Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Separate, but Equal

I have always enjoyed Kurt Vonnegut. These days I seem to be recalling "Harrison Bergeron," Vonnegut's dystopic sci-fi story with greater frequency. The story opens:
The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law, they were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else; nobody was better looking than anybody else; nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
Vonnegut cleverly plays with the ideas of equality and sameness, suggesting they are different and then showing his reader the tragic results that come from making them equivalents.  While I have been thinking about Harrison Bergeron, I have also been thinking about Homer Plessy.

Homer Plessy
One hundred fourteen years have passed since the Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) was decided and still it feels like bad (very bad) sci-fi.  But it is not.  It is our shared history.  Whereas the Brown decision (1954) overturned the separate but equal legacy of Plessy v. Ferguson, the practice of separate but equal has not been laid to rest.  I recently reread the Plessy decisions (major and dissenting) and I wondered about the world view at that time that would posit it unexceptionable and even righteous to separate white people from all other races while traveling on trains and occupying other public spaces.  Supreme Court Justice Harlan wrote the dissenting opinion.  He was the lone justice to recognize that separate, but equal contradicted the liberties provided by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. 

My son.
While rereading the case, it occurred to me given the wording of the law which defines the groupings as "white and colored races," that if my son and I were traveling by public transport in Louisiana (or elsewhere in the USA) during the 50+ year period this decision reigned, we would not have been allowed to sit together.  Had we done this, sat in either the white or colored race car, one of us would have been subject to fines and imprisonment. 

A mother and child out for a ride.  

In clarifying the intent of the statute, Justice Harlan wrote:
Everyone knows that the statute in question had its origin in the purpose not so much to exclude white persons from railroad cars occupied by blacks as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied by or assigned to white persons. Railroad corporations of Louisiana did not make discrimination among whites in the matter of accommodation for travelers. The thing to accomplish was, under the guise of giving equal accommodation for whites and blacks, to compel the latter to keep to themselves while traveling in railroad passenger coaches. No one would be so wanting in candor as to assert the contrary.
In the majority opinion, Justice Brown concluded:
If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.
Plessy v. Ferguson established the "separate but equal" legal clause that was used to maintain the separation of people by race and to continue the practice of racially segregating children in public schools based on race.  The eight Justices at that time (and in subsequent cases) failed to acknowledge that segregation by itself was harmful and no amount of "sameness" adequately represented equality. As Vonnegut aptly shows, believing that sameness is a form of equality, leads to tragedy.

America Never Was
So why have I been dwelling on Bergeron and Plessy? With the consistent drama of school "reform" being played out in living rooms and school houses, at neighborhood sporting games and markets--I wondered in what way have we nationally and locally acknowledged and addressed issues of separation that are happening today, and which are concealed under the "sameness" cloak?  By the "sameness cloak" I want to reference the ways we maintain separation between the privileged and other, by claiming that the services rendered are of equal value.

Linda Darling Hammond (2010) in The Flat World and Education rightly states that we do not have an achievement gap, we have an opportunity gap. She writes:
Enormous energy is devoted in the United States to discussions about the achievement gap. Much less attention, however, is paid to the opportunity gap—the accumulated differences in access to key educational resources—expert teachers, personalized attention, high quality curriculum opportunities,  good educational materials, and plentiful education resources—that support learning at home and at school (p.28).

American Bus Stop: No Lemming Left Behind
 How many children who "fail" and are failed in schools have equal opportunity to enriched curricula, the best teachers, personalized attention?  How many students are sequestered in low level academic tracks for their full school careers, and as a result are barred from entrance into advanced, honors, IB, or AP courses?  How many students are placed in remedial English and mathematics courses each year and denied enrichment courses or electives? How many students considered to be other are physically located in the basements or other out of the way areas of school? What neighbor interactions occur in classrooms where students know they represent the lowest track of academic prowess in a school?

A Time to Break the Silence
What is the cost of such accumulated views of one's self?  Just how many students actually find academic and social success in separate but equal classrooms in "integrated" schools?  

Each time we insist through professional and/or  parental power that the public school remain separate but equal in order for our own child, or one who is privileged to be "favored" —we are complicit. Each time we look the other way when systems of tracking are forwarded (and perhaps even in these days championed)--we are complicit. Each time we fail to say that no amount of "sameness" adequately represents equality, we are complicit.

We should not fool ourselves. Our silence is loud.

So tonight I'm thinking about those who have stood up: 

Homer Plessy 
Sara and Benjamin Roberts
Gonzalo Mendez
Heman Marion Sweatt
Donald G. Murray
Thomas R. Hocutt
Lloyd Gaines
George W. McLaurin.   

How long will it be until we individually and institutionally acknowledge that sameness can never be mistaken for equality and stand up and say so? With all the talk about school reform, I'm wondering who is engaged in the dialogue about the fallacy of separate, but equal that still occurs within schools? Where is the clamor of voices saying "No, we cannot allow for the practices that separate children based on race, based on socio-economics, based on "dis"abilities?"

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