Academic journal article Social Justice

"The Land That Never Has Been Yet": U.S. Race Relations at the Crossroads

Academic journal article Social Justice

"The Land That Never Has Been Yet": U.S. Race Relations at the Crossroads

Article excerpt


The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins.

- W.E.B. Du Bois (1903)

An American looks like a wounded person whose wound is hidden from others, and sometimes from herself An American looks like me.

- Alice Walker (1992)

If you believe, as I do, in racial equality as a matter of moral principle and in the incompatibility of political democracy with racial hierarchy, then you will no doubt agree that we live in very difficult times, and that the end of this millennium represents a sorrowful rather than celebratory occasion. It is difficult to remain optimistic when so many visions remain unrealized and so much ground has been lost. Because race is such a deep and enduring wound in the body politic, the struggle for racial equality, even at its most optimistic moments (which have been few), requires us to always keep a sharp lookout for that "hellhound on my trail," to quote bluesman Robert Johnson (quoted in Litwack, 1991: 25).

"Inspiration strives with doubt, and faith with vain questionings," wrote W.E.B. Du Bois (1993: 14) at the beginning of this 20th century - the "American Century" as it would be called by chauvinists who marveled at the spoils of manifest destiny. To millions, however, the new century was born in blood and disappointment. The Souls of Black Folk (written by Du Bois in 1903) was a lament for and reclamation of the lost promise of Reconstruction, whose fate was sealed one hundred years ago, in 1896, a year in which 77 African Americans were lynched and the Supreme Court enshrined the principle of "separate but equal" in the laws of the land, in the landmark case of Plessy v. Ferguson. The Court upheld the decision of a Louisiana court to convict Homer Plessy, a man whose one-eighth African origins made him a Negro, for refusing to move to the "colored" section of a railroad car. "Enforced separation of the two races," wrote Justice Henry B. Brown for the majority, does not stamp "the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so," he concluded, it is "because the colored race chooses to put that construction on it" (Foy, 1989: 828-829).

Du Bois knew that the Plessy decision was the burial of the first wave of the modern civil rights movement. "The bright ideals of the past," he wrote in 1903 - "physical freedom, political power, the training of brains and the training of hands - all these in turn have waxed and waned, until even the last grows dim and overcast" (Du Bois, 1993: 14). His pessimism was not misplaced. White supremacy would remain the law of the land for at least 60 more years until another landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), signaled the beginning of a revitalized civil rights struggle against what the Supreme Court now recognized as the "inherently unequal" structure of racial domination (McDearman, 1989: 819-820). "I have seen the impossible happen," exulted Du Bois (1993: xlviii) when he heard the news that school segregation had been overturned.

The new movement, which resumed where Reconstruction had ended, generated pioneering legislative, legal, and regulatory victories, as well as the formal repudiation of a segregated public life. President Kennedy's 1961 Executive Order 10925, which for the first time linked the phrase "affirmative action" to civil rights enforcement policy, was backed up with passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other legislation, with Supreme Court decisions ordering tough remedies to undo racism, and with the establishment of hiring goals and timetables during the Nixon administration (Graham, H., 1992: 50-62).

One generation later, some 42 years after Brown v. Board of Education, we find ourselves, once again, at the edge of a precipice. There are no mass lynchings in 1996, but as historian Eric Foner (1995: 487-488) points out, the "interrelated areas of housing and schools remain predominantly segregated, if not by law then by custom buttressed by economics and public policy. …

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