Monday, February 13, 2012
Some time back, I encountered an article about a particularly odious figure, Walter Ashby Plecker, whose feverish work to expand the reach of Jim Crow laws must not be forgotten. This is particularly true today, when so much progress has been made towards eradicating racial bigotry that it can be easy to forget that there is still work to be done. On that last score, I once considered the idea that perhaps reminding certain kinds of people about Plecker's evil work could be helpful.
From 1912 to 1946, Plecker served as the first registrar of Virginia's newly-created Bureau of Vital Statistics. An avowed white supremacist and advocate of eugenics, Plecker believed that the state's Native Americans had been "mongrelized" with its African American population. The General Assembly's 1924 "Racial Integrity Act" recognized only two races, "white" and "colored."To anyone who has one ounce of nostalgia for those days -- and I have bumped into/discovered a few over the years -- I imagined I would ask something like: "Could you prove to the satisfaction of a government official that the 'one drop rule' doesn't apply to you?" "What if the person demanding proof got to decide what counted as proof?" "What if your basis of proof were under the care of the person demanding proof?" "What if that person had something against you?"
Because Plecker believed that "colored" people were attempting to pass as "Indian" he ordered state agencies to reclassify most citizens' [sic] claiming Indian identity as "colored." Specifically, he ordered them to reclassify certain families whom he identified by surname, as trying to pass and evade segregation.
While the above questions do not explicitly raise the real issue -- "By what right does someone coerce someone else based on a mere accident of birth?" -- I wondered whether perhaps, except for the most obdurate, they would illustrate on some level the fact that unleashing arbitrary government power over some individuals leaves all individuals vulnerable by precedent. Perhaps, after seeing that Jim Crow could, in principle, easily be unleashed against themselves, they might, lacking empathy, at least realize that their own hides would be at stake.
However, the more I thought about such a strategy, the less sanguine I became about it. As Ayn Rand once put it so well:
Like every other form of collectivism, racism is a quest for the unearned. It is a quest for automatic knowledge -- for an automatic evaluation of men's characters that bypasses the responsibility of exercising rational or moral judgment -- and, above all, a quest for an automatic self-esteem (or pseudo-self-esteem).Even the scheme I concocted above is likely asking for too much effort and imagination on the part of someone so inimical to difficult thought. Why do I say this? Plecker was white. The fools who put him in charge were white. The part of the public that could do anything about this was white. Plecker was, to these people, "one of us", and exempt from the kinds of questions I would ask. Indeed, I am sure that such questions would have been considered rude, and would have perhaps been dangerous to raise in some contexts.
Walter Plecker is better remembered, by the good people who oppose tyranny, as the kind of monster that can arise when evil goes unchallenged among the public for too long: A monster in human form who will openly, and with the approval of others, destroy freedom.