Thursday Racial Thursday

by Eric Segall

Race was all over America on Thursday. Of course, the Charleston tragedy dominated the headlines with most thoughtful folks reflecting on how someone could be so full of hate that he would kill nine innocent people in cold blood and also thinking about our gun policies and how we can prevent such massacres in the future. Shame on those who showed sympathy but suggested we shouldn’t use the incident to discuss issues of race and gun control. If not now, when?

Race was also all over the Supreme Court on Thursday. The Justices ruled that Texas (yes, Texas) could refuse to issue a special license plate with a Confederate flag on it even though Texas permits all kinds of symbols and messages on its plates and this was the first time an application for such a plate was turned down. The stated rationale for the denial was that the Confederate flag could offend many Texans (you think?). The suspect in the Charleston murders had a Confederate flag on his plate.

The legal issue in the Texas case was complicated, involving fine distinctions between private speech (which the government can’t normally regulate), government speech (which the government can control with little limitation), and mixed or hybrid government/private speech where the legal rules are unclear. The majority found this to be a case of pure government speech (thus allowing the denial), the dissent strongly disagreed, and thoughtful academics like Mike would have labelled symbols on license plates mixed government/private speech (which of course it is).

The most interesting aspect of the case, and where race played a major role, is that Justice Thomas, for one of the few times in his career, sided with the four liberals against the four conservatives and voted to uphold the denial. He didn’t write separately but Court watchers were pretty sure Justice Thomas made an exception to his normal free speech jurisprudence (and his voting patterns) because as an African American who grow up in rural Georgia, he knows all too well the racism and violence the Confederate flag stands for.

Race was also present in Atlanta, Georgia on Thursday. I was a guest on a radio show when two folks called in, one complaining that the media was turning the Charleston incident into a race baiting episode and the other arguing that he felt bad for the victims but why couldn’t “those people” get their act together and stop committing crimes and living in poverty. The host, a liberal, and I tried to explain to them the context of race relations in America but to no avail.

In light of these events, it may be useful to recount some basic history about race in America. Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence contained an anti-slavery clause but he had to remove it at the insistence of the Southern colonies. Later, when the framers met in Philadelphia to write our Constitution, slavery was a major issue leading to the infamous 3/5 clause and the entrenchment of the practice of slavery (not specifically named) until 1808.

Race generally and slavery specifically led to the Civil War where over 600,000 American soldiers were killed. After the War, and despite the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the Supreme Court both prohibited Congress from prohibiting segregation and allowed the states to entrench Jim Crow, leading to generations of racial apartheid in our country. In my lifetime (1964), restaurants and hotels went to the Supreme Court arguing that they had a constitutional right to refuse service to African Americans.

A typical response to this history from many people is something to the effect that “that was then and this is now.” Not so and here is why. Between 1934 and 1962, the federal government allocated approximately 120 billion dollars backing home mortgages with 98% going to white families and neighborhoods. This led directly to whites owning houses that appreciated in value which led to white wealth increasing and being handed down from generation to generation. In addition, this wealth brought good schools and good jobs creating more wealth and more good schools. All of that prosperity for “Whites Only” led to separate neighborhoods for whites and blacks in most cities and states across the country and the resulting cycle of poverty and desperation. While all this was occurring, blacks were excluded from many jobs and other important economic opportunities. As of 1970, to cite just one example, Alabama had never had a black trooper.

The important point is that these tragic events did not occur naturally or by accident but because of intentional governmental and private choices. First there was slavery, then segregation, then racist economic policies and exclusionary employment practices. Anyone who believes that the effects of hundreds of years of formal legal discrimination and racial abuse can be ameliorated in one or two generations of formal (but that’s all) racial equality is living in a world of fantasy and make-believe.

There are no easy answers to our racial problems. But, as Thursday demonstrated so tragically and vividly, we are far away from a post-racial society. We must all accept that fact categorically if real progress is going to be made.