Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Read It Again

So ever since Jim Chen started his Jurisdynamics blog, I've been meandering my way through some of the articles the good professor recommended to me. They raise a lot of points which are insightful and erudite. But there was one thing that jumped out at me that had very little to do with Professor Chen at all, but rather just a product of reading a piece through my own tinted glasses.

The two articles I've finished so far are Poetic Justice, and Mayteenth, which I read in that order. Both include the following quote by William Van Alstyne:
One gets beyond racism by getting beyond it now: by a complete, resolute, and credible commitment never to tolerate in one's own life--or in the life or practices of one's government--the differential treatment of other human beings by race. [Rites of Passage: Race, the Supreme Court, and the Constitution, 46 U. Chi. L. Rev. 775, 809]

It's a nice, snappy quote. I liked it. I also completely misinterpreted it the first time around. In "Poetic Justice," the quote came in the midst of a discussion of Brown v. Board's (in)famous maxim that desegregation proceed with "all deliberate speed." "All deliberate speed," of course, rapidly became no speed at all, as Southern states used it as an excuse to delay, and delay, and delay. So I read Professor Van Alstyne's quote through my happy Crit worldview: as a critique of incrementalism and a call for radical change. Arguing against those Whites who pushed a "don't rock the boat" mentality, who insisted that race relations will improve on its own, I had Van Alstyne in the role of Martin Luther King, demanding that racism never be tolerated: not now, not tomorrow, not ever.

This is, to be sure, very close to what Professor Van Alstyne is saying: in fact, if you replaced "differential treatment of other human beings by race" with something like "the unforgivable evil of racism and racist ideologies," it might say exactly that (I'd imagine that Van Alstyne would equate the two, but I think they are distinct). But upon re-read in "Mayteenth," I realized (somewhat embarrassingly, as it was quite clear) that what Professor Van Alstyne was actually advocating was not a radical view of race and anti-racism, but classic color-blindness. "Mayteenth" transposed the quote next to Bakke instead of Brown, where the full meaning of the phrase "one gets beyond racism" is found in its implicit rebuke to Justice Blackmun's famous argument in that case: "In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way." I'm in the camp of Mr. Justice Blackmun--I am not even convinced that race is something we should get beyond, much less confident that we are prepared to make the jump now.

One of the nice (or not so nice, depending on your perspective) things about great quotes is that they can be used to inspire so many things. I've always took to heart Barry Goldwater's exhortation that "extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue," although I would have agreed with precious little else Goldwater believed in 1964. Similarly, with Van Alstyne in mind, I can say that One gets beyond racism by getting beyond it now, by resolving to pursue and eradicate racial hierarchy wherever it exists, by refusing to tolerate the structures and institutions which denigrate color and exalt White, and by keeping an ever-vigilant eye and a constant guard against racism in all its many forms and disguises. Most importantly, one gets beyond racism by never allowing oneself to think one has already gotten beyond it.

Perhaps not as poetic--but certainly more in line with my conception of justice.

2 comments:

gattsiri said...

I'm not sure you understand the exact implications of your concepts.

I doubt I can get them across in English correctly, and so I will apologize first in case this is misparsed. I can only provide short glimpse.

In the United Kingdom, any statement which could "cause alarm or even distress". This seems to have originally related only to incitement to riot and racism charges, but within the last year and a half, has also been brought against individuals any police officer or common citizen believes to, well, cause distress. This has included a "Bollocks to Blair" shirt in no less than two occurances

?You are given two choices : to ban and thus encourage the growth of this 'thought' at the cost of your freedom of speech, or to allow it to occur while violating what must be a core tenet? Neither are acceptable. The former requires you to lose whatever political free speech you had, since, while they come today for the white seperatists and fascist stooges, they will come tomorrow for you and I. The later is not a far step from doublespeak and meaningless ideals at the best, and madness at the worst.

Disenchanted Dave said...

The way you spoke of Goldwater's ideals--liberty etc.--versus the implementation reminded me of a recent quote from John Dean, one of Goldwater's close associaates.

He said something along the lines of "I'm a hardcore Goldwater Republican which puts me somewhat left of center these days."