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OPINION | GREG HARTON: Racism continues to be a burden on this nation setting things right

by Greg Harton | July 9, 2023 at 1:00 a.m.

"The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in power. ... But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved."

-- U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, 1896.


Justice John Marshall Harlan, in offering the remark above, was the sole dissenting member of the High Court in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. That's the case that, near the end of the 19th century, allowed states, school boards and businesses to keep Blacks separate from whites as long as the facilities and services offered were of equal quality.

It was a truly awful decision, one that set the stage for decades of discriminatory behaviors under rule of law. Righting that wrong wouldn't happen without violence -- state police beating civic rights activists on the Edmund Pettus Bridge -- or standoffs -- Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus fighting to keep Black children out of Little Rock Central High School -- or peaceful demonstrations by those who knew right from wrong.

Maybe it was always going to take decades, even if the court back in 1896 had made the right call. But the wrong decision undoubtedly stifled progress for the next 60 years.

Progress has come, though. In tiny steps for the most part, but over the last 60 years the march against racism has largely been toward the right place.

These days, some folks want to believe racism has been diminished to such a degree that the efforts to counteract its poisonous influences are no longer necessary. I'm not convinced.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled a little more than a week ago that admission programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina were unconstitutional because of their reliance on race. For decades, such "affirmative action" was embraced as a way to break the grip of racist attitudes and practices that stood in the way of Black Americans seizing the opportunities that came much easier to the nation's majority white population.

A lot of Americans, it seems, want to believe all is right with the nation and its long, long history of racism is just that, history. I estimate the nation still has a long, long way to go.

Now, affirmative action has been around a while now. It's a fair thing to question whether a policy or process that was critical to removing barriers 40 or 50 years ago is the right policy or process for 2023. "Is there a better way" really isn't a harmful thing to ask.

To suggest racism doesn't exist in the lives of Black Americans today, though, is as implausible a statement as I can imagine.

The United State of American has made great strides toward leveling the playing field, but it was so skewed to begin with. It's more level today -- thanks in part to opportunities arising from affirmative action -- but not level.

Economic racism continues. Black Americans have never gained the economic power they've been denied since their ancestors were slaves. Goverment policies have helped maintain that.

OK, so the court says affirmative action isn't the answer. This nation fails, however, if the court's recent decision is viewed as negating the need to keep searching for answers. And a better tomorrow for all.

Print Headline: Ruling no sign of end to racism


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