Remember when “Separate but Equal” was an abhorrent racist euphemism? It used to refer to the legal doctrine, according to which racial segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted at the close of the Civil War, which guaranteed “equal protection” under the law to all citizens.
Using this doctrine, state and local governments could require that services, facilities, public accommodations, housing, medical care, education, employment, and transportation be segregated by race, as long as the facilities provided to each race were “equal”.
It was widely understood, though, that services and facilities offered to African Americans were almost never “equal” in any real sense. The repeal of laws that divided people by race, known as “Jim Crow” laws, was the focus of the Civil Rights movement, and in 1954, the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education formally overturned the “Separate but Equal” doctrine.
But there was still a lot of work to do. Most black people understood that the only path to their rightful place in American society was full “integration”, and that was the basis of Martin’s message. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, he notes that 100 years after the Civil War, African Americans are still “badly crippled by the manacles of segregation”.
Of course, Malcolm had a slightly different message, and one that resonated at least as strongly as Martin’s, that focused more on independence than integration. But everyone understood that “Separate but Equal” was not the answer, and the focus of all our collective efforts over the years was to refute it.
But, with time, the odious phrase lost its bite and actually came to represent something desirable for some young people. It’s a bit disorienting to hear black high school students advocating for segregated proms, for example, using the that very same phrase. You can’t help but feeling they haven’t read their history when you hear this.
Yesterday, I wrote about events at Evergreen State College, where white people were asked to stay away from campus for a day. Today, I’m reading that Harvard has held separate commencements for students of color. At their request.
Everything old is new again.