As one of my random personal research projects I have been reading about Plessy v. Ferguson and its consequences in American society, and one of the things that has bothered me about it is the resolute assumption being made, both at the time and by contemporary authors, that separate is inherently unequal. To be sure, black or “colored” only facilities were not treated equally, and very little argument can be made to the position that the desire for whites to be separate from blacks was a desire to preserve a sense of inequality that would have been impossible to keep up if blacks were to be neighbors viewed at a level of equality. As numerous writers on separate but equal have pointed out, no one had a problem with the presence of black servants in the guise of housekeepers or nurses in white only spaces, but there was a problem with blacks as fellow passengers, which would have been admitting them on a position of equality. That said, there is something that really bothers me on a deeply personal level about the way that Brown v. Board of Education viewed the subjective feelings of inequality by black children in segregated schools as being so decisive in making that separation valid.
Why do feelings matter for some and not for others? Why is the subjective feeling of inequality so important when people complain about neighborhoods devoid of minority populations or suburbs with separate school systems that practically avoid integration with inner cities that have been subject to decades of white flight? The feelings of white people are certainly not being taken into consideration when one looks at forced integration, and the reality of white flight and neighborhoods that have low to nonexistent populations of blacks suggests that whites do not want to live around or go to school with blacks by and large. In reading the literature on the subject from my college days today (and this is a rough estimate), once the percentage of blacks in a neighborhood gets above a very small number (like 4 or 5%), a neighborhood will tend to lose whites until only about 25% of whites remain, namely those whites who are willing to live in a majority black neighborhood or who have been unable to move. I have seen within my own family, for example, that there was a heavy desire on the part of relatives of mine to move out of neighborhoods that had become “unsafe,” and quite often this lack of safety was related to the demography of the neighborhood. Clearly blacks by and large feel that it is advantageous to live near, go to school with, and work with whites but that the feelings are largely not mutual. There are exceptions, and this is painting with a very large brush, but by and large this appears to be the case.
As an aside, it should be noted that no one thinks it is a stigma to be separate when one has chosen to be separate. When a white family freely decides, as many millions have decided over the past few decades, that it is better to sell one’s house in a neighborhood whose ethnic composition is changing in an adverse way and to move out somewhere beyond the inner city where one can live in greater isolation or around one’s own kind, this is not viewed as a stigma or a negative. It is a choice that is freely made, and one that can be gratified to the extent of the price and supply of ready housing in more outlying areas. The Amish do not feel stigmatized for viewing themselves as separate from “English” society. They have chosen to be separate, chosen to have a way of life that is clearly different from that of mainstream society, and in a world of rapid technological and cultural change, there are a great many more traditionally minded people who are envious of the Amish and their ability to maintain cultural distinctiveness in a culture that is increasingly unfriendly to those of a traditionalist mindset. The importance of choice can even be seen in the experience I had as a high school student riding the school bus with a majority of fellow riders who were black. Our buses had mixed ages from elementary to high school for those who attended various magnet school programs (as I did), and the black high school students in the bus chose to sit in the back and liked having me sit in that area along with them because they viewed me as air conditioning. These people probably knew little about Rosa Parks that they had not heard from the Outkast song, but they almost certainly would have agreed that while it is a very good thing to choose to sit on the back seat of the bus (as far away as possible from the bus driver) that there is a stigma in being forbidden to sit anywhere else. No one feels a stigma in having chosen to live or sit in a particular place but it is pretty universal to feel a stigma in other people not wanting to sit around you or live around you and so on.
How is it that we overcome social inequality? This is not a rhetorical question, as much as it might seem to be. My entire life I have been a socially awkward person who has never fit in with those around me. While I have always been able to find at least a few friends who were either charmed by or tolerant of my ways and who did not object to my company, I have never been a particularly popular person or felt myself to be accepted by the majority of those around me. The reasons for it are not particularly relevant, except that it is my being different in one way or another that has made others feel less comfortable around me than they would with someone who thought like they did or who were not prone to uncomfortably intense personalities for people who read too much and talked too much and too loudly and said uncomfortable truths or opinions that other people did not want to deal with. People like to be around those they are comfortable with, and even a vague sense of unease that one cannot entirely define is enough for people to treat others as social lepers. People also like being accepted for who they are, and so those who find themselves facing social difficulties because of who they are have the not unreasonable tendency to find others as being bigoted or close-minded in one form or another. And they may indeed even be right in many cases. Sadly, being right and being right with others do not often coincide, and the vociferous claims that one is receiving unjust social inequality from people who are being made increasingly uncomfortable as a result of that prickly and bumptious conduct does not exactly help one’s case if one wants to be more accepted by others in a genuine sense.
What is to be done about this? What we want as people is both to be loved and accepted by others and to feel loved and accepted by others. How do we know that our feelings are accurate, especially when others may have strong motives in lying to us so that they do not feel or appear to be prejudiced against us, and where our own perspective has been colored by a lifetime of exclusion and rejection? And if our feelings are accurate, what can be done about it? Does our prickliness and defensiveness borne out of a lifetime of living in a hostile and unfriendly world make it more difficult for other people to be friendly and gracious to us? Probably. Is it hard to know what it is about others that makes us uncomfortable with them, hard to define it, and hard to explain it, especially if we are the sort of people who work very hard at being polite? Unquestionably. Is it hard to get what we want from others when others are simultaneously in denial that they are not giving it to us and equally resolute not to give it to us? Yes. And that is the point. Social equality is not something that can be demanded by victories in court cases or in the passage of laws. It must be given freely by people or not at all. We may want very much to be accepted by those we are around, to live at peace and to feel safe and that we belong, but if other people do not want to accept us or do not feel that we belong around them, for whatever reason, just or unjust, we are not going to belong or feel accepted. And we will suffer from that rejection, and it may even endanger us because we will be easy targets for the hatred and violence of those we are around during times of scarcity and fear. But what can be done about it if it depends on the will and wishes of other people, as it does?