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The Pernicious Prevalence of Race in American Discourse

In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case.

Justice John Marshall Harlan, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

Harlan’s opinion was, of course, the correct one. As the lone voice of dissent in what remains one of the more odious Supreme Court decisions, it serves as a cautionary reminder that majority opinions are not always the correct ones. Plessy may not have touched off a civil war, but by legitimizing segregation, it exacerbated the deep-rooted divisions that sundered this country for too much of its history.

The case itself was not without its ironies. In the now-antiquated parlance of the time, Homer Plessy was an octoroon whose want of racial “purity” never would have been noticed had he not brought it to the attention of the train conductor who came to collect his ticket. Plessy’s disclosure was the key to a larger plan devised by the Citizens Committee to test the constitutionality of the Separate Car Law, whose name hardly could do more to announce its purpose. Though succeeding in testing the law’s constitutionality, the test ultimately failed. As the Court opined, “We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”

It was a strange place to locate the underlying fallacy, seeing that there was an all-too-flagrant fallacy in the very notion of a separate equality that was imposed on the other. A more considerate court might have, at the very least, suggested that in the future, Plessy not reveal his racial heritage so that he could enjoy the equality reserved for whites rather than suffer the one reserved for blacks. That the seven-eighths white Plessy had the abrogation of his rights upheld by seven-eighths of the Court that day, that the one-eighth of the Court that found that abrogation opprobrious was a former slave-owner, and that the last name of the justice who delivered the majority opinion was Brown were further ironies that apparently were lost on the eminent tribunal that day.

Of course, irony does nothing to mitigate the odium of the decision. If Plessy marks one of those indelible stains on the fabric of American history, one can find consolation in the fact that that age has been transcended and the perverse logic that sanctioned something as execrable as the “separate but equal” doctrine has been refuted. Yet it is precisely because such progress has been made that the prevailing inclination to judge a person according to his racial composition is that much more disheartening.

Of late, nowhere has this atavistic tendency been more on display than with respect to the Tiger Woods scandal. From radio shows to the blogosphere to the editorial pages, one has encountered a rather wayward way of thinking that would seem to belong to an age more myopic than this one.

Speaking of the Woods affair on Tom Joyner’s radio show, comedienne Sheryl Underwood quipped that if “you never date a black woman or a woman of color or you never sample the greatness of the international buffet of human beings … we got a problem.” One wonders if it is a problem only when someone as racially diverse and sexually voracious as Tiger is reputed to be fails to feast at the international buffet of human beings or if this applies to everyone. If the latter is the case, those who tend to err in the direction of fidelity and monogamy might have, as Underwood would put it, “a problem.”

Also taking issue with Tiger’s predilection for white women was Alicia Weekes, fashion editor for Giant magazine: “I don’t feel there is anything wrong with black men dating white women, but when a black man makes that his preference, it becomes an issue.” Weekes locates the root of the black male’s desire for white women in slavery and avers that notwithstanding all the racial progress that has been made, too often blacks regard some of their distinctive features as inferior and, as a result, seek out the fairer of the fairer sex as a sort of redress. Whether this undertaking proves fruitful for the black male is not made clear, but one suspects that it cannot be too salutary for the white woman who learns that she ultimately is viewed as little more than a compensatory prize.

In the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson remarked that one of the “most disappointing” aspects of the whole Tiger Woods story is that “the women who’ve been linked to Woods resemble one another.” Oh, horror of horrors! A man of immense fortune and fame has a preference for a certain type of woman and, capable of getting virtually any woman he wants, goes out and gets — well, the women he wants. One only can imagine Robinson’s discomfiture were he to discover that an acquaintance of his is a baroque music aficionado who, over the years, has been collecting the works not only of Bach, Handel, and Monteverdi, but Telemann, Purcell, and Vivaldi as well. Of course, the real problem for Robinson is not so much that Tiger’s women resemble each other but that they all, according to Robinson, resemble Barbie. And that really betrays not just the superficiality of Robinson’s thinking, but the perversity of all those who think that the real transgression here is that Tiger did not show greater attention to the diversity of his sexual exploits.

Tiger’s transgressions are all too real, but none of them has anything to do with the color of his skin — or the color of anyone else’s skin for that matter. The fact that Tiger’s taste in women would not have been an issue had Tiger been a “Cablinasian” who appeared more Asian and less black gets to the heart of the problem and confirms that, in spite of all the progress that has been secured on the subject of race in this country, there still exists a pernicious mindset that champions — and seemingly does so with a clean conscience — the idea that a person should be judged according to the color of one’s skin and not on the content of one’s character.

In an age of racial intolerance, Homer Plessy was condemned for a racial trait that could not be perceived. In an age of racial tolerance, Tiger Woods is condemned for a racial trait that cannot be ignored. If there is irony to be found in this, it does nothing to mitigate the odium.