And we’re back. Back to that time, more than 50 years ago, when schools were the last line of defense for segregationists. Local school systems and entire communities were openly defying Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruling overturning separate but equal. In a last desperately defiant move, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama stood in the entrance of the University of Alabama, blocking African-Americans Vivian Malone and James Hood from enrolling in the all-white university.
Now another Alabaman — Attorney General Jeff Sessions — is about to execute the 2017 version of Wallace’s "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door." Only this time, Sessions won’t physically put himself in the way. He doesn’t have to. According to an internal announcement to the civil rights division, Sessions is recruiting lawyers who will investigate and possibly file lawsuits related to “intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.”
The key words are “intentional” and “race-based” and they appear to take aim at programs that have helped increase the number of minorities on university campuses. Programs that have long been a point of contention among conservatives who claim unqualified college applicants of color are taking places that would otherwise go to qualified whites.
The lawyers carrying out this mission are political appointees, not the career experts who work in education. Harvard’s Tamiko Brown Nagin says this move from the Trump administration is not surprising. The American legal historian told The Takeaway’s Todd Zwillich affirmative action is “a legal and political wedge issue” which always works to “rile people up.”
And that’s just what I’m worried about. People are plenty riled up right now. We all know about the horrific hate crimes that have roiled an already toxic political climate. A climate which has helped foster a rash of overt racial threats on college campuses — nooses hanging from trees and doors, epithets scrawled on walls and verbal assaults.
Malone and Hood enrolled in the University of Alabama leading the way for other colleges to open their doors to black students. President John F. Kennedy moved Gov. George Wallace out of the schoolhouse door by federalizing the Alabama National Guard, which was working in concert with the Department of Justice. It’s especially disturbing that the task of President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice is not about seeking justice for those most at risk.
I’m reminded of the bitter truth of a joke by the late comedian Richard Pryor. Talking about racial inequities and people of color Pryor said, “there’s no justice, there’s just us.”