Some time after the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional in 1954, an organization called the White Citizens Councils sprung into being as a genteel version of the Ku Klux Klan. Its purpose was to preserve Jim Crow in all its various manifestations, and in Mississippi it got some of its money from the state itself. That made me wonder how it would feel to be black in Mississippi and have to pay taxes to support an organization that was out to deprive me of my rights. I think I am about to find out.
Now something similar is about to happen. The Reagan administration has decided that racially segregated private schools are entitled to tax exemptions. This puts us all in the position of those Mississippi blacks. Since a tax exemption is an indirect subsidy, we now all have the privilege of having our tax money go to support segregated schools and academies.
There are countless numbers of them -- no one knows how many. About 100 have lost their tax-exempt status, but a whole lot of others, knowing the government's old policy, did not even apply. We will soon know how many there are and we will soon know, moreover, how many other private schools maintained a modicum of integration just to qualify for the tax exemption. Black kids at these schools may find themselves flunking out at an astonishing rate.
It is an amazing thing that an administration that loves to use tax policy for all sorts of economic reasons -- that will allow, for instance, corporations to sell their tax credits -- does not think it proper to use this same tax policy to serve the cause of justice. For that, the administration thinks it needs a law from Congress -- as if it could not figure out for itself what is and what is not the right thing to do.
The trouble, of counse, is that such a law is not now likely to pass Congress. The national legislature is a conservative, somewhat mean-spirited body, populated by all sorts of pests like boll weevils who think, in the words of writer E.L.
Doctorow, "that we were not supposed to be a just nation, but a confederation of individual gluttons." Its eminence grise is old Strom Thurmond, a man who has spent most of his life in the passionate embrace of Jim Crow and who now hails the new ruling as putting "an end to a decade of trampling on religious and private civil rights by the Internal Revenue Service."
Of course, the old policy did no such thing. Bob Jones University, one of two institutions that challenged the old policy, is free to discriminate against blacks if it wants to. It says it has a religious obligation to do so, and I, for one, would not bother to argue with it. But let the school do its discriminating on its own dollar. We should not as taxpayers be forced to help support Bob Jones in its pursuit of bigotry.
In the same way, we should not be obligated to support countless other private schools that, having heard from God and their tuition-paying clientele (although not necessarily in that order), have decided that blacks and whites shall not mix in the classroom. The upshot of such a policy may be that in many communities segregated private academies will all but replace the public schools as the educational institutions of whites. Blacks will continue to go to the public schools and the segregated system, one white and one black, will be financed in whole or in part by public monies.
The mentality of Herbert Hoover is at work here. Hoover, a kindly man, thought it was a bloody shame that people were out of work and starving but that the government could do little more than look on. Now the Reagan administration is saying the same thing when it comes to social justice. It declares itself neutral and waits for Congress to formulate a policy.
But the lack of a policy is a policy. By doing nothing, the Reagan administration has intervened on the side of bigotry. It has gone even further than that. Like the old Mississippi legislature, it makes no distinction between the racist and his victim and asks them both to help pay the price of the racism. In that sense, the issue is not even bigotry, but who gets to pay for it. The Reagan administration has decided we all will -- the bigot, the victim and the rest of us. Only the bigot gets the advantage. And the victim pays twice.