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This month the United States Supreme Court begins a new term. The docket includes a challenge to affirmative action programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Another case involves a provision of the Voting Rights Act. At issue is whether Alabama engaged in racial gerrymandering to limit the influence of African American voters.
Race also is on the docket in a challenge to the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act. The law mandating whether Indian children should be adopted or fostered in Indian homes is being challenged by the state of Texas and a group of white adoptive families.
Issues of race and our racial history are being decided by a Supreme Court that has demonstrated contempt and hostility to both.
Race is a social construct, a categorization of a group of people based on perceived physical and social qualities. America was built on the idea that African Americans were an inferior race, a commodity and chattel. African Americans were dehumanized property and certainly not full humans. “We the people” did not mean all the people.
This idea was part of our American jurisprudence. The march toward full participation has been hard fought in the courts and outside the courts for centuries. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education cases are hailed as America’s reckoning with state-sponsored segregation. Yet school districts and states have worked hard to find ways to prevent integration and the larger struggles of equality.
As I consider the status of race and equality in schools today, I am overcome with the realization that not much has changed. Minnesota ranks 50th when it comes to racial disparities in high school graduation rates. The reasons for this entrenched and persistent disparity are many, but at its core is the issue of race.
Race is a determinative in housing, health, health care, education, poverty and mortality. It is the best predictor of adverse outcomes. The idea that race should not be considered is preposterous. It has been and continues to be a factor in every aspect of our lives. Where we live, go to school, work and our well-being are rooted in race.
I often think about my grandmother, Ma’am. She was born in 1917 in the South. She could only attend Black schools and live in Black neighborhoods. The disenfranchisement of African Americans in housing is redlining. Redlining was a widespread practice that helped create and sustain segregation and inequities. Although the legal practice of redlining no longer exists, the vestige of this racist practice continues today.
Ma’am was the only child of two parents who attained eighth-grade educations. Ma’am attended all-Black schools in all-Black neighborhoods and graduated from a historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) institution. She was smart, talented and Black. The HBCU provided an opportunity for Ma’am to be seen, heard and learn.
When my mother was a small child, they moved from the segregated South to St. Paul with a hope and dream for a better life. Segregation was alive and well. In Kansas City, my grandmother and her children had been prohibited from entering certain public places. Life in Minnesota proved to be better is some ways. However, my family lived in the Rondo neighborhood and was forced to move to make way for a highway — a highway through a well-established and thriving neighborhood.
My family is typical of so many other Black families. Race dictated where and how you lived. Homeownership helps build intergenerational wealth. Intergenerational wealth helps to create a pathway for greater educational, housing, work, and health opportunities and outcomes for next generations.
So here we are again. The issue of race is center stage in a national debate about whether race plays a factor, and if it should continue to be considered at all. As I celebrate the investiture of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, I am ever so aware the court has been rolling back protections for African American and BIPOC communities. Justice Brown Jackson will bring a much-needed perspective and representation to the court. However, one justice alone cannot mitigate the determination of a Supreme Court that seeks to revise our collective history and ignore our current paradoxical status.
We have not rid ourselves of race, the role race has played, and the inequities that continue to exist as a result of racial jurisprudence and practices. We need to acknowledge the wounds of race, account for it in our laws and practices, and fight the temptation to declare victory.
Dana Mitchell is an attorney and president of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers (MABL).
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