Today is the 117th commemoration of Homer Plessy's attempt to desegregate postbellum public accommodations in New Orleans. Boarding a white designated street car at Press and Royal Streets, Plessy demanded equal rights to ride any car. He and his colleagues had carefully strategized this direct action and prepared for the subsequent court cases (culminating in Plessy v. Ferguson). They knew very well that this ride could challenge white supremacy via segregation across the entire US.
Later today is a commemoration of Plessy's boarding of the street car at Press and Royal Streets, 9th Ward, New Olreans.
The Times-Picayune ran a story about Plessy v. Ferguson this morning. It's a nice effort by the establishment's newspaper, but the usual trappings of a limited understanding of racism surface repeatedly in the story. For example, the reporter quotes a descendant of Judge Ferguson who says that while he ruled against Plessy and affirmed the concept of separate but equal:
"The judge was born in Massachusetts and had strong ties to abolitionists, she said. So she doesn't think he was a racist."Huh? So even though he single handedly affirmed the right of Louisiana to discriminate against Blacks and laid the foundation for the US Supreme Court Ruling in 1896 which legalized Jim Crow segregation until 1954, he "wasn't racist"? What is racism if not this?
The problem here is our collective understanding of racism: mostly that it's framed as a matter of attitudes and intentions, not a wider system of oppression and exploitation based on race. Does it really matter if Ferguson himself was a "racist" or not?
Or does it matter that the vast majority of white Americans were extremely racist in their thought and actions; that scientific concepts of racism were reaching their peak; the plantation system was reorganizing itself around debt peonage to re-enslave the newly emancipated; whites and conservative black leaders were advocating African re-colonization as a "final solution"; lynchings were rampant; mass incarceration of black bodies was being instituted; and courts found ways to legitimate and facilitate all of this on multiple levels? Add to this the recent overthrow of democratic Reconstruction governments across the South in the 1870s and you get a sense of how racially charged all judicial decisions were, irregardless of the individual judge's feelings.
Unfotunately the reporter for the Times-Picayune has written a feel good story that emphasizes the history of things, and the great steps forward we've made here in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the USA since Plessy stepped up the movement aboard a street car.
Today's commemoration is being advertised as a "celebration of progress." Sure, there's been progress.
Consider the fact of what Plessy was attempting to do. Homer Plessy was fighting to integrate public accommodations. More fundamentally his goal was to make full citizens of Blacks; to give people of color all the rights of state held by whites. He failed, but not for a lack of effort. His act, part of a Comité des Citoyens campaign, was an early cycle in the black freedom movement which culminate most recently in the Civil Rights Mobilization from the 1950s-1960s.
The groups that have organized today's celebration of progress (New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, The Crescent City Peace Alliance and the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation) rightly point out that, "While many consider the Civil Rights movement to have begun in the 1950's, communities were organizing for equal rights much earlier," and that "the Committee's use of civil disobedience and the court system foreshadowed the Civil Rights struggles of the Twentieth Century."
Yes, it did. However, by calling it a celebration of progress and putting Plessy's work in the context of the Civil Rights Movement are we to believe that Plessy's heirs achieved his goals in 1964, 1965? Isn't this what celebrating progress implies?
Demographers continue to point out that our society is incredibly segregated along racial and class lines. In fact, by many measures we are more segregated today than we were in the 1960s. Actually, according to one esteemed scholar of demography, only one nation in modern history was more racially segregated than the contemporary United States: Apartheid South Africa.
But don't we now have a Black president, Attorney General, and a Black Mayor right here in New Orleans? Sure we do. This is exactly why I have to reject the notion that we've made "progress." Instead, I think we've transformed the racial system, and racial formation remains a profound social force of competing power blocks. Some things are better. Some are worse. Everything is different. I'm more reluctant to paint a rosy picture than a gloomy one though.
Do we really have much "progress" to be "celebrating"?
The transformation of race and racism over the past fifty years has made many of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement less effective at achieving justice than they once seemed capable of. While the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act and a slew of federal initiatives to finally and fully enfranchise Blacks as equal citizens were enacted in the 1960s, they've had less impact than most initially thought they would.
The answer, according to most historians who've looked carefully at the problem, is that precisely at the moment when Blacks achieved full citizenship, whites, particularly affluent whites withdrew their wealth from the public sector. There was a mass divestment of white wealth from public schools, infrastructure, city finances, state budgets and federal programs, public recreational facilities, and yes, public transportation. This divestment occurred right at the moment segregation was deemed legally indefensible. Coincidence? Nope. Progress thwarted? Yup.
Plessy was using public transportation to fight the wider system of Black exclusion from the white herrenvolk democracy. The goal was the pry open the street cars to equal access in order to pry open the schools, parks, hospitals, police force, political departments, and so many more state functions that were monopolized by whites for their own power and enrichment.
Plessy's case is illustrative of how the supposedly full and final equality sought by Blacks has been repeatedly thwarted in the US, especially during the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement in decades since.
Consider public transportation in present day New Orleans. Anyone who rides public transport here knows that the bus routes run too few and far between. Those who don't have cars are stuck, more or less. The street cars themselves have mostly devolved into a novel attraction for tourist, not an effective means of getting from point A to B by regular folks. New Orleans once had an extensive street car system with lines branching off Canal Street into the Uptown and Downtown, to Mid City and even out into the suburbs. It was a well funded and useful public good. You can still see rail line peaking out of the pavement in the center of many streets, long ago covered with asphalt and doomed to the age of the automobile.
New Orleans no longer has a street car system. Instead we have an auto-centric transportation infrastructure with the I-10, 610 freeways, and Pontchartrain Expy dominating the urban grid and connecting the corporate and entertainment centers of New Orleans to the whiter and wealthier suburbs and the airport. It's no secret that when the highways were built (early 1960s), they were erected to serve the rapidly expanding "white flight" suburbs of New Orleans, and that in the process of building them, city officials and federal bureaucrats destroyed several major black neighborhoods and business districts (see my previous post on the I-10). The highways then facilitated the flight of capital and major businesses from the inner-city, just in time to escape the the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent legal rulings that demanded school integration, and end to job discrimination, housing rights, and so much more.
Black folks can ride the street cars and buses now, fully and equally with everyone else. Progress, right?
I ride the buses here in New Orleans quite often. I'd say the ridership is about 95% or greater Black. It's like most US cities. Public goods like transport: anyone can use them, we are all free and equal no? But most whites and certainly all of the middle class (of all colors) stick to their cars. The elite fly around in corporate jets and get NOPD escorts for their limousine caravans across town.
I still think Homer Plessy and the Comité des Citoyens deserve commemoration. They are rightfully among our movement heroes. But let's not call all things progress when the reality is so much more complex.