In 1925, an affluent black man, Dr. Ossian Sweet, moved with his family into a white neighborhood in Detroit, and their house was subsequently mobbed. By the end of the night, a white man had been shot and the entire Sweet family was arrested. Thanks to the help of the NAACP and the renowned lawyer, Clarence Darrow, the Sweets were acquitted in a triumphant victory for civil rights. The history of the Sweet case is well documented in Kevin Boyle’s “Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age”.
At the end of the book, the author notes that the fight for desegregated neighborhoods has been put on hold since the Civil Rights era, and that as a result, Detroit is currently the most segregated city in the country. However, this point was likely lost on many readers because of the grandiose nature of the Sweets’ story.
In conversations relating to civil rights and racial equality, certain milestones are frequently referenced to show the advancements our country has made. The Sweet case might not be a very well-known example, but Brown v. Board of Education is another example. The election of Barack Obama as our first black president is one as well. While these events are all important, their symbolic significance in the minds of many Americans tends to outweigh their practical effects. As a result, their legacies overshadow current civil rights problems that often go unmentioned.
Take Brown, for instance. The case often symbolizes the end of de jure segregation in public schools, even though racial segregation resulting from resource inequality between school districts remains a huge problem. In her column this Wednesday, Brittany Smith voiced her frustration with the racial disparities in American schools and with the policy makers who are not addressing the problem (Education shouldn’t be a crapshoot, 03/10/2010).
I’m somewhat hopeful that this lack of attention will change — Obama stated in his State of the Union address that education reform will become a major project for his administration. But I largely agree with Smith. It seems very possible that education policy will be overshadowed by talks about the economy and the environment in the near future. And even if education becomes the next health care debate, I have no reason to believe that the Democrats won’t side step the race issue, as they’ve been doing since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.
Regardless, Brown will always be held on a pedestal to symbolize progress in racial equality in schools. In his book “Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform,” Derrick Bell refers to the Yale University Commencement 2002 when lawyer Robert L. Carter received an honorary degree, largely for his work on the Brown case. As the primarily white audience burst into applause, Bell hesitated to join, thinking about the modern state of our education system and how little it seems like Brown actually contributed towards significant progress.
Additionally, the way Brown is taught in primary and secondary education seriously overemphasizes the significance of the case. Students are frequently taught that Brown was a unanimous decision. While this is true, the implication is that there were no feelings of dissent among the justices. In “From Jim Crow to Civil Rights : The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality,” historian Michael Klarman shows that this is not true, as the justices who contemplated dissent were convinced otherwise to minimize public resistance to the decision. Students are also rarely taught about Brown II, the follow-up case that severely impeded the ability of state governments to enforce the decision.
Arguments that rely on the symbolic importance of an event are not limited to race issues — a few weeks ago the Daily argued that the university should adopt a policy of gender-neutral language because it would be symbolically important (He/she/ze, 02/17/2010). But the subject is particularly relevant to racial issues because it has become customary in politics to talk about the milestones, and nothing else. It’s a mistake for us to only recognize the milestones, because they usually divert our attention away from ongoing problems. But talking about issues related to race is contentious, so politicians simply don’t.
Jeremy Levy is an LSA sophomore.