May 20, 2014 Virulent bigotry remains too common, sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education
Nine years before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s magnificent I Have a Dream speech, came the United States Supreme Court’s magnificent, compact, unanimous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing the racial segregation of schools. Brown, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S.Ct. 686 (1954).
Brown — successfully argued by later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (see the case’s related documents here) — turned sixty-years-old on May 17, 2014. We still have a long way to go in eliminating racism and other forms of bigotry in the United States and the entire globe. Look how much longer it took for the Supreme Court to bar laws criminalizing interracial marriage, not until thirteen years after Brown, and the fight for racial justice continues. It would be nice to hope that bigotry will fade as bigots age and pass away, but new ones replace them and learn from them.
I have been obsessed against bigotry throughout my life. Racial and religious hatred and insensitivity have fueled countless massacres, lynchings, social misery, and the list goes on. I have gone through the portals over the years of being stunned, upset and frozen at hearing racist talk and not knowing how to react; then ranting and raving at the speaker of racist words; and, finally, dealing with it on a case-by-case basis, anywhere from calmly telling the person I think his or her words are dehumanizing or uncalled for, to going into more detail, including asking the speaker what s/he meant, to seeing if there’s any way to turn around the person.
I am inspired by how a local labor organizer and social justice activist handled one particular racist incident quite awhile ago. He and his wife had just moved to a new Maryland town bordering Washington, DC, when one day some neighborhood children rode their bikes past the house calling out "white N’s, white N’s" to the man’s interracial children. Instead of losing his cool at the children, which would have been my first inclination before I heard this story in 1993, this man started talking to the children. He told them he coached a track team, and invited them to join the team. They joined the team, and eventually were fully enamored with him.
This coach caught these children early, who perhaps were parroting back the words of their parents, but who ultimately turned their backs on such ugly words and thoughts.
Lawyers — including criminal defense lawyers — need to be fully aware of issues of racism, including racism among jurors, judges, prosecutors, police, jailers, and lawyers’ clients. Martin Luther King, Jr., talked of seeing the promised land where racism has been substantially eliminated, but we have a long way to go; too long.