The Great Debate: Plessy v. Bakke
The philosophical underpinnings that created America’s contemporary race debate
The book, The Great Debate, chronicled the philosophical dispute between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke and how their clash of ideas created the modern political left and right. After reading the book, I wondered what are the philosophical underpinnings that created America’s contemporary race debate.
Recently, there was great anticipation for a debate between two black intellectuals, Coleman Hughes, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, the director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. Hughes made a name for himself as an opinion writer and testifying against reparations for slavery at a congressional hearing in 2019. Dr. Kendi is a historian, bestselling author, and national book award winner.
Dr. Kendi’s book — How to Be an Antiracist — became the point of contention between the two. Hughes wrote a book review that called the following ideas Dr. Kendi promoted — anti-intellectual.
1). Antiracism — Dr. Kendi stated, there are only “racist ideas” and “antiracist ideas”. There is no such thing as a not-racist idea. Therefore, policies that produce racial inequity are racist and policies that promote racial equity are antiracist.
2). Racial discrimination — Dr. Kendi stated racial discrimination is not inherently racist. “If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist … The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”
3). Amendment to the Constitution — Dr. Kendi stated the following as a solution to racial inequity, “Americans should pass an antiracist amendment to the U.S. Constitution that enshrines two guiding antiracist principles: Racial inequity is evidence of a racist policy and the different racial groups are equal. The amendment would make unconstitutional racial inequity over a certain threshold, as well as racist ideas by public officials … [The antiracist amendment] would establish and permanently fund the Department of Antiracism (DOA) comprised of formally trained experts on racism and no political appointees. The DOA would be responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policy to ensure they yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressing racist ideas. The DOA would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy or ideas.”
Since Hughes is currently working on a book that defends the concept of colorblindness with regards to race in America, which, most likely, is a response to Dr. Kendi’s work, Hughes wrote an open letter to Dr. Kendi requesting a debate.
Dr. Kendi declined the debate.
However, I noticed the philosophical underpinnings of the race debate were right here, and the ideological difference is as distinct as the dispute between Paine and Burke. I’ve labeled this great debate Plessy v. Bakke, because the warring concepts come from two famous Supreme Court decisions.
The Plessy v. Ferguson ruling (1896) legally established racial segregation. However, Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote the lone dissenting opinion. Harlan wrote, “There is no caste here. Our constitution is colorblind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect to civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man and takes no accounts of his surroundings or his color.”
The Regents of the University of California v. Bakke ruling (1978) declared affirmative action constitutional. Justice Harry Blackmun said, “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.”
The outcome of Plessy v. Bakke is crucial. It will determine the fate of America for the rest of the 21st century. Hughes and Dr. Kendi symbolize this debate is not taking place, and if it did, it wouldn’t be at the level of Paine and Burke, where it needs to be.