Once more into the abyss

Posted: Dec 06, 2006 12:00 AM
Once more into the abyss

The Supreme Court heard argument on Monday in two important cases. Ordinarily I would have been there to hear them. On Monday I stayed home.

Please forgive the first-person singular. When I write about the school cases from Louisville and Seattle, I write from a particular perspective. I am 86 years old. My ancestral roots lie deep in the soil of 19th-century New Orleans. My grandfather served as a captain in the Confederate cavalry. He owned slaves.

In the early 1900s, my father packed up all his inherited prejudices and took them with him to Oklahoma City. He married a girl from Kansas, sired three children, and went into business selling bridge flooring, fence posts and railway ties. We had two black servants: Lizzie, who "lived on" in an apartment over the two-car garage, and Nash, who came on Mondays to do the laundry and stay overnight with Lizzie. We children loved them. And they loved us. I will get to Monday's oral argument in a moment.

I inherited my father's inheritance. With it I inherited all the racial baggage of a thousand years. It's not easy to explain how people can be so intimate and yet so far apart. It was an established way of life, as immutable as the seasons and the tides. Black people (generally identified as "colored" and more formally as "Negroes") had their jobs, their churches, their foods and amusements. We had ours. I went through Hawthorne Elementary, Taft Junior High and Classen High School, and Lizzie and Nash were the only black persons in my life.

I did not mean to get so autobiographical when I started this column. If you want to read something else, go to it. In 1941 I was graduated from the lily-white University of Missouri. It's almost forgotten now, but the university once fought fiercely to maintain its segregated law school. Missouri's famed Journalism School was then as white as the snows of Antarctica. From the J-School I went to the old Richmond (Va.) News Leader as a reporter.

This is all to explain why I stayed home on Monday.

As a cub reporter in Richmond 65 years ago, I adjusted instantly to the local mores. When a black person figured unavoidably in the local news, we acknowledged the fact in genteel parentheses: "John Rogers (c) was named principal ..." After a while I became editor of the editorial page of the News Leader, "the youngest editor of a major newspaper in the South."

Then came May 1954, and the Supreme Court's unanimous opinion in Brown v. Board of Education. For Southerners both black and white, a world that had been steadily teetering was now a world turned upside down. In the name of "civil rights," every social institution known to my grandfather was about to topple -- hotels, restaurants, buses, trains -- and now our kindergartens!

When something comes along in the news like Monday's argument in the high court, I look back upon those pre-Brown years with shame, embarrassment and something close to disbelief. We defenders of school segregation were so very wrong! Legally wrong. Morally wrong. We should have been devoting our energies not to better white schools and better black schools, but simply to better schools, period.

The more things change, et cetera, et cetera. I read from the petitioners' mind-numbing brief in Case 05-908. Counsel is describing Seattle's "open choice" plan for racial integration of its 10 high schools:

"When a school district is oversubscribed, the district first admits siblings of enrolled students. In an effort to achieve a predetermined racial balance in each school (40 percent white to 60 percent nonwhite, that being the ratio among all students in the district), the district next looks at a school's racial composition and uses race to determine who will be admitted. A student is deemed to be of the race specified in her registration materials. If a parent declines to identify a child's race, the district assigns a race to the child based on a visual inspection of the student or parent. If the ratio of white to nonwhite pupils in an oversubscribed school deviates by more than a set number of percentage points from the desired balance, then a student whose race will move the school closer to the desired racial balance will be admitted, and a student whose race will move the school away from the desired balance will be denied admission. There is no individual consideration of applicants ..."

From the grave, my grandfather asks: Who's "racist" now?