Five decades after Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that overturned “separate but equal” racial segregation, America is still plagued by racial bias. The Honorable Harry Edwards ’62, Chief Judge Emeritus of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, discussed this racial discrimination from historical and contemporary contexts last Saturday afternoon at Bartels Hall. Speaking to well over 200 minority alumni as part of the Mosaic conference, Edwards covered milestone court cases, his own experiences with discrimination and necessary steps for furthering race relations in America.
From Dred Scott v. Sanford to Plessy v. Ferguson, “the court’s callous view of blacks set the parameters of 20th century race relations in America,” Edwards said.
Blacks were shut out from employment opportunities, marriage with whites, recreational facilities, major league sports and movies.
Yet even after Brown v. Board of Education desegregated schools, racism still lingered in America, Edwards said.
At Cornell, Edwards was one of about 10 black students in his graduating class. During his undergraduate years in the school of industrial and labor relations, he encountered discrimination on both academic and social fronts.
Although he was accepted by peers and professors in his academic life, Edwards said that most of them still regarded him and other black students attending elite universities as exceptions to the rule.
“They believed we were unique,” Edwards said. Most whites perceived him and other black students as having “overcome the inferiority of [their] race,” he said.
Although he succeeded academically at Cornell, Edwards suffered from a bleak social life. Blacks were excluded from most fraternities and sororities, which back then were the social epicenters of the University. When he did join Alpha Epilson Pi, a Jewish fraternity, an official from another state “admonished the brothers for admitting ‘Negros and Christians,'” Edwards recalled. In a twist of irony, the fraternity building was later converted to the Africana Studies and Resource Center.
During his undergraduate years, interracial dating was also forbidden. After dating a white student from Cortland State University, Edwards received a summons from the Dean of Students. Cortland officials had called the Dean, telling him they would expel the female student if she were ever seen dating Edwards again.
In a bold move senior year, Edwards bought an old Ford and drove to Fisk University, a black school his sister attended, in search of female company. His sister asked him if he wanted “someone like her or someone fast,” Edwards confided to the audience.
His response? I want the “fastest coed on campus.”
Despite the light moments in his talk, Edwards emphasized that America needs to focus its efforts on healing race relations.
The nation “finally realized the Brown decision was not a panacea for racial bigotry,” he said. According to him, affirmative action is one crucial step the nation has taken to equalize opportunities for minorities.
He said, however, “affirmative action came at a price. Merit came to be viewed by some as a value that was compromised by race conscious actions.”
“My son and other equally talented black students routinely encounter other people who assume black students at preeminent universities are only admitted because they [are] black … ,” Edwards said.
Yet the same students who are stigmatized under affirmative action would also be stigmatized if they were barred admissions to top universities because of race, Edwards said. The only difference is that one of these stigmas comes with inclusion, while the other comes from exclusion.
“I’ll take inclusion any day,” he said. He added that he has never been impeded by a sense of inferiority when considering the new opportunities affirmative action has given him.
Edwards observed that in the years following Brown v. Board of Education, African-Americans have also moved away from assimilating into mainstream society and toward valuing their unique heritages.
People “who could blend in are choosing not to do so,” he said. “Diversity is replacing assimilation as the guiding ideal in racial equality.”
Despite these substantial advances, African-Americans still have a long road ahead before achieving a meaningful place in society, Edwards said.
According to him, one obstacle is the poor condition of inner-city public schools, which are crucial for building the next generation of leaders.
In addition, Edwards said there must be “sincere scholarly examinations” about the perceptions that black life is more prone to poverty, unemployment and violence than the lives of other races. These examinations must either dispel the perceptions or find remedies to the challenges confronting black life.
“The truth is, there is a black underclass in America,” Edwards said. “The class disparity afflicting blacks is much worse than the class disparity in other races.”
Yet another hurdle is that “too many black students still fall prey to undue self-segregation,” Edwards pointed out.
According to him, “there is fault on both sides.” Students do not actively seek out mentors different from themselves, while potential mentors of all backgrounds need to make more concerted efforts to take on those students.
Reiterating the core theme behind Cornell Mosaic, Edwards told his audience, “the desirability of diversity…is its power to cast light on the nuances of human existence.” Dale Lazar ’74 praised Edwards’s “ability to make his experiences come alive.”
Lazar, whose ancestors immigrated from Eastern Europe, connected with his fellow Cornellian’s observation on diversity versus assimilation. I have “heard stories throughout life of how my ancestors assimilated through the generations,” he said. He continued that because of this assimilation, he has “completely lost [his] ancestral culture.”
Others said the realism of Edwards’s talk resonated with them. “It’s good to be optimistic … but you have to start with reality,” said Tom Narins ’98. “It’s important to emphasize affirmative action because so many universities are canceling it,” he said.
Archived article by Xiaowei Cathy Tang
Sun Senior Editor