Abraham Lincoln's Dilemma, and the Problem with Brown vs Board of Education
If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B. – why not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally that he may enslave A.? – Abraham Lincoln
The above quote is a formulation noted by the renowned president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln in the 1850s. Lincoln wrote this at the height of rising tension in the political realm of the young nation, ready to burst into the fire of the American Civil War.
Although most readers will quickly point to the central theme of the Civil War – slavery – I suspect that many are not familiar with what about slavery erupted into this war. As seen in the title of the chapter, Abraham Lincoln will be the center of focus here, as his ideas and sentiments are quite representative of what was going on in the minds of the American people at the time. However, more importantly, I use Lincoln as an example because he is remembered as an idealized hero today: as a person who was a prominent figure in bringing justice to the world and abolishing slavery. But as I now reflect back on all I’ve been told about this man, it seems as if the story was just a bitter pill coated in sugar. It seems as if the reason this fairytale story of the Civil War continues to be perpetuated today, is precisely because it protects us from things we do not wish to think of. Things that may remind us of our scary, imperfect, decaying world.
THE PROBLEMS OF SLAVERY
Slavery was not, and is not anything new to human history after the dawn of agriculture. It will come as no surprise to claim that slavery was the fundamental building block of most industrial nations today. The United States enslaved Africans and Indigenous peoples. The Japanese enslaved the Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Indigenous peoples. The list can go on. These powerful empires were literally built on the physical labor endured by those their illusions deemed to be lesser; forcing them to cultivate agriculture, cut wood, and dig mines.
By the time of Lincoln, such practices of slavery had been occurring on the American continent for as long as the Tokugawa regime was in power. Seeing slavery in the United States would not have been anything surprising or new, it was already deeply embedded within the way of life. So then, what changed this? Why the sudden opposition? Although it’s a complex story, we can summarize it into these three points: moral, economic, and psychological.
The Moral Problem of Slavery
Let’s begin with the moral piece, as it’ll also provide the framework in which the issue of slavery was viewed in the United States at the time of the Civil War. The moral aspect can be said to have started around the time of the American Revolution, when the British Empire began asking for more money from their colonies through tax policies. The classic revolution story tells how unjust these policies were, and enraged the American colonies who eventually succeeded in creating a nation based on freedom and equality. Yet there’s an odd twist to this.
First, the American colonies were among the freest people on earth. In no way were they oppressed for years by the iron fist of the British Empire, but really embodied what a laissez-faire economy looked like. As historian Jim Cullen writes, “freedom was not a goal to be gained; it was a cherished possession the colonists wanted to prevent being lost” (44). So how did these taxes seem so terrible that they began something as drastic as a revolution and war with their mother nation? To understand this I will borrow a concept from Harvard Legal Scholar, Cass R. Sunstein.
In his book, This is Not Normal, Sunstein put forward two ideas of how something is taken to be “normal” or “abnormal” within a society. The first he calls opprobirum contraction, which talks about how as the general situation of a group continues to deteriorate, “things that were once seen as bad or even as terrible may come to be seen as mildly distasteful or even fine”. An example of this is how the daily death toll rates from the coronavirus epidemic are “normalized”, although the death rates have continuously grown. His second formulation is called opprobrium expansion, which is the exact opposite of the previous idea. As things within society get better, “actions that were previously seen as fine or as mildly distasteful may come to seem bad or terrible” (16). There is no better example of opprobrium expansion than the American Revolution.
As mentioned above, the Anglo-American people were among the freest group in the world. Through generations and decades of difficulty adjusting to the new climate, land, and culture of the Americas, these settlers had a life that was far better than it was once perceived to be (although of course, this was achieved on the backs of slaves and massacring Indigenous groups). But all of a sudden, the British wanted to tax them — how terrible. How terrible of the British to oppress and enslave the free citizens right? You may think I use those words as a dysphemism, I’m not.
Right after the taxes were introduced in 1764, there are countless pamphlets, essays, and journals that highlight how terrible this new British imposition of power was perceived to be. John Dickinson wrote in 1765 that “We are taxed without our consent expressed by ourselves or our representatives. We are therefore — SLAVES”. Later, the famous slogan “Give me liberty or give me death” was born from the letter written by Patrick Henry in 1773. It’s sadly humorous that these people felt as if they were being enslaved by the British – the country they are from and have served – all the while maintaining real slaves themselves. But thankfully, people gradually noticed this contradiction.
Soon after the revolution, many states began abolishing slavery: Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and many others planning to follow suit. Yet, as we know from the fact that the Civil War occurred, many states did not abolish slavery. To understand why, we must now look at the economic problem of slavery.
The Economic Problem of Slavery
The economic aspect of the abolition of slavery was more fundamental to the Civil War than the moral one. Sure, many whites saw slavery as immoral and wrong, but they also viewed it as a “necessary evil”. So then why did so many Northern states quickly abolish it?
Because by this time for many Northern states, slavery had become unimportant to their economy. The growing industry didn’t call for much free labor nor did their farms. On the other hand, slaves were fundamental to the large-scale farming many Southerners created their wealth from. But rooted even deeper than this sentiment was the imagined future for the whites.
Contrary to popular perception, the debate over slavery wasn’t about if slavery should exist in the nation or not. The debate was about if slavery should be permitted in newly acquired territory. You see, the United States as we know of it today in terms of geography did not emerge until 1917. The nation grew gradually with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Spanish and British Cessions in 1818 and 1819, annexing Texas in 1845, and more. It was at this time of geographic growth that Abraham Lincoln and the debate of slavery entered the realm of American politics. To put it rather simply, the people whose economic growth depended on slavery (a.k.a the Confederacy), wanted the legal practice of slavery to expand into this newly acquired land. While those whose economic growth did not rely on slavery (a.k.a the Union), opposed this expansion. Here you may argue, "but the moral piece of slavery played a significant role!” I’m here to show you, that isn’t true.
This is where Abraham Lincoln comes in, the so-called “Abolitionist”. Lincoln’s main concern was not the freedom of blacks or the morality of slavery, but the freedom of whites. To understand this, we need to understand what freedom meant to Lincoln and his followers.
Freedom for Lincoln meant economic freedom and the ability to “better [one’s] condition”. Let me quote Lincoln himself to explain this:
Now irrespective of the moral aspect as to whether there is a right or wrong in enslaving a negro, I am still in favor of our new Territories being in such a condition that white men may find a home… I am in favor of this not merely for our own people who are born amongst us, but as an outlet for free white people everywhere, the world over — in which Hans and Baptiste and Patrick, and all other men from all the world, may find new homes and better their conditions in life.
This is an excerpt from one of Abraham Lincoln’s many public debates. Now, does this sound like an abolitionist to you? Lincoln’s entire focus is on the betterment of white lives. He doesn’t care about the moral aspect of enslaving black people. Now, you may wonder, why in the world would Lincoln want slavery gone then? Isn’t slavery much better for whites economically? Not quite.
Lincoln was bothered by the fact that slavery took away opportunities for young white people to climb the social ladder and “better their conditions in life”. He was a staunch believer in the ideology of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”. But to be able to do this, Lincoln believed, white people needed to hire and train other young white men. In a speech at Ohio, Lincoln dreamily idealizes this:
This progress by which the poor, honest, industrious, and resolute man raises himself, that he may work on his own account, and hire somebody else, is that improvement in condition that human nature is entitled to, is that improvement that is intended to be secured by those institutions under which we live, is the great principle for which this government was formed.
And what was in the way of many young white men to accomplish this? Slavery! Because would a rich white man rather hire a poor white man who will leave the workplace to become a potential competitor in the market? Or would they rather buy a slave who not only works for free, but can also produce offspring of more free laborers? The popular answer for many was the latter; even if they say slavery is “evil”.
So even more fundamental than the moral drive against slavery was the drive for the economic prosperity of all white men. As Lincoln later said, "In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom of the free”.
However, what was even more deep-seated in the mind of the future president was fear. A fear of something terrible and at the same time a logically possible scenario.
The Psychological Problem of Slavery
Let us return to the quote taken from Abraham Lincoln’s journal introduced at the beginning of this chapter:
If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B. – why not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally that he may enslave A.?
Here, Lincoln was pondering upon the ambiguity of racial division and the logical implication it may have on “whites” and “colored” alike.
Race, let me remind you, is a fungible concept. At one point in time, the “white” race was far less inclusive than today. Famously, some people we would consider white today – such as the Jewish, Irish, or Italians – were not considered white. Obviously, to be white entailed something more than just the color of your skin. It also mattered what your religion was, your cultural background, your intellectual capacity, and so on. Gradually, the “white” race expanded to include most races with lighter pigmentation. There was even a case made for Japanese people to be considered “white”. But before we diverge off into the rabbit hole of race, let’s return to Lincoln’s dilemma.
Lincoln was faced with the very real possibility and fear that he – and other whites alike – could become enslaved through the same logical argument whites made to enslave blacks. If the implication of being white was the darkness of your skin, could a more light-skinned person than Lincoln enslave him? Would this be further justified if they were smarter than he was? Or if the argument was – as it was popularized in that day – that the “white” race was superior to the “black” race on certain characteristics, could a “black” person enslave a “white” if she/he could prove they were the superior one?
This haunted Lincoln and no doubt haunted many others. In the end, they concluded that abolishing slavery and deeming it the ‘absolute immorality’ was the logical conclusion. Not because it was immoral, but because it protected them from the dreading possibility that they themselves could be enslaved. And remember, for them, slavery – a.k.a no freedom – was synonymous with death. “Give me freedom, or give me death”.
To bring together this section, the problem white people of the north had with slavery came in three forms of differing magnitude. First, there was the moral one, although it was more of an afterthought than anything. Second, there was the economic one. Simply, slavery was not necessary anymore and was intruding in achieving the “American Dream” for some whites. Last and most importantly, there was the psychological problem. It was the sudden realization towards the possibility that they themselves could succumb to the same state of slavery if the system of slavery was allowed to continue. The freedom of slaves – which we epitomize as the center of this story – was only the afterthought. Or even worse, they were the very source of their fear. They feared, that if blacks were continued to be enslaved, only some white people would attain the American Dream. Moreover, they feared that black people could employ the same logic of slavery against the white people and enslave them. The idea that the emancipation of slaves was for the slaves, is and was a fairytale. Martin Luther King Jr. saw this when he preached:
In 1863 the Negro was told he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln... It simply said 'You're free,' and left him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man – through an act of Congress it was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and Midwest.
While the whites continued to prosper – with the new land free of slaves and free of the fear to be enslaved – black people continued to suffer and be marginalized well into the 20th century.
But before we move on, allow me to “revise” another fairytale about the United States history: Brown vs Board of Education. This groundbreaking and famous case of the Civil Rights movement needs to be reexamined, as in the case of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln.
THE FAIRYTALE OF BROWN VS BOARD OF EDUCATION
When I first came to the United States, I came across an image of a young black girl being escorted out of a school building by 3~4 adult white men in full suits. If you don’t know the image I am referring too, go look it up online right now: search “Ruby Bridges First Day”. This image puzzled me as to why people praised it so highly.
People told me that this picture was celebrated because it symbolized one of the great victories of the Civil Rights Movement – the legal case of Brown vs Board of Education – in which schools were finally desegregated in the South.
But to me, the picture is haunting. It’s an image of a young girl, surrounded and being yelled at by white adults, and she is now attending a school full of white kids who were taught to dehumanize, despise, and derogate black people. Every time I saw the picture, two thoughts popped into my head: assimilation and residential schools.
What I mean by this is that the picture and story of this “victory” reminded me of the colonial practices of residential schools aimed towards Indigenous children to be “whitewashed” and assimilated. They were forced to learn from white teachers, about white ways, and to forget about the ways of their “inferior” parents and teachers. Some Indigenous scholars have called it “cultural genocide”; by wiping away the knowledge, relationships, and connections the older generation looked to make with their own children. Some schools have reported unimaginable treatment, rape, torture, and multiple cases where kids died away in these schools. Although the newly integrated schools among whites and blacks did not end up to this extreme, in my eyes, it served the same purpose. But there is something even more sadistic than this; how all of this is veiled under the name of justice and moral progress. Was it really?
To fully grasp the case of Brown vs Board of Education, we first have to understand what the general debate on education was about at this time. The nation was still deeply divided over the issue of race.
Though slavery had been abolished nearly a century ago, 17 Southern states had strictly segregated education systems and operated under “Jim Crow” laws. Many Northern states also continued a more subtle form of segregation, in places like movie theaters or housing. In the early 20th century, lynchings of black people – especially men – were at an all-time high. It is even more shocking how normalized this was in many places, where kids are seen smiling at the foot of a hanging person or families happily picnicking in places where these lynchings had occurred. Largely in response to these rampant killings, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was organized in 1909. A group of well-educated and influential people – like W.E.B Du Bois – came together to fight against these crimes and bring justice to the black community. By the 1940s, the NAACP became a prominent figure within the United States legal, judicial, and political world. It was precisely around this time that the group began to fight for justice in accordance with the constitution in Southern segregated schools.
The NAACP’s choice to target education was an intentional one, as they saw that the Jim Crow laws in the field of education were most vulnerable and weak. Yet unlike the Brown vs Board of Education case, most of the early cases the NAACP targeted were in higher education — specifically law students. Take Murray vs Maryland in 1936 for example. Donald Gaines Murray was rejected from the University of Maryland School of Law on the basis of race, although he was qualified and outstanding in every other measure. Two years later, the NAACP took on Missouri ex-rel Gaines vs Canada, which was the same fight now against the University of Missouri Law School. Again, in 1950, the NAACP fought Sweat vs Painter, a similar case against the University of Texas Law School. The list can go on, but you get the point. The lawyers of the NAACP took on cases where motivated young adults were fighting for justice; and of course, they were brilliant and won every case mentioned above. Then came Brown vs Board of Education.
Unlike the past cases, this one was about elementary school students. Linda Brown, the young girl at the center of this case, was 7 years old. Ruby Bridges, the girl in the picture I asked you to look up earlier, was 6 years old when she first stepped into an “integrated” school in 1960. These children being sent to white schools were not highly motivated law students who wanted to change the world, they were still figuring out who they were.
Before I get carried away, we need to learn more about the case of Brown vs Board of Education. At the height of the many successes the NAACP saw with their previous cases against law schools, they began to ask black families to send an application to their local all-white elementary schools, knowing they would be turned away. As rejection after rejection began piling up from across the country, the NAACP sued the school board with the Brown family's name at the forefront. Brown vs Board of Education was the bundle of all these rejection cases across the nation with over 200 plaintiffs. To get an idea of what these plaintiffs were faced against, let’s focus on the Browns.
The Browns lived in Topeka, Kansas, the capital city of the state. When the NAACP had asked them to apply to the local all-white school, Sumner Elementary, they had good reason to do so. Linda’s all-black school was a 7 block walk from her home, making it an unfavorable hike compared to Sumner, which was only 4 blocks away. To the expectation of the NAACP, the Browns were promptly rejected soon after they had applied. But the question is, did the Browns really want to send Linda to Sumner? It’s complicated. Because unlike the fairytale we hear today about the poor quality of all-black schools, the Browns loved their school.
The all-black school was named Monroe Elementary, a school Linda’s mother also attended. Years after the case of Brown vs Board of Education, Linda’s mother Leola, was interviewed by the Kansas State Historical Society. They wanted to know what was going on in her mind throughout this case. When asked about Monroe, this was her answer:
What? Oh, it was wonderful! I tell you, it was wonderful. And had it not been for this walking, you know, to school and going so far to school, we possibly never would have, you know, done what we did.
In another interview, she says:
The black school was a very good school. We don't have any qualms about our schools. They were very good schools, we had quality teachers, the children did get quality educations if they did have the second-hand boot—books, so to speak, because some of the books that they got were handed down from the white schools. But they had quality education. The teachers were very much concerned about the tea—students, their education, and seeing that they got a quality education. So we had very, very good black schools. And when the children came out, they were well learned. They were ready to be integrated into the junior high school with the white children.
As seen here, the Browns had no problem with the education they were receiving at Monroe; in fact, the education was doing great. As Leola briefly mentioned, junior high schools were already integrated, and black students did not lag behind the whites in any way, shape, or form. So then, what was the problem? Why did they join this fight? Let’s turn back to Leola’s words. This was after Leola’s husband, Oliver, had been rejected by Sumner:
He says, but I can't go along with that, he says, it's just pointless to have a school in your neighborhood, and not being able to attend. So we pay taxes, just like everybody else, on these schools. So he says, I'm going to see if we can't get something done about it. And that's when he went back to the NAACP, and reported, and they decided to start the case against the school board.
The problem Oliver and Leola had with the system was about the principle of it, not necessarily the “better” quality of white schools.
But the focus of the case took a sharp turn in court. The Browns and many other parents were fighting for the principle of the law, but the court made the case into something totally different: the inferiority of black education. Let’s read from the transcript of the case. After briefing over the history and importance of education, they begin:
We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.
In Sweatt v. Painter, supra, in finding that a segregated law school for Negroes could not provide them equal educational opportunities, this Court relied in large part on "those qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness in a law school." In McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, supra, the Court, in requiring that a Negro admitted to a white graduate school be treated like all other students, again resorted to intangible considerations: ". . . his ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession." Such considerations apply with added force to children in grade and high schools. To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.
What the court is first comparing here is the quality of education between a graduate school and elementary school. They claim that because the quality of graduate schools is disparaging between white and black schools, they find that it must be even worse for elementary education. Next, the sense of “inferiority” largely derives from the famous Doll Study, replicated by sociologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark for this very case.
The study gathered a group of children and gave them 4 dolls. 2 of them were white, the other 2 black. Then the Clark's asked the children "which dolls were nice and which were bad, and which doll is most like you?" You may already be familiar with the results. The majority of black children chose the white dolls as "nicer" and said that they were more like them. This continues to be one of the most cited studies about race and perceived inferiority, making it a crucial part of the NAACP’s fight against segregated schools. But then, the court makes an incredible leap and claims:
Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.
Let me reiterate the last sentence, as it is a profound statement: “segregation with the sanction of law… has a tendency to retard the educational and mental development of negro children.” This goes far beyond what the Browns were fighting for. They just didn’t like that Linda had to walk 7 blocks instead of 4. They were trying to uphold the country against their own principles of freedom and equality. In no way did they think that education in black schools “retard the educational and mental development of negro children,” because they didn’t! Regardless, the court is basically saying:
Schools taught by black teachers and run by black administrators are terrible, they “retard” the children. So we need to send these kids to white schools.
They systematically and legally confirmed the derogated ideal of black people, their abilities, and education. If this alone does not make you reconsider the Brown vs Board of Education, let’s take a look at what happened after the case was “won” and schools slowly became integrated.
The first detriment was not on the kids, but the educators and employees at all-black schools like Monroe. Dr. Leslie Fenwick, a professor at Howard University School of Education, estimates that about 35~50% of the teaching population in the segregated south were black prior to the Brown case. In actual numbers, that is about 80,000 black teachers. After the Brown case, the sole focus went to transporting black students to white schools without getting assaulted by white adults, as captured in the picture of Ruby Bridges. What happened to the teachers who had cared, nurtured, and educated these students? They were fired.
One estimate showed that 38,000 black teachers were let go after Brown vs Board of Education. The reasons all varied, but in the end, school superintendents (who were now all white) and district courts decided that white teachers were better than black teachers. It didn’t matter if many of these black educators had master's degrees or PhDs, or if they had far more experience than the white teachers. Because the Brown vs Board of Education case concluded that the education these teachers embodied “retarded the educational and mental development of negro children”, they needed to be let go.
Now also keep in mind what environment these students had to enter into. Many teachers in white schools took a pledge to fight against the NAACP before the court case was won. They themselves rejoiced at the sight of a dead black person. If black students weren’t already feeling marginalized in Jim Crow states, being thrown into an all-white school with only white teachers would have been the nail in the coffin. These newly integrated children weren’t dedicated justice fighters like those people fighting to enter white law schools. They were 6, 7, 8-year-olds walking past a crowd of angry white people, being escorted by large, armed white men, and entering a school they knew they weren’t welcome in.
The impact of this continue today. Compared to the 35~50% of black educators in the Southern states just over half a century ago, only 7% of teachers across the entirety of the United States are black. What is left to celebrate about Brown vs Board of Education? Black students have one of the highest dropout rates in the United States (alongside American Indian/Alaska Native and Hispanic), and one of the best ways to keep these students in school is being taught by a teacher that looks like them, understands their culture, and shares their stories.
Studies have shown that by having just one black teacher during the course of a child’s education, students are 29~39% less likely to drop out of school. The same goes for attendance in college, placement in gifted education programs, rate of suspension, and more. Every measure of educational success improves with just one black teacher during the course of their entire time in school.
There was a great loophole in the aim for educational justice during the Brown vs Board of Education case; and just like the abolition of slavery, “the nation failed to do anything for Black [people]” (King 1968)
Black people are continued to be vilified in the same way today. To borrow from Isabel Wilkerson’s brilliant analysis of race, the caste system in the United States is very much alive and thriving. The “caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups.” How they are presumed to be inferior, however, has changed shape. It was first solely the color of their skin and place of origin. Then it turned to mental capabilities and perceived “retardedness.” And today the inferiority is constructed as ignorant parents, drug dealers and addicts, rapists, criminals, and high-school dropouts. But remember, the fight began not when white people like Abraham Lincoln wanted justice. It began when they were afraid.
I hope this discussion first and foremost challenged our fairytale stories and view of “progress” the United States and the world has made in terms of racial relations. The above two examples occurred not for the betterment of black lives, but so that powerful white men could take a sigh of relief.
The United States is only one of the many colonial nations born out of the derogation, subjugation, and annihilation of the “other” who continue to reap the economic benefits of this oppressive system today.
We continue to use the morally bankrupt yet easy way out of the problem of the “other,” we simply attempt to eradicate or minimize. From the Indigenous peoples, slaves, immigrants, and more, humans have continuously created and imagined a new “other” when the previous one has lost their potency. We also create internal division when the foreign “other” has disappeared, as seen in the stark political divisions within nations without a single “other” to point a finger at.
Yet does this derogation, assimilation, and annihilation of the other really buffer us from the terror of mortality and death? Or does it only temporarily allow us to deny and ignore the ultimate end, leaving us unprepared in the face of our own denial? Even worse, does it create a never-ending loop of aggressive, hostile, and violent behavior?