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DANIELS: Protecting Black Americans' Right to Compete

Lee A. Daniels | 5/23/2013, 9 p.m.
Lee A. Daniels

One is understanding that the ruling came when American society was in turmoil from the wrenching demands of industrial capitalism and a floodtide of immigration from southern and Eastern Europe of White peoples whom most native-born White Americans considered a lower species of human being.

The second is understanding that Plessy's reasoning was built on pretense — the pretense of the doctrine of "separate but equal."

Its main points were: That separation of the races was the "natural order" of human relations. That Blacks and Whites could prosper under it because Whites, who had used violence to prevent Blacks from voting and seize control of the Southern state governments, would provide Blacks an equitable share of the governmental resources they gave to Whites. And that it was only the rogue Southern Blacks and Black and White "outside agitators" who were unhappy with segregation.

Of course, this was nonsensical thinking. But Plessy took hold among Northern as well as Southern Whites because it was rooted in a vicious anti-Black bigotry — and a fear of competition from Blacks, who had in the decades since the Civil War shown how capable they were of contending for the resources of the society.

To return to the present, a combination of bigotry and pretense and fear of competition is what animates the challenges to both affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act. Both challenges are rooted in the 19th- and 20th-centuries racist pathology that, as far as Blacks and Whites are concerned, the "rights" of American citizenship and the resources of American society are a zero-sum game: any exercise by Blacks of their rights as Americans is a threat to the rights — and the privileges which have masqueraded as rights — whites have always enjoyed.

Will the U.S. Supreme Court affirm once again how backward a notion that is?

Lee A. Daniels is a columnist for the National Newspaper Publishers Association. His most recent book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.