May 17, 2021
I’m wiped out from grading, but I wanted to note that on this day in 1954, the Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, decision, declaring racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. A unanimous court decided that segregation denied Black children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1868 in the wake of the Civil War. Brown v. Board was a turning point in establishing the principle of racial equality in modern America.
Since the 1860s, we have recognized that equality depends upon ensuring that all Americans have a right to protect their own interests by having a say in their government.
Today, that principle is under attack.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson urged Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act to “help rid the Nation of racial discrimination in every aspect of the electoral process and thereby insure the right of all to vote.” And yet, in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted that law, and in the wake of the 2020 election in which voters gave Democrats control of the government, Republican-dominated states across the country are passing voter suppression laws.
Today, Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) begged their colleagues to reinstate the Voting Rights Act. In 2006 a routine reauthorization of the law got through the Senate with a vote of 98-0; now it is not clear it can get even the ten Republican votes it will need to get through the Senate, so long as the filibuster remains intact.
But here’s the thing: Once you give up the principle of equality before the law, you have given up the whole game. You have admitted the principle that people are unequal, and that some people are better than others. Once you have replaced the principle of equality with the idea that humans are unequal, you have granted your approval to the idea of rulers and servants. At that point, all you can do is to hope that no one in power decides that you belong in one of the lesser groups.
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, then a candidate for the Senate, warned that arguments limiting American equality to white men and excluding black Americans were the same arguments “that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world…. Turn in whatever way you will—whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent.” Either people—men, in his day—were equal, or they were not.
Lincoln went on, “I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it… where will it stop?”