and judicial review have succeeded in bringing about a world where showing respect in regard to race is a matter of understood law. If that is the case, I stand and applaud.

But what about having respect? This is most definitely NOT a problem of the past. The lack of respect for other human beings based on color of skin remains a deeply-rooted problem in contemporary America, and as long as it exists the evil of discrimination will continue to be alive and well.

You see it the color of the faces on Skid Row. You see it in the color of faces on Death Row. You see it in the blinding whiteness in Corporate Boardrooms. None of these are illegalities, but they are indicators that Race & Respect remains an issue. One that is not nearly overcome.

Any progress that has been made in American history is but a drop in the bucket toward the “natural affinities” that Plessy (of all places) correctly identified as the end goal. Those who deny the long road that remains need to take a long, hard look inside their own hearts, and with all due respect, get out of the freaking way.


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