Weâ€™re Back To Plessy
On the question of race, I believe history will demonstrate that this Court's alleged "colorblind" approach will bring us full circle (Plessey-to-Brown-to-Seattle) back to Plessy v. Fergusonâ€™s 1896 principle that "we can have separate but equal" schools that sustained the opposite result for 58 years.
Supreme Court Ruling
The recent Supreme Court education ruling in Seattle happens to contain
the two issues that have been central to all of American history—who
has the power, national or state and local governments; and, race.
On the first, an ideologically radical conservative Supreme Court ruled
in contradiction to its principles: of merely “interpreting" the
Constitution, by engaging in "judicial activism"; of violating its
commitment to federalism, by undermining states' rights, local control
and volunteerism; and by showing Chief Justice Roberts to have been
less than truthful during his Senate confirmation hearings about his
view of precedent, including the precedent of the 1954 Brown decision.
On the question of race, I believe history will demonstrate that this
Court's alleged "colorblind" approach will bring us full circle
(Plessey-to-Brown-to-Seattle) back to Plessy v. Ferguson’s 1896
principle that "we can have separate but equal" schools that sustained
the opposite result for 58 years.
Brown overturned Plessy on both philosophical and practical grounds.
Philosophically, if schools are truly equal, why should they be
separate? But practically, history has shown that if public schools are
separate they will not be equal. Seattle will perpetuate and escalate -
not alleviate - our current separate and unequal American educational
I'm not naive enough to believe the Court is colorblind any more than I
believe it's ideologically or politically neutral. Such blindness and
neutrality is humanly impossible. But I do believe that how an
issue is framed may help us achieve a more equal and just society. I
understand the difference between being racially sensitive for
inclusion and being racially insensitive or hostile resulting in
But in terms of framing the issue, is "racial equality" really the
American goal? I understand why special interest groups - e.g.,
minority groups and women's rights advocates - would frame the issue
thusly, but does that approach have the broadest appeal and properly
state the American goal? I think not.
Today's conventional wisdom consistently appeals to racial and gender
equality - i.e., affirmative action is necessary because of historic
negative action - and that's true, but isn't the real goal equality for
all citizens regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation,
handicap or religion?
Are we entitled to equality and a just society on the basis of color
(or gender or handicap) or on the basis of our U.S. citizenship?
If we are entitled to equal rights and protections under the law as
citizens, then equality based on citizenship - not race, gender,
handicap or class equality - is the real goal and the better way of
framing the issue.
Both Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of
fighting for the rights of citizenship. Frederick Douglass argued
at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1865 that the Negro "has
been a citizen just three times in the history of this government, and
it has always been in time of trouble. In time of trouble we are
citizens. Shall we be citizens in war and aliens in peace?"
Dr. King, in his most famous "I Have A Dream" speech in 1963, said that
"there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro
is granted his citizenship rights."
It is sometimes said that a text without a context is a pretext.
The context of Brown 53 years ago was that African American students
were being denied an equal educational opportunity because whites were
in charge of the money and schools. As a result blacks were not
receiving their fair share.
The hope and strategy of Brown was that by desegregating the public
schools - putting black and white students together in one school -
whites in charge of education would be forced to treat black and white
students alike in order to save public education for their white
Brown hasn't worked that way as African American and Hispanic students
are increasingly being re-segregated and the education they receive is
pushing most of them further behind. They lack adequate and equitable
funding based on a constitutional principle that would guarantee an
equal high quality formula.
With both sides on the Court appealing to Brown, maybe we should try a
new approach that supersedes Brown. In Rodriguez (1971) the Supreme
Court ruled that the Constitution does not grant a citizenship right to
But if we add an education amendment to the U.S. Constitution that
guarantees a citizenship right to a public education of equal high
quality, obligates Congress to structure and fund such a system, and
forces the courts to deal with this specific language, then we will no
longer be arguing over the rights of black and brown children, but over
the right of every American student as a citizen - with the force of
our highest law behind them - to be guaranteed an equal high quality
public educational opportunity.
Congressman Jackson represents the District of Illinois
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