The Cruelty Of Semantics

What makes the semantic game cruel is the agenda underlying it: conservatives want to roll back the racial gains of the past fifty years. We would be burying our heads in the sand to think otherwise
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The average citizen has a right to be perplexed by yesterday's Supreme Court decision that overthrew decades of school integration programs. Or did it do the opposite? The majority opinion cited the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education as its guiding light. The four dissenters, however, claimed that Brown had been compromised, betrayed, and misunderstood. The majority said that banning racial guidelines for sending kids to school was "colorblind," while their opponents foresaw the return of segregation through the back door. On the courthouse steps the same divide continued.

Who can we trust? On the face of it, the conservatives who voted to overturn the school integration programs of Louisville and Seattle sound well-intentioned. Many people are profoundly unhappy with thirty years of school bussing, an imperfect solution that has been blamed for losing the traditional neighborhood school. But the conservative movement has a disgraceful track record for covering up cruel intentions with soothing semantics. "Compassionate conservatism" lulled the American electorate into accepting the most far-right presidency in history. "Enemy combatant" has deprived hundreds of prisoners at Guantanamo of basic protections mandated under the Geneva Conventions and opened the door for torture. "Family values" covers up hatred of gays and denial of social tolerance. Now to this legacy we are adding "colorblind" as a disguise for racial neglect.

The legal counsel for the NAACP described the use of Brown by the conservative justices as Orwellian, and it's hard to disagree. The court's 1954 decision in Brown stripped away the shameful legal fiction of "separate but equal." Yesterday the court seemed to reinstate that very same policy indirectly, by claiming that it was opening the door for all schools to be equal even if such schools happened to be all black or all Latino. Everyone knows this won't happen. "Colorblind" is a sham when blacks, whites, and Latinos live in separate parts of a city, as they do everywhere in this country. Our cities suffer from rigid separation in housing by race, and in the name of neighborhood schools the reality will be de facto segregated education.

It takes contorted semantics to say that race can play no part in a policy that is trying to cure a racial problem. By the same contorted reasoning, women would be allowed equal opportunities in the workplace, but no one could use gender as part of their hiring policy. What? There is no way to know if women are being treated fairly without looking at gender, and the same is true with regard to race.

It took social reactionaries several decades to elect like-minded presidents, who in turn appointed like-minded Supreme Court justices. In a democracy, even reactionaries have a right to foster their agenda if they gain access to power. But it's shameful that they sugar-coat their meanness with twisted semantics and the pretense that this is a civil rights victory, as some right-wing spokesmen immediately tried to argue. Sadly, the people of color who received this latest slap in the face know exactly what happened to them. Despite the overwhelming public support for school integration in both Seattle and Louisville, five powerful white males were enough to squash a society's better nature. Legalisms trumped compassion. A pall hangs over the court for what they did, to the English language as much as to fair play.

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