July 01, 2007

Colorblindness on the U.S. Supreme Court

There's been a lot of controversy over the Supreme Court's recent decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (See Linda Greenhouse, "Justices Limit the Use of Race in School Plans for Integration", NYT, 6/29/2007).

Deepak Chopra is among those who have commented on the associated battle for rhetorical possession of terms such as "colorblind" ("The Cruelty of Semantics", The Huffington Post, 6/29/2007)

... the conservative movement has a disgraceful track record for covering up cruel intentions with soothing semantics. "Compassionate conservatism" lulled the American electorate into accepting the most far-right presidency in history. "Enemy combatant" has deprived hundreds of prisoners at Guantanamo of basic protections mandated under the Geneva Conventions and opened the door for torture. "Family values" covers up hatred of gays and denial of social tolerance. Now to this legacy we are adding "colorblind" as a disguise for racial neglect.

In my opinion, the most interesting aspect of Chopra's commentary was a turn of phrase in its ending:

Despite the overwhelming public support for school integration in both Seattle and Louisville, five powerful white males were enough to squash a society's better nature. A pall hangs over the court for what they did, to the English language as much as to fair play.

The five "powerful white males" in question? Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito Jr., Anthony Kennedy -- and Clarence Thomas.

Whatever you think about this decision (or about who should get to use "colorblind" to mean what), some things have certainly changed since 1954. And I don't mainly mean that an African-American justice on the Supreme Court was then outside the pale of political possibility. I mean that no commentator of any political persuasion would then have unthinkingly included an African-American justice in a group described as "five powerful white males".

It's ironic that Chopra did this in the context of an argument about reality vs. rhetoric. Perhaps there's some sort of corollary to the Hartman/McKean/Skitt Law that applies to such discussions.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 1, 2007 08:12 AM