`Plessy card' use by Jackson trumped up

January 22, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

DARE I USE A saying so banal and trite in this column?

What the heck. It fits. I dare. The saying is one you've heard before.

"Oh no, he didn't."

Oh no, the Revvum Jesse Jackson didn't, that is. Somebody tell me the man didn't "go there" - if I may be permitted to use another trite phrase making the rounds. Someone tell me he didn't appear on Phil Donahue's MSNBC show last week and play the Plessy card.

Donahue's show was about the University of Michigan's affirmative action admissions plan. You know, the one President Bush came out against last week. The one that Supreme Court justices will rule on soon. Yeah, that one.

There were the usual pro and con forces on this complex and controversial issue. Arguments were made, rebuttals tendered and the ideas flowed freely. Then the good revvum took the low road and played the Plessy card.

If the University of Michigan's affirmative action admissions plan is overturned, Jackson told a national television audience, it would take black Americans back to 1896.

You understand the reference to 1896, don't you? That was the year the Supreme Court, in an America brimming with racism, ruled that "separate but equal" laws were constitutional. Louisianian Homer Plessy had a black great-grandparent among his ancestors. That was enough to make him black by Louisiana statutes (the infamous "one drop" rule).

Plessy was sitting in the whites-only section of a train when he was ordered to sit in the black section. He refused and was arrested. He took the case to the Supreme Court, claiming his 14th Amendment right to equal protection of the laws had been violated.

Eight justices ruled against Plessy. Their opinion read:

"A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races - a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color - has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races."

More progressive - and, it seems prescient - for his time was Justice John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenter who wrote:

"Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. ... In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case. ... The present decision, it may well be apprehended, will not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficent purposes which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent amendments to the Constitution."

Harlan's words were a precursor to the civil rights bill passed 68 years later. Harlan and that bill speak in terms of colorblindness. Affirmative action opponents ask for nothing more than sticking to the colorblind wording of the 1964 civil rights bill.

It's affirmative action proponents who insist on color consciousness, much like the Supreme Court majority in 1896. They're the ones who want to know and tolerate classes among Americans. So let's be clear about who wants to take black Americans back to 1896. It's Jackson and affirmative action's passionate supporters, not Bush and affirmative action's gratuitously maligned opponents.

Donahue, typical white liberal putty in the hands of Jackson, didn't call him on his goofy claim. Nor has there been any furor since, although Jackson clearly implied that Bush and those who opposed affirmative action are a bunch of racists who want to take blacks back to the dark old days of 1896.

It's language every bit as repulsive as the quote that got Sen. Trent Lott bounced as Senate majority leader. Lott got his kisser plastered on magazine covers, and was forced to apologize.

Jackson's remark gets not a peep of reaction. Some will say it's because Lott was a powerful political leader and Jackson is, well, no one's quite sure what the revvum's employment is. A squeegee kid has a more discernible (and productive, not to mention useful) job description than Jackson has.

Whatever his occupation, the man who several blacks recently sued because they say he has made fraudulent claims of being a black leader was out of bounds on this one. It was demagoguery unbecoming of even a demagogue.

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