The 60th anniversary of the Brown v. the Board of Education is being celebrated today with far more pomp than has accompanied Independence Day celebrations in recent years. Not surprisingly, Michelle Obama took the occasion to condemn not just the growing trend of resegregation in public schools—a nasty term for neighborhood-based schools—but also the persistence of segregation in private life: "Our laws may no longer separate us based on our skin color, but there’s nothing in our constitution that says we have to eat together in the lunchroom or live together in the same neighborhoods…"
Aware of the First Lady's eagerness to use government agents to enforce her personal prejudices, American citizens of all races might justifiably be concerned about what is coming next. Racial quotas for neighborhoods? Mandatory mixed-race partying and dating and marriage? A few years ago one might have put down such fears as paranoiac nonsense, but these days nothing is off the table. Some time ago, in fact, Spike Lee complained that when white men dated black women, they always picked out the most attractive, while black men ended up going out with only ugly white women—the sort Cedric the Entertainer described in Barbershop (a wonderful film, by the way) as afflicted with "low self-esteem."
On this historic morning, NPR chose to run a very strange piece in which older black Americans admitted to considerable nostalgia for the bad old days before Brown. Media consultant Carmen Fields recalled that "We had our own grocery stores, black doctors, lawyers, dentists, hotel, movie theaters, shoe repairmen, our own segregated YMCA." And her schools, far from being inferior, were staffed by excellent teachers:
"Some of our teachers were Ph.D.s, or Ph.D. candidates," Fields recalls. "We had the best of the best, the talented 10th, if you will, and they expected the best of us."
Naturally, NPR had to bring on social theorists to explain that these witnesses to the decline in the quality of life among black Americans as people longing really for the simpler times of their childhood, but their speculations are as invalid as would be any attempt to justify segregation on educational grounds.
What black racists are missing and what white racists would miss if they dared to speak openly are some simple realities. Education has never been a strictly private or individual process. Schools unite families and communities, and if it was wrong to dictate racial segregation to those families and communities, it is equally wrong to dictate integration. Healthy families and communities are far more important for personal happiness than individual rights, because it is within families and communities—and their schools and clubs and social groups—that we learn to be not just members of a local community but truly human. When governments, staffed by indifferent or do-gooding outsiders, intervene in such intensely personal affairs, the effects are generally more catastrophic than the attempts of socialist governments to eliminate private property an social hierarchy.
Contrast the world described by Zora Neale Hurston with the world experienced by all too many urban black Americans today. Zora's father was mayor of his small town, and she grew up in a close-knit community of families and neighbors who knew and cared for each other. There was nothing "equal" about Zora's opportunities: She was underprivileged by law but given an upbringing and a base of experiences that made her one of the most interesting American writers of the 20th century. She was as real as the whining proponents of black studies today are artificial.
One of the stars of the Harlem Renaissance and a great exponent of traditional black culture, Zora Neale Hurston felt no resentment against white people and, when times were bad, she cheerfully worked as a maid for white women. She once remarked that every break in life she had ever received came from generous white people. When the Brown decision was announced, she responded with an editorial in the Orlando Sentinel—the last piece of writing she would publish. The whole piece is available in the Library of America edition of her works and online at LewRockwell.com. Here are a few pertinent extracts:
The whole matter revolves around the self-respect of my people. How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them?...
Now a great clamor will arise in certain quarters that I seek to deny the Negro children of the South their rights, and therefore I am one of those "handkerchief-head niggers" who bow low before the white man and sell out my own people out of cowardice. However an analytical glance will show that that is not the case.
If there are not adequate Negro schools in Florida, and there is some residual, some inherent and unchangeable quality in white schools, impossible to duplicate anywhere else, then I am the first to insist that Negro Children of Florida be allowed to share this boon. But if there are adequate Negro schools and prepared instructors and instruction, then there is nothing different except the presence of white people.
For this reason, I regard the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court as insulting rather than honoring my race. Since the days of the never-to-be-sufficiently-deplored Reconstruction, there has been current the belief that there is no greater delight to Negroes than the physical association with whites.
It is most astonishing that this should be tried just when the nation is exerting itself to shake off the evils of Communist penetration. It is to be recalled that Moscow, being made aware of this folk belief, made it the main plank in their campaign to win the American Negro from the 1920s on. It was the come-on stuff. Join the party and get yourself a white wife or husband. To supply the expected demand, the party had scraped up this-and-that off of park benches and skid rows were held to be just panting to get hold of one of these objects. Seeing how flat that program fell, it is astonishing that it would be so soon revived. Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows.
But the South had better beware in another direction. While it is being frantic over the segregation ruling, it better keep its eyes open for more important things. One instance of Govt by fiat has been rammed down its throat. It is possible that the end of segregation is not here and never meant to be here at present, but the attention of the South directed on what was calculated to keep us busy while more ominous things were brought to pass. The stubborn South and the Midwest kept this nation from being dragged farther to the left than it was during the New Deal.
But what if it is contemplated to do away with the two party system and arrive at Govt by administrative decree? No questions allowed and no information given out from the administrative dept. We could get more rulings on the same subject and more far-reaching any day. It pays to weight every saving and action, however trivial as indicating a trend.
In the ruling on segregation, the unsuspecting nation might have witnessed a trial-balloon. A relatively safe one, since it is sectional and on a matter not likely to arouse other sections of the nation to support of the South. If it goes off fairly well, a precedent has been established. Govt by fiat can replace the constitution. You don't have to credit me with too much intelligence and penetration, just so you watch carefully and think…
It is well known that I have no sympathy nor respect for the "Tragedy of color" school of thought among us, whose fountain-head is the pressure group concerned in this court ruling. I can see no tragedy in being too dark to be invited to a white school social affair. The Supreme Court would have pleased me more if they had concerned themselves about enforcing the compulsory education provisions for Negroes in the South as is done for white children. The next 10 years would be spent in appointing truant officers and looking after conditions in the home from which the children come. Use to the limit what we already have.
Thems my sentiments and I am sticking by them. Growth from within. Ethical and cultural desegregation. It is a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association. That old white mare business can go racking down the road for all I care.
If the wisdom of Zora Neale Hurston had been followed, decent American families, black and white, would not have been subjected to mass culture and subjugated by the most indolent and lawless elements in our country. In preserving and developing their own peculiar cultures and traditions, the black and white communities might have come to develop greater respect for each other. Instead, the respect that was growing before Brown, has been replaced by contempt and fear, and black Americans, if they do not wish to lead their lives in fear and disgust, find themselves forced to leave historic black communities and seek lives of dignity and peace in communities in which they must sacrifice a good deal of their heritage.
For all this we have Republican Earl Warren and the entire tribe of hypocritical liberals to thank.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.