“Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts, or to abolish distinctions based on physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation.” --Justice Henry Brown, Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537, 3 S.Ct. 18 (1896)
Agree or disagree, y’all? Has anything changed in the intervening 105 years to make Brown’s reasoning any more or less valid?
Racism may be far less common thanit used to be, but one thing hasn’t changed: The law cannot control how prople think. The government can outlaw racial discrimination, it can have hate crimes punished more severely than others, it can outlaw expressions of racist ideas in countries where free speech isn’t as valued as it is here, but it cannot outlaw the ideas themselves.
Racism, as it’s manifested itself, has always been a product of ignorance (200 years ago, for instance, it was believed that African slaves were inferior to whites because they didn’t have as much education). While laws may be necessary to get things started (in some cases), the only true way to stamp out racism is to fight ignorance.
The laws only serve as a means of showing people that they might be wrong. Now, this isn’t universally true, of course, but generally laws reflect a semi-universal code of conduct (don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t rape, etc.). By making a law that says “everybody’s equal”, this creates another “by golly, they might be right!” moment.
Racism will most likely always exist in some degree, this is unfortunate. Government has enacted laws to combat racism and hate crimes. The laws specify what is not allowed and what will happen, and the laws do allow the prosecution of racist crimes and hate crimes. So, in essence, Government is powerless to actually change the opinions of its’ citizens.
The only way to eliminate racist crimes and hate crimes is to educate the population. Each of us, white, black, asian, hispanic, native american, gay or straight could benefit the country by simply accepting each other instead of hating each other.
African slaves were deemed inferior to the whites because of their lack of education. Blacks were not allowed to be educated in a large portion of this country. Thank God this is no longer true.
“African slaves are inferior to white” is an opinion, not a statement of fact. While education can indeed reduce prejudice, it is rather conceited to believe that everyone would share one’s opinions “if only they knew better”. Racism does not equal ignorance.
A few thoughts- ‘racism’ is not universal, however, fear of difference is. Historically, ‘race’ had different social construction to the physiological (skin color, facial features etc.) that we now define ‘race’ by. The Roman Empire had no conception of racial difference in the way that we have; the main indicator of difference was ‘civilization’. This makes it very difficult to determine whether people in the southern Empire were ‘black’ or ‘white’ as there was no record made of this as it was not seen as a matter of importance. A contrary example is seen in Zanzibar where people will divide themselves into ‘Africans’ and ‘Arabs’, although to an outside eye, both groups are ethnically Black Africans- here culture and claimed inheritance are the modes of discrimination; similar points can be made about caste in India and social class in Britain.
Western response to different races has been controlled by the influence of the Slave Trade on society, by which we have been led to consciously/unconsciously determine difference by ‘racial’ characteristics.
It took a long time to learn this and may take a long time to unlearn this. Legislation may well be part of the picture. Certainly, social engineering of this kind does work, but its timescale is much greater than politicians would have you believe.
And there will also be groups for which this does not work (witness forty years of communism and oficial intolerance for racial discrimination in East Germany, and the resurgence of fascist and racist ideas after 1990).
Pjen, I’m looking at this, but I can’t follow the leap however many times I read it. Isn’t it at least as likely that the slave trade didn’t lead to different western responses to racial characteristics, but was in itself a response? In other words, the slave trade wasn’t the driver of racial discrimination, but developed partly because of Western belief in inherent racial differences: that the non-Western peoples were inherently inferior, therefore tradable.
As to the OP - I’m with Alessan, suppressing the symptoms of racism is as good a start as any.
Ok I’m probably in over my head here historically speaking but…
Maybe the European powers didn’t bring blacks here it America as slaves because they thought blacks were inferior. Maybe they brought Africans here because they could. Think about it. If you were lets say England and you wanted to import some slave labor to the colonies. Would you go and grab some French citizens? No? Why not? I don’t think the answer is because you think of French peoples as equals. It because the French government will protest. (i.e. shoot at you) The blacks in Africa couldn’t stop it. They did not have the technology (guns) or the governments organized (ok they were colonies themselves) to resist a foreign power coming and taking their citizens. Becoming racist may be a justification for doing this but I think it was really the path of least resistance.
But I would also point out the social change on the order of eliminating racism is a slow process. Yes we have been at for a hundred years and it may take a hundred more. We must stay the course and fight racism where ever and however we can.
What I was trying to say, and obviously failed totally to do, was:
Historically, slavery was based on social position within and without a society. You became enslaved because you had unpayable debts, or were captured in war. Among the first slaves brought to Europe (to Portugal by the Moors) were descendants of the Portuguese who had moved to Africa and were returned as slaves as booty of conquest. Race was not an issue in slavery; in fact ‘race’ as we understand it today was much less important; culture- especially religion was the main difference that caused poor treatment of outside groups.
The Atlantic Slave trade was based on enslaving people determined by their race- Africans were seen as able to survive the condition peculiar (to Europeans) to the Americas. The belief developed that African=Slave and Slave=African, that is to say, slave status was equated with African origin and this became a mark of inferiority. This became deeply ingrained in our (Euro-American) society and still dominates unconsciously the interpretation of the social role of African Americans or Black Britons etc.
Thus, the Slave Trade has a dominant role in the white cultural reaction to Black skin etc as a marker of ‘race’.
“Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts, or to abolish distinctions based on physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation.” --Justice Henry Brown, Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537, 3 S.Ct. 18 (1896)**
What bothers me is the use of the phrase racial instincts. What are these racial instincts? Instincts to hate what is different from you (or your group)? Or are racial instincts inherent physical qualities that cannot be changed and therefore, no matter what the government does, those physical qualities will always separate the two groups?
I don’t have the whole cite for this judgement before me, so I’m not sure of the context in which he’s speaking.
How little things change. Even today there is a perception that blacks aren’t as intelligent as whites. Blacks, on average, do not get as good of an education as whites, what with being heavily concentrated in inner cities where we keep hearing the schools are failing.
I feel that racism, or pure bigotry, is the product of faulty circular logic:
Racist: Blacks are lazy.
Non-Racist: How do you know they’re lazy?
Racist: They can’t get good jobs and when the government gives them jobs (through “unfair” affirmative action), they can’t work their way up the ladder and better themselves.
Non-Racist: Would you hire a black man to work in your store?
Racist: Of course not. They’re lazy.
It is also interesting to note, as SPOOFE Bo Diddly alluded, that during slavery times the enforced ignorance of slaves was used as proof of inferiority. Unbelievable. People are unbelievable. As long as there is ignorance and people, some people will have bad reasons to hate different people.
Legislation may well be part of the picture. Certainly, social engineering of this kind does work, but its timescale is much greater than politicians would have you believe.
…social change on the order of eliminating racism is a slow process. Yes we have been at for a hundred years and it may take a hundred more. We must stay the course and fight racism where ever and however we can.
I think those two statements summarize the thinking behind civil rights legislation quite well. The goal isn’t so much to eradicate the perception of racial differences; those will linger until the real social differences are eliminated. The goal, rather, is to discard any legal supposition that those differences matter in terms of the suitability of each individual*****, and to adjust and eliminate the reality of inequality so that the perception will follow. The theory being that, if we cannot create equal opportunities by proclaiming equality, then we will legislate the placement of people from formally oppressed classes across social barriers.
Justice Brown’s reasoning may be valid when applied to the short term consequences of attempts to legislatively impose equality onto a society in which class lines are drawn based on racial characteristics. But Brown was absolutely in error regarding the “racial instincts” of society. If we have the will as a people to change the underrepresentation of certain classes in highly valued positions, those “instincts” will gradually disappear. As others pointed out, there have been societies which drew no distinctions based on skin color or other racial characteristics. The only thing stopping America from becoming such a society is time.
*****[sup]i.e. suitability for the various societal and business roles historically denied to subjugated groups[/sup]
Nice responses. The irony, of course, is that Justice Brown was writing his opinion in support of statutory segregation, and that the legislation he was speaking of was, as far as I can tell, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
In other words, he’s justifying separate railway cars for blacks and whites (and it’s interesting to note that Plessy, the petitioner, was an octoroon–only one-eighth black) by saying that Congress should never have tried to “abolish distinctions based on physical differences” anyway.
It just strikes me that he makes the same arguments in support of segregation that I see many opponents of affirmative action making today. That’s what prompted the questions I posed in the OP.
The text of Brown’s opinion, and the famously eloquent lone dissent by Justice Harlan, can be found here.
It strikes me exactly the opposite way. What many opponents of affirmative action say is that they do not want the law to uphold unequal treatment of people based on race. I can’t think of any anti-affirmative action groups speaking out in favor of making racial distinctions in hiring or education, or supporting the “separate but equal” doctrine. Maybe you can provide some examples of this.
Incidentally, the term you used to describe Plessy’s being 1/8th black is generally considered offensive, and its use should be avoided, even on a historical basis.
Gadarene–I don’t understand what you find to be ironic. Brown was opposed to forced integration, just as opponents of affirmative action are today. (That’s generalizing the argument, I know, but, in any case, you broadly have Brown opposed to something that gives African-Americans a greater advantage, and contemporary affirmative action opponents opposed to something that gives African-Americans a greater advantage.)
In any event, though, I think, in addition to (one hopes) slowly changing widespread beliefs about inherent racial differences, I think such laws are useful for a more immediate reason:
Criminal sentences may keep some people from committing crimes. They may not stop them from THINKING of committing crimes, or wishing that someone were dead, etc., but they help in some cases to prevent the act.
Likewise for laws that punish people who engage in racist practices: they may not stop people from having racist thoughts, but they may prevent people from acting on them.
Sadly, it’s the best solution we’ve come up with in regards to eliminating crimes like murder, and I wager it’s all we’ll be able to come up with in our efforts to eliminate racism.
toadspittle: Ironic in that Brown, in decrying legislation which sought to “eradicate racial instincts,” whatever that means, was doing so in defense of legislation which perpetuated “racial instincts.” It follows, then, that if attempting to attenuate racial division “can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation,” then surely legislation which explicitly segregates the races must accentuate those difficulties even more.
Perhaps “ironic” isn’t the right term. What about spectacularly disingenuous?
The “spectacularly disengenous” aspect of “separate but equal” was actually the fact that the separate accomodations provided for blacks (schools and other facilities) were of such poor quality compared to what whites had.