Wednesday, May 18, 2005

A Contrarian View of Segregation reminds us that today is the 109th anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896):
In 1890, the State of Louisiana passed a law that required separate accommodations for blacks and whites on railroads, including separate railway cars. Concerned, several black and white citizens in New Orleans formed an association dedicated to the repeal of that law. They eventually persuaded Homer Plessy, an octoroon (someone of seven-eighths Caucasian descent and one-eighth African descent), to test it. Plessy purchased a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railway from New Orleans to Covington. The railroad company had been informed already as to Plessy's racial lineage, and after Plessy had taken a seat in the whites-only railway car, he was asked to vacate it and sit instead in the blacks-only car. Plessy refused and was arrested immediately....

Announced on May 18, 1896, the 7-1 decision, with one abstention, upheld the Louisiana statute.
Segregation of the type considered by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson suffers two fundamental flaws:
  • It allows for no subtlety, as in the case of Plessy, who -- as an octoroon -- may have been no less "white" than many "whites" who rode in "whites only" railway cars.
  • It declares an entire group of otherwise law-abiding persons "off limits" to society, rather than allow the members of that group to be considered on individual merit.
The second point goes to the heart of Justice John Marshall Harlan's famous dissent in the case (as quoted in Wikipedia):
[I]n the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.
I agree with Harlan, up to that point. The law should be racially neutral. By the same token, the law should not tell private parties whom they must employ and with whom they must trade and associate. As I wrote recently,
we would be much better off, socially and economically, if government intervention were limited to the equal protection of everyone's life, liberty, and property. Such a regime would enable persons of ability -- regardless of race or gender -- to prove their worth and earn the trust of others. That is true progress.