Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Separate But Equal?": Segregated High School Proms in the South

This one has been brought to our attention by a few of you over the past few days so let's talk about it. Recently, the New York Times ran an article about a situation in Montgomery County, Georgia where - are you sitting down? - white and black high school students are forced to hold two separate proms (one all white and one all black) due to a long standing tradition of racial segregation dating back to the days before Brown v. Board.

What is even more troubling than the fact that the two races hold separate proms is that the "black prom" has reached out to white students and allows them to attend, while the "white prom" has refused to do the same. It would be one thing if this were a situation of de facto segregation where both black and white students just so happened to be hanging out with people from their own background during prom night, but the following evidence from the article strongly suggests that this arrangement is nothing short of good old fashioned de jure segregation:

When the actor Morgan Freeman offered to pay for last year’s first-of-its-kind integrated prom at Charleston High School in Mississippi, his home state, the idea was quickly embraced by students — and rejected by a group of white parents, who held a competing “private” prom. (The effort is the subject of a documentary, “Prom Night in Mississippi,” which will be shown on HBO in July.)

It may be difficult for those of us in 2009 to imagine that cases like this still exist but they do, and apparently it is so common that it goes unquestioned. As one student from the Times artcile put it:

“It’s awkward,” acknowledges JonPaul Edge, a senior who is white. “I have as many black friends as I do white friends. We do everything else together. We hang out. We play sports together. We go to class together. I don’t think anybody at our school is racist.” Trying to explain the continued existence of segregated proms, Edge falls back on the same reasoning offered by a number of white students and their parents. “It’s how it’s always been,” he says. “It’s just a tradition.

Back in 1995, the Supreme Court decided a case by the name of Missouri v. Jenkins, which narrowed the holding in Brown v. Board with respect to the notion that segregated schools are unconstitutional. In the '95 Jenkins case, the most notable concurring opinion was written by the Justice we all know and love, Clarence Thomas, who basically said that the government can only step in when states purposely act (de jure) to segregate schools, but if schools just happen to be segregated (de facto) then there's nothing the government can or should do about it. In other words, if a school (or in this case a school prom) happens to be all white then so what? Let it be all white. Who cares?

So is separate but equal back in style? Or perhaps the better question for some parts of the country is, did separate but equal ever really leave? And more importantly, do we care?
blog comments powered by Disqus