Racial Equality

Negro going in colored entrance of movie house on Saturday afternoon, Belzoni, Mississippi, 1939.
CUNY School fo Law Professor Victor Goode is an expert on civil rights issues and affirmative action and has served as executive director of the National Conference of Black Lawyers and founded the Affirmative Action Coordinating Center.
Manhattan-born Justice Elena Kagan was appointed by Presidnet Barack Obama in 2010.

Although the Declaration of Independence famously provided that all men are created equal, the Constitution itself did not have a provision mentioning equality until after the Civil War.  The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott v. Sandford decision in 1857, decided on the eve of the Civil War, stated that African-Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery. . . .”

After the war ended, the Reconstruction Amendments established birthright citizenship and equal protection of the law, but the nation’s commitment to equality waned in the 1870s. The Court ruled that the 14th Amendment covered only states, not private enterprises, removing the federal government’s requirement to enforce civil rights legislation.

In 1896 the Court again turned its back on racial equality in Plessy v. Ferguson when it ruled that segregation was legal on the basis of “equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races.” Plessy affirmed Jim Crow segregation laws that provided decidedly inferior services to African-Americans and became the norm in the South and in some parts of the North and West until the 1960s. Perhaps more damagingthan unequal facilities was the message that was sent to all by racial segregation laws that whites and blacks were incompatible and unequal.

Perhaps nowhere was segregation more sharply felt than in education, the key to a person’s chances for success in life, to paraphrase the Supreme Court. In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education capped more than a decade of challenges by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to “separate but equal” in education. In Brown, the Court found that racially segregated schools are inherently unequal, thereby overturning the legalized inequality upheld in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Although Brown eventually ended de jure segregation (segregation carried out and sanctioned by law), de facto segregation (segregation that happens in fact, and not because it is required by law) remains and is intensifying today.

Today, equality in education centers on such issues as school funding and affirmative action. The Court has particularly struggled with the issue of affirmative action in education and whether governments can take race into consideration as a means of achieving diversity. Most recently, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (2013) the Court decided that any consideration of race by a university in its application process had to be “narrowly tailored” to the interests in diversity, including an examination of “race-neutral” means.

“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.” Justice John Marshall Harlan, dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)


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