MIAMI -- My daughter didn't understand black. She insisted that she was tan. Patiently and with a child's faultless logic, she repeated it, even holding up her arm so I could see for myself.
Hampered by the imperfect logic of adults, I fumbled to correct her. No, I explained, you're black.
It was a conversation that could only happen in America, but I knew it had to be done. She had to be prepared for the day one of her friends, in a fit of pique, said some awful word picked up from the grown-ups at the dinner table. As prepared as possible, anyway.
Some small part of me rebelled at the task of explaining race to a child. Was saddened by the reminder that we haven't yet managed to make it irrelevant.
One hundred years ago this week, the Supreme Court codified that failing into a law that, for the next 58 years, gave backbone to Jim Crow. At the center of the case was a man named Homer Plessy who wound up in jail while trying to get to Covington, a small town in Louisiana.
The facts of the case were simple. On June 7, 1892, Plessy bought a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railway and took a seat in a whites-only coach. In the language of the day, Plessy was an octoroon -- one-eighth black.
That was one-eighth too much. He was arrested and charged with violating a Louisiana statute requiring separate accommodations for blacks and whites.
In its ruling, the high court upheld the concept of ''equal but separate'' facilities. Justices said it was a ''fallacy'' to think this meant government was calling blacks inferior.
Of course, that's precisely what it meant. The Plessy case was historic, but it really only sanctioned what was already ingrained in American life. Blacks and whites had never lived side by side in the years before the ruling. For that matter, they haven't been neighbors in the 42 years since the decision was overturned, in the Brown v. Board of Education case.
Coalition of dreamers
Yes, the civil-rights movement shattered the legal foundation for segregation. And yes, a rainbow coalition of dreamers has since sought to build a new foundation based on the revolutionary idea that we can live together.
But that idea has been under fire since the moment of its making, savaged by separatists in white school districts, Black Muslim mosques and many places in between. Now the effort seems almost dead. Worse, it seems almost quaint -- a relic of the tie-dyed years when some people thought you could have peace simply by saying it.
In its April 29 issue, Time magazine declared flatly that America has ''given up'' on school integration, largely because whites won't stand still long enough to be integrated with. Instead they've fled from the cities to the suburbs to avoid it.
Nor is the surrender a one-way street. A few days ago my wife and I were invited to my sister-in-law's college graduation -- a separate ceremony for students of color, held under the banner of Afrocentricity. We received a similar invite a few years ago when my cousin came out of law school.
Some people don't see the problem. Some wonder what is gained when black and white live together. Better to discuss the things that are lost: ignorance and fear.
We trade that weight for wings. We gain a sense of nation that doesn't depend on war or crisis for lifeblood. We draw strength from the fact that we all sing ''America'' with different accents and dance it with different rhythms.
In theory, at least. We are not yet there in practice. Not even now, a century after the Supreme Court rebuked Homer Plessy, a generation after the court said we must find a way to live together.
Which is why I felt a little sad at having to wear my little girl down with adult illogic to protect her from the cruelties that are yet to come.
I watch her sometimes as she plays, running across the lawn in a giggling flock of brown and blond children. And I know that while nothing has changed for her, everything, irrevocably, has. That Plessy's lesson is rushing at her, that it will take her innocence, pull her out of the moment of idyll.
And that it will make her forget what it was like to rush laughing across the lawn in the days when she was tan.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Pub Date: 5/17/96