Race & Respect


We covered the famous Plessy v. Ferguson (”separate but equal”) and Brown v. Board of Education (school desegregation) cases in Constitutional Law yesterday. That, combined with a beautiful conversation with a good friend in the atrium after class, leads me to write today.

I spent a couple of years implementing an In-School Suspension program in a public school that desperately needed one. My job was to be a bad guy, and it was a bit scary to discover that I had it in me. I made a point to each unfortunate student that came my way that there was an important difference between “having respect” and “showing respect.” I was pretty sure they wouldn’t like me in the ISS room (i.e. probably wouldn’t have much respect for me at the time), but I was darn sure they were going to show me respect while there.

Stay with me.

In Plessy, the Court said straight up that prejudices cannot be overcome by legislation and that forced integration cannot secure equal rights. It said, “If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits, and a voluntary consent of individuals.”

The Court was flat wrong in one respect. And flat right in another. And it all has to do in my opinion with understanding the difference between “showing respect” and “having respect.”

In Brown, the Court corrected the flat wrong part of Plessy. Legislation CAN be useful in procuring equal treatment under the law. In other words, legislation can secure equal rights in forcing people to “show” respect to others regardless of one’s personal feelings on race – just as much as I could force those poor ISS students to show respect to someone they didn’t much like, too (namely, me). This is what law can do.

But part of Plessy rings true when one considers the idea of “having respect” for another. This is what law cannot do. And for those who recall the 1960s South will know that Brown is living proof.

Which leads me to talk of racism today. I hear some folks say that racism should be considered a thing of the past. That people who talk about racism are just out of touch with reality and should just get over it. That all this talk about institutional racism and the like is just silliness – it is just lack of responsibility on the part of black folks and psychological guilt on the part of white folks.

What I hear are people who don’t get the distinction between showing respect and having respect.

It may well be (though I’m admittedly skeptical) that the combination of legislation and judicial review have succeeded in bringing about a world where showing respect in regard to race is a matter of understood law. If that is the case, I stand and applaud.

But what about having respect? This is most definitely NOT a problem of the past. The lack of respect for other human beings based on color of skin remains a deeply-rooted problem in contemporary America, and as long as it exists the evil of discrimination will continue to be alive and well.

You see it the color of the faces on Skid Row. You see it in the color of faces on Death Row. You see it in the blinding whiteness in Corporate Boardrooms. None of these are illegalities, but they are indicators that Race & Respect remains an issue. One that is not nearly overcome.

Any progress that has been made in American history is but a drop in the bucket toward the “natural affinities” that Plessy (of all places) correctly identified as the end goal. Those who deny the long road that remains need to take a long, hard look inside their own hearts, and with all due respect, get out of the freaking way.

9 Responses to “Race & Respect”

  1. jazzbumpa Says:

    Nicely done. Very thoughtful.

    I’d add that people who say racism is a thing of the past have something wrong with their reasoning (or data collection) beyond missing the distinction between showing respect and having respect.

    They’re also missing contact with the real world, as you neatly pointed out.

    In the 50’s, when I was a kid, black men were still getting lynched – pretty much for being black. That kind of deep seated hatred does not dissipate in a few decades. What gives me hope for the future is seeing black, white, and Asian kids playing soccer (for example) together. Before you can hate, you have to dehumanize, and you can’t do that to someone you know.

  2. alsturgeon Says:

    Thanks, JB. Yeah, I dig the encouraging signs, too. But you’re right – complete change will take a long, long time.

    I ran across the words “unconscious racism” in my readings this afternoon. That’s the kind of stuff worth putting a bucket on my head and “having a think” over.

  3. urbino Says:

    Huzzah!, Al. Well said.

    Here’s the thing that drives me nuts about that Plessy quote — “If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits, and a voluntary consent of individuals.”

    It makes me go all Percy Garris (the last section before the blue box).

    Well, of course that’s true of social equality. But nobody was asking the court to do anything about social equality. The Supreme Court has got no jurisdiction over social equality. The Supreme Court was being asked to address legal equality.

    Which they knew perfectly well, of course. It just didn’t give them a convenient excuse for expressing their own racism.

  4. alsturgeon Says:

    Thanks, JU.

    Hey, speaking of Butch & Sundance, their love interest in the movie (Katharine Ross) is a Malibuite, and I saw her at Malibu High’s performance of Sweeney Todd last year. Just a little trivia, but I thought it was cool.

  5. Terry A. Says:

    I’ve been wrestling just this week with whether one can be racist without also being hateful.

    Right now, I think so. Of course, I’ve seen plenty of hateful racism, too, but I’ve seen far more of the careless, thoughtless, unintentionally (but undeniably) disrespectful kind, too.

    That both kinds — the hateful and the theoretical “non-hateful” — come from people who are otherwise saintly only serves to confuse the crap out of me.

  6. alsturgeon Says:

    Well, there’s a good side to everything (i.e. confusing the crap out of you). 🙂

    I feel your pain.

  7. urbino Says:

    Speaking of . . . a Louisiana JP refuses to marry interracial couples. But he’s doing it for the children.

    Does that make it the friendly kind?

  8. alsturgeon Says:

    Good timing. Right where we’re at in our Con Law class. 🙂

    Well, bad timing for the (un)happy couple.

  9. jazzbumpa Says:

    I hadn’t seen the phrase “unconscious racism.” My phrase is “casual racism.” What I remember of the attitudes of my parents’ generation in the 50’s is that the racism was plenty conscious. But it wasn’t especially malevolent. And it was everywhere in society, as was sexism. (Watch a couple Marilyn Monroe movies from the 50’s to get the flavor.)

    “I’ve got nothing against black people. I just don’t want them in my house/neighborhood/workplace,” was a typical kind of quote.

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