Monday, September 05, 2005

Separate, not equal

It's an interesting week to be teaching Plessy v. Ferguson. Just as I'm trying to imagine Homer Plessy's New Orleans world, I'm struggling to imagine every trace of it washed away. Before the sea changed everything, it was at least possible to argue that there had been a sea change on issues like the one he brought to court in 1896. Now, it is a national embarrassment to admit that we aren't so much farther along after all.

Freelancer and New Orleans native Keith Weldon Medley, who has written a book about Plessy (see Quicktime video), wrote in 2000,

Those who explore the city without seeking its African and African-American roots will surely miss what it means to know New Orleans. People of African descent - enslaved and free - have been there since its earliest days. Between 1718 and 1722, boatloads of Africans from the Senegambia region of Western Africa arrived in New Orleans for forced toil in the Louisiana marshes. They hacked and drained swamps, constructed buildings and levees, and dug canals. For most Africans, it was a life sentence of slavery. Their sweat is in the city's architecture, their rhythms move its music, their creativity and flair spice its cuisine's. New Orleans was home to a large number of "free people of color"; defined as those who possessed property rights even while lacking political and civil rights. They gained their freedom in a number of ways: through manumission (sometimes by a white parent), by purchasing themselves, by being bought by a loved one, or by arriving as a free person from elsewhere. They defended the city in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans when two battalions consisting of five hundred blacks from Louisiana, serving under Gen. Andrew Jackson, stood in the line of British fire. Jackson later credited a shot fired from a black sharpshooter's musket for felling the British commander, Gen. Edward Pakenham, effectively routing the enemy. As of 1820 the city's population contained approximately twenty thousand whites, fifteen thousand slaves, and seven thousand free people of color.

After the Civil War, consistent with what happened in the rest of the reactionary South, segregation was forced upon New Orleans. Homer Plessy, born during the war, saw the limits of his world shrink as the new reality of Jim Crow took shape. He could usually pass when he wanted to, though, being only one-eighth black. In fact, his arrest on June 7, 1892, on the East Louisiana Railroad had to be staged: otherwise he might have escaped notice among the white first-class passengers. (The railroad cooperated, for it too disliked a law that required of it so much trouble.)

The Plessy opinion is a piece of work. A pretense of even-handedness combines with an appeal to "the nature of things" to conjure up a world that, even at the time, must have been unrecognizable to honest souls. The world the opinion describes does not impose any prejudice on one race or the other, at least not in matters that the law is capable of addressing:

A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races--a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color--has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races.

It is noted, for example, that "nothing in [the law] shall be construed as applying to nurses attending children of the other race." That is, if you are a black woman with a white nanny, it would be fine for the white nanny to ride in the black car. And if you question the logic of that image and you are black, you need to adjust your attitude. If you sense that you are stamped "with a badge of inferiority," it is your own fault: "it is not by reason of anything founded in [the law], but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction on it."

Much of course has been written about Plessy, but what strikes me most now is just this: the court's ability to ignore reality and damn the consequences. Kind of like Condoleezza Rice saying race had nothing to do with Katrina's death toll. "Nobody, especially the president, would have left people unattended on the basis of race."

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