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A Sesame Street Primer for the Supreme Court

Philosopher David E. McClean lives in New York, where he is an active member of the Society for the Study of Africana Philosophy.–gm

By David E. McClean
by permission of the author

In Parents Involved in Community Schools Inc. v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County (Ky.) Board of Education the Supreme Court erred. It erred because, notwithstanding all the intellectual horsepower at its disposal, it continues to fail to make the kinds of distinctions that a child can make in analyzing race-conscious policies designed to cure the effects of past injustices. It is stunning that Chief Justice Roberts is able to conclude that “You cannot use an individual’s race, and classify that person according to race, and then craft policies that take into account that person’s race” and “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination on the basis of race.” This locks-up with the old conservative criticism, trumpeted by Ward Connerly and others, that all discrimination on the basis of race just is immoral racial discrimination, regardless of who is doing the “discriminating” or why. No, it isn’t. The equation does not hold.

Consciousness of such predicates as skin color, when setting public policy, is not necessarily immoral or necessarily a violation of important Liberal principles. To the contrary, both morality and logic require such consciousness under certain circumstances, which had been the Supreme Court’s position since the Brown decision. What is always immoral is invidious discrimination – discrimination designed to cause harm and strip rights – which is not the same thing as color-conscious or race-conscious policies designed to remedy invidious discrimination. Since this distinction is often lost on many conservatives, I started to search for a rather simple way to sketch it out so that it can be comprehended. So I thought of using the characters of Sesame Street. The following story, populated with Sesame Street characters, I call Mayor Bird Learns a Lesson.

Big Bird has become the mayor of the city where we find Sesame Street – likely somewhere in the liberal Northeast, since where else could you find such a motley crew living together on the same block? Then something terrible happens. Some of the other large but foul fowl of the city convince Mayor Bird that all the fuzzy and featherless creatures of the city are “bad” and should be treated harshly. Alas, Big Bird bows to the pressure of the foul fowl and passes various ordinances that restrict the movement and opportunities of fellow citizens like Cookie Monster and Elmo and even Ernie and Bert (because, you have to admit, they are both a little fuzzy and certainly have no feathers). This goes on for a long, long time, the result being that the fuzzy and featherless inhabitants (or “featherless fuzzies”) of the city, including those who live on Sesame Street, are moved from streets like Sesame Street, with their nice houses and happy workers, to what become various featherless fuzzy slums, because Mayor Bird denies them services, because they are, after all, “bad.” They don’t get to learn how to count by, well, The Count, or to sing, or skip rope, or read – not any more.

But one day, Mayor Bird is visited at his special office in City Hall, by none other than Aloysius Snuffleupagus (who got past the bird guards because, well, none of the bird guards actually saw him, but that’s another story). Anyway, Snuffleupagus greeted Mayor Bird with his old and familiar “Hey, Bird,” to which Mayor Bird responded, happily – “Snuffy!” (He had forgotten himself, not recalling that Aloysius Snuffleupagus is “bad,” too.) Snuffleupagus goes on with an important and simple message: “I have an important and simple message for you, Bird. What you’re doing to Cookie Monster and Elmo and Ernie and the rest of us is just wrong, Bird. Why, we don’t get to learn how to count, or sing, or skip rope, or read anymore. Why don’t you quit it, Bird?” Mayor Bird fell back onto his very large Aeron nest, and pondered Snuffy’s request, while Snuffy stood by and watched, and blinked. Why, Mayor Bird did remember the times, using that small brain of his, when he played with his old friends on Sesame Street! He did remember how he laughed and how The Count taught him to count, and how he learned to sing and skip rope and read, and when he saw Aloysius Snuffleupagus for the first time! After several ours, during which Snuffleupagus quietly watched him, and blinked, Mayor Bird shot to his feet and said, “You’re right, Snuffy! I’m gonna overturn all of these bad laws and make it clear that all of my featherless fuzzy friends must get to count, and sing and skip rope and read just like the birds, and I’m gonna make sure that they get all the things back that were taken away, and get to live in places like Sesame Street once again!” “Hurraaaay, Bird!” said Snuffy, who disappeared past the bird guards, who, never saw him come in to begin with.

So, Mayor Bird, after convincing his other feathered friends on the city council (only birds were on the council now since, after all, they were the only ones who weren’t “bad”) how wrong it had been to hurt all the featherless fuzzy citizens of the city, decreed that the featherless fuzzy citizens would be given what they were entitled to at last. And realizing that even the birds of the city were harmed by his actions (as well as the city itself, for how could anyone think that a city that treated featherless fuzzies the way Mayor Bird’s had is a good city?) he took the lead to establish policies and laws to see to it that the featherless fuzzy citizens and the birds would learn to play with and work with and count with and sing with each other once again. He would have to make it clear to all the birds who now believed that featherless fuzzies were “bad” that they were not “bad” and that calling them “bad” had been a big fat lie. But at the same time, he knew he would have to convince the other birds of the city to cooperate, given the big unfair thing that had happened to all the featherless fuzzy citizens. They would have to make some concessions for, after all, they had all benefited in ways that they should not have, and had been complicit in causing all sorts of harm to the featherless fuzzies, whom they shunned as “bad” for no good reason at all. Many, but not all, of the city agreed to help in any way they could, and to be patient while Mayor Bird’s new plan went into effect. But they would have to really try to stop treating the featherless fuzzies as “bad” if things were to work out.

Mayor Bird told all the citizens of the city, in a famous speech called the “All Together and All the Same” speech, that the featherless fuzzies would get help from the birds to find homes on nice streets like Sesame Street, where they once lived, and to find nice jobs, like the ones they once had but which now went only to the other birds, because they had feathers and the fuzzies didn’t (that’s why they were called featherless fuzzies, in case you weren’t keeping up). In his speech Mayor Bird announced passage of The Featherless Fuzzies Act, which made it very wrong to discriminate, invidiously, against featherless fuzzies (or fuzzy featherlesses – for they were not the same, but that, too, is another story – or big birds, or small birds, or any other citizens, regardless of what grew out of their skin, or didn’t) now and forever. (And yes, Mayor Bird knew that important word, “i-n-v-i-d-i-o-u-s” – and he also knew enough to use it, just in case someone would not understand what the big idea was in creating policies to help the featherless fuzzies get back on their feet by actually considering their featherless fuzziness, or lack thereof). And throughout the new Featherless Fuzzies Act, many references
were made to featherless fuzzies and featherless fuzziness and birds and big birds because, after all, those were the predicates – if you’ll excuse another big word that Mayor Bird knew (he did live on Sesame Street, after all!) – that were the bases for separating, invidiously, birds from featherless fuzzies.

One day, Oscar, who was himself a featherless fuzzy but didn’t much care about living in a slum, since, after all, he always had in a certain sense, saw Mayor Bird give the speech which, I neglected to mention, he gave on Sesame Street itself. Mayor Bird, seeing Oscar, said “Hey, Oscar! I’m really sorry for what I did to you and all the other featherless fuzzies. But I’ve now learned an important lesson, like we always do here on Sesame Street.” To which Oscar said, “Who cares about your stupid lesson, Bird? And didn’t I just hear you say in your speech that all of us here on Sesame Street should be treated according to who we are inside, by our ‘characters’ [Oscar said ‘characters’ in the mocking and sarcastic way that makes us all love him so] not by what grows on our skins?” Mayor Bird said: “Well, yes, Oscar. What grows on our skins is a dumb reason for treating each other badly. I learned my lesson!” Oscar, thinking he’d caught Mayor Bird in a contradiction, replied, “But you just passed another stupid law (Oscar loves to say “stupid”) that takes the stuff that grows on our skins into account in everything you want to fix, from where featherless fuzzies and big birds live, to how they should learn to sing and read and all that other stupid stuff you think is so important. That’s just more discrimination, you stupid Bird!” Big Bird replied, with a stunning display of what can be accomplished with just a fourth grade education in a good school system with adequate resources, “Oh, Oscar, taking into account the stuff that grows on our skins isn’t invidious like what I did before when my friends convinced me to pass laws to hurt featherless fuzzies. Why, how do you talk about helping featherless fuzzies without talking about, well, featherless fuzziness, and featheriness, and birdness and fuzziness? Don’t be silly, Oscar! See you soon, you silly, OK?” And Bird, went off down Sesame Street, with all his old friends, who forgave him, and they all read together, and sang together, and counted together, forever after.

Now, one can only hope that Chief Justice Roberts and all the other justices in the majority will stop and ask for directions of passers-by: “Can you tell us how to get – how to get to Sesame Street?” For on Sesame Street, as our story goes, such simple distinctions as that between invidious discrimination and what-grows-on-skin-conscious policies are understood with almost no effort at all. Why even a bird’s brain, albeit a Big Bird’s brain, can do it. And on Sesame Street, at least, Mayor Bird could count on the citizens of the city to rise to the occasion and do their part to put things right for those they had grievously harmed, and he expected them to.

The Supreme Court has sent a coarsening message to America’s parents and children alike that neither do they owe any personal sacrifices, nor should they shoulder even an inconvenience to help remedy, in their own time, the egregious wrongs of their country – wrongs that still haunt its soul to this day. This parallels a litany of cultural messages of retreat from the great ideals of our nation, which push us in the direction of ever more pronounced and shameless selfishness and individualism.

By mopress

Writer, Editor, Educator, Lifelong Student

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