One hundred and twenty five years ago this week, The Supreme Court announced its decision in the case of Plessy v Ferguson. The case infamously declared that separate but equal was constitutional. The setting for the case was a train car, but the ramifications on society were profound. And while the Brown v Board decision 63 years later did away with some of those ramifications, in many ways, Plessy remains with us today. 

Coming in the wake of the civil war, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments make up what are known as the Reconstruction Amendments, the Amendments intended to guarantee the freedom of formerly enslaved people. In many ways, the promise of these Amendments remains unfulfilled. In their immediate aftermath, many state legislatures took steps to undermine them, often upheld by federal courts. The Plessy case came in response to just such a law. 

In 1890 Louisiana State Legislature passed the Separate Car Act requiring equal, but separate train cars for White and Black passengers. Two years later, Homer Plessy agreed to participate in a challenge to the law, by boarding a train and refusing to ride in the Black car. He was arrested and challenged his case all the way to The Supreme Court. 

This decision, regularly making top 10 lists of worst Supreme Court decisions of all time, enshrined segregation in law, allowing for Jim Crow, Black codes, and undoing much of the gains made for Black people during the short-lived years of Reconstruction. 

However, the decision wasn’t unanimous, there was one lone dissenting opinion by Justice John Marshall Harlan. Justice Harlan earned the nickname, The Great Dissenter, for a number of dissenting opinions in favor of civil rights during his tenure on the Court at the end of the 19th century. And his dissent in the Plessy case served as a statement of what our values as a country could and should be. It was also a prescient warning of where the social caste system, enshrined by the majority opinion, would lead us. 

Paula Forbes has been at the intersection of law and education for many years. As the first in-house counsel for the Minneapolis Public School district, she saw the ways that the caste system enshrined by the Plessy decision, and never fully repaired, continues to act as a barrier to educational justice. 

She joins us to discuss the importance of reckoning with and repairing our past in order to create the future we desire.  


Register for the Integrated Schools Book Club in July.  We’ll be reading Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us

Use these links or start at our storefront to support local bookstores, and send a portion of the proceeds back to us.  

Join our Patreon to support this work, and connect with us and other listeners to discuss these issues even further.



Reckoning With Plessy: 125 Years of Separate But Equal

Andrew: Welcome to the Integrated Schools Podcast. I'm Andrew, a White dad from Denver, and this is “Reckoning With Plessy: 125 Years of Separate But Equal”. One hundred and twenty five years ago this week, The Supreme Court announced its decision in the case of Plessy v Ferguson. The case famously declared that separate but equal was constitutional. The setting for the case was a train car, but the ramifications on society were profound. And while the Brown v Board decision 63 years later did away with some of those ramifications, in many ways, Plessy remains with us today. 

So in this episode we’re going to focus on the ways that Plessy is still with us.  But, to understand that, I think a very brief history lesson as an order. 

1865, the 13th Amendment is passed abolishing slavery. 1868, the 14th Amendment established, among other things, citizenship rights for anyone born in the US and equal protection for all citizens under the law. In 1870, the 15th Amendment banned discrimination in voting rights for all male citizens. 

Coming in the wake of the civil war, these Amendments make up what are known as the Reconstruction Amendments, the Amendments intended to guarantee the freedom of formerly enslaved people. 

In many ways, the promise of these Amendments remains unfulfilled. In their immediate aftermath, many state legislatures took steps to undermine them, often upheld by federal courts. The Plessy case came in response to just such a law. 

In 1890 Louisiana State Legislature passed the Separate Car Act requiring equal, but separate train cars for White and Black passengers. Two years later, Homer Plessy agreed to participate in a challenge to the law, by boarding a train and refusing to ride in the Black car. He was arrested and challenged his case all the way to The Supreme Court. 

This decision, regularly making top 10 lists of worst Supreme Court decisions of all time, enshrined segregation in law, allowing for Jim Crow, Black codes, and undoing much of the gains made for Black people during the short-lived years of Reconstruction. 

However, the decision wasn't unanimous, there was one lone dissenting opinion by Justice John Marshall Harlan. Justice Harlan earned the nickname, The Great Dissenter, for a number of dissenting opinions in favor of civil rights during his tenure on the Court at the end of the 19th century. And his dissent in the Plessy case served as a statement of what our values as a country could and should be. It was also a prescient warning of where the social caste system, enshrined by the majority opinion, would lead us. 

Much like our series on Brown v Board, understanding the history of the Plessy case feels like an important step towards complicating the stories we tell about racial progress in our country, particularly when it comes to education. And that's why I'm thrilled to be joined today by an attorney with a deep understanding of the case, and how it relates to struggles for educational justice today. 

Paula Forbes has been at the intersection of law and education for many years. As the first in-house counsel for the Minneapolis Public School district, she saw the ways that the caste system enshrined by the Plessy decision, and never fully repaired, continues to act as a barrier to educational justice. 

She was willing to come on the show and help us reckon with the Plessy decision, and I'm so grateful she did. So let's take a listen.


Paula Forbes: I'm Paula Forbes, I own a law firm called Forbes solutions, really what I do  is  professional development and consulting with superintendents, school boards and leaders around issues of race and equity. That is really the crux of my work.

Andrew: How did that come to be the crux of your work? How did you find yourself in Minneapolis, first of all, and then involved in education and that aspect of the law?

Paula Forbes:  I was born in Toronto, Canada, moved to the States when I was a baby,  and we moved to Madison, Wisconsin. My father was a civil rights leader and he was one of the founding members of Urban League in Madison, Wisconsin.

And he worked in open housing in Madison, Wisconsin, and we were then one of the first  African-American families to move into a White neighborhood on the West side of town in Madison, Wisconsin. That was in the early sixties, before the Civil Rights Act was passed. 

My father graduated from the University of New Brunswick in Canada and helped to integrate actually, that university. He met my mother at the university and they moved to Toronto and had five children and I was the youngest of five. 

And my father being a college educated man, even though he was educated in forest engineering, back in the day, if you were college educated and Black, you were a civil rights leader. That's just what you did. 

I called him the reluctant civil rights leader, because he did things, only to further the rights of himself and other individuals in his community. The example is when he was on campus, he had to go off campus into the Black neighborhood in order to get a haircut. So he integrated the barbershop on campus so that they could get a haircut.

Andrew: So that he didn't have to go. 

Paula Forbes: Right. I mean, why should he be put up? Right? Same with the movie theater. The movie theaters were segregated at the time and my dad had bad allergies, so we wanted to integrate the movie theater because he didn't want to sit in the balcony where all the dust was. He wanted to sit down in the main area of the movie theater. 

So, change is made when people want to remove barriers that get in their way and make their life more difficult. And so out of reluctance, he was forced to make these changes, for his life and the life of others. And that helped his community to be better.

Andrew: Wow. That's amazing. And how did you end up in the United States?  

Paula Forbes: He was recruited by CUNA Mutual Insurance Company to help them in the West Indies because my father was originally from Jamaica and then became a citizen of Canada.

That's what kind of moved us to Madison, Wisconsin. When we moved there, the only person, where we could buy a home or rent a home was from the mayor of Madison. He rented us our first home, and that was on the North side of town. The North side of town in Madison was blue collar. 

Eventually my dad and several civil rights leaders sued the realty companies in Madison that were using red lining, to segregate neighborhoods. So we eventually then were able to buy a home on the West side of town. And as a result, I integrated my elementary school. The middle schools then, they bussed kids in from all over to create a middle school, six through eight.

And then I was able to walk to my high school, but Black kids from the predominant Black neighborhood were bused into the high school to integrate the high school at that time. And that's how they dealt with in the seventies, segregated schools. They closed down schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods and bussed those kids out into White neighborhoods.

And so I, at that time, was living in a White neighborhood since we had integrated that. I went to my neighborhood high school, but the majority of Black kids were bussed into that high school.

Andrew: But your elementary school was you, you were the only, or one of the only Black kids there?

Paula Forbes: I was the only Black kid there with, along with my sister and my brother. My two older sisters were already in high school at the time, but my sister and my brother were there. And so I literally had to, every day, wait for my brother, if he remembered, to pick us up outside of the classroom. And he literally had to walk us home because we would get chased home by some kids every day, my sister and I.

And so he would walk us home, to make sure that we were safe, but what the, one of the wonderful things that I really want to make sure that we talk about is that we had allies. That even though we were the only Black family in that neighborhood, we had neighbors that cared very much about us and our family and wanted to keep us safe within that neighborhood.

And so what they did for us, and what helped for all of the kids that were walkers, is they would put a piece of paper in their window with a hand on it. And if we saw that hand in the window, and we didn't feel safe on our way home, we could go up to anybody's door and we'd know that we could be safe.

Andrew: They had a hand, that was, that was their sign. Come on in.

Paula Forbes: That was their sign. That, that was our underground railroad, basically on the way home to draw that metaphor of knowing that we were safe in that, knowing that that neighbor cared about us and they were gonna make sure we were okay. 

A lot of times we, my sister and I would abuse it, we would go up and if we got mad at each other and we went to fight, we would go up to a door and, and tattle on each other. You know, like why would we go to that door and ask that person to solve our spite? But we would do that. Or if we had to use the bathroom or if one of us fell down...

Andrew: Maybe a snack after school.

Paula Forbes: Yeah, I need a little snack. You know, we would stop at people's houses on the way home.

But they were very welcoming, and they created a safe space for us. So that's when I first understood what an ally was. That's when I first understood what it was to be able to be a little girl in a Black body, but know that people loved me for who I was and they were going to take care of me.

So we lived in a community that was very welcoming. And even though there was racism and hatred and sometimes a lot of resistance towards us being there.  There were overwhelmingly other people that wanted us there and cared about us. And so I had a good childhood growing up. I had really good friends, but I always felt that because we were the kids taken out of that neighborhood, out of our community, out of my culture, into a White neighborhood, I always lost that childhood affinity with who I was as a little Black girl. And I'm lucky that I had sisters and brothers that together, we kind of created our own affinity.

Andrew: What was, what was that decision like for your parents? Do you know? I mean, the tension between, doing this thing that was clearly for justice, suing the realtors, but then also knowing that they would, inevitably, be giving up that kind of cultural piece.

Paula Forbes: Well, we went back to Toronto a lot and made sure that we had our family and our culture and the people around us. 

So that's, that's just to say a little bit about kind of my history. I ended up going into university graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. And then I left, I left for a couple of years.

I went to Alaska and I went and lived in Los Angeles. So the time that I lived in Alaska was crazy and it was fun. And then we literally, some girlfriends and I hitchhiked down to California.  And we could not find a place to live. 

Now, what was really interesting about this as I was with a White Catholic girl, a White Jewish girl, and me and we were quite the threesome. And people really didn't know, in the early eighties, how to take us. Right. We didn't, we just, and because we grew up since fourth grade together, we were all best friends, we didn't see ourselves the way that other people saw us, the perception of us. 

 I ended up,  after a year, living in California, deciding that I wanted to go back to law school at the University of Wisconsin Madison. So I started law school in ‘85 and graduated in ‘88. 

I knew I didn't want to do criminal law. I wanted to do civil law. So when I graduated law school, that's where I applied and I was hired by Rider, Bennett, Egan & Arundel in Minneapolis, which was an old railroad law firm, insurance defense firm. 

And I was doing John Deere catastrophic farm injury cases, which was horrid. And I was in my office and I was looking at this horrific accident that occurred from a farmer that got caught up in his own machinery. And I was thinking, “how did I, is this what I went to law school for?” And in walks Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota, and Dennis O'Brien one of the premier attorneys in the twin cities in education law.

They had just merged with our firm and they had just received a contract from Minneapolis Public Schools. And Minneapolis Public Schools said that they needed people of color to work on their legal cases, otherwise they weren't going to have the contract. 

Andrew: Right. 

Paula Forbes: I had integrated my law firm. I was the only person of color at my law firm here. So they walked into my office and said, “Hey, Forbes, do you want to work on educational law?” And I literally looked down at this mass, gross, John Deere accident. And I looked up and said, “sure!” 

Andrew: Absolutely. Sign me up for that, right. 

Paula Forbes: You know, that was one of the, that was one of the first times where being, y’know, for lack of a better word, being tokenized worked to my benefit. Right? Cause I was like, okay, I'll do it. And that's when I really started to understand when I went internally  with the school district, what the, what the crux of educational law was.

And I really also started to see the disproportionality of what was happening to kids of color and education and White children. And I really started to study the why. And I started to study the institutionalization of it from a constitutional level. And that's when I just got engrossed in educating Black children and what that means. I just came back to what I believe my calling was. And that is to really help educational institutions understand the dynamics of race and what it truly means for children to be able to get a public education that they deserve pursuant to the Constitution.

Andrew: It seems like the forward-looking work that you do so much of is so often rooted in, in history, in our past. How did, how did that come to be?  

Paula Forbes: I was sitting there working with several superintendents that really truly didn't understand what the history was. They asked me to really talk to them about: what is the history of race in education? And so I was also teaching educational law at the university at the time. And when I was teaching educational law, I started to really decide that I had to teach it from a framework of race and understanding the evolution of public education, and the privilege of public education. And that's what took me all the way back, really to 1619. And to the first slave ships that landed here in the United States. And the fight for not just freedom, but the fight for citizen rights and citizenry and what that means and the privileges that that gives you. And that's why when I talk about this, now I start from 1619. I start with the Dred Scott decision and I move up to the 13th Amendment, which takes us to Plessy.

And that's, that's my why, because we need to understand that public education is based on a privilege pursuant to Constitution, and only those people that have the rights pursuant to our Constitution have the right to a public education. 

Andrew: That you can't understand public education today. You can't understand how it, how it could or should work without understanding the racial history of the, of the country.

Paula Forbes: I absolutely agree with you. I think that's really what the crux of it is. And what was really cool about the inauguration this year was when we had Amanda Gorman, the laureate that spoke. Her poem was just so relevant to this conversation, because she says, in order to really understand where we are in our future, we have to go back into our history and repair it.

And it really resonated with me because that's what I've been trying to say. She says it much more eloquently and better than I have ever said it, but I was like, wow, that's what it is in order for us to really, truly understand why we are in this struggle today, we have to all go back and reckon with our history and repair it. 

Andrew: And repair it, right?

Paula Forbes: And repair it. 

Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. I feel like that that distinction is so important because, you know, the sort of story that often gets told is like the past was full of racist people and they did racist things. But then like, you know, I don't know Martin Luther King, yada yada, yada, we're all good now.

So like you can study that in the past, but to actually repair, it means you actually have to like really, really grapple with what, what was intended in the outcome of that and how those outcomes now ripple through to today.

Paula Forbes: That's exactly right. Our history always leads us to our current reality, right? We, we grow and evolve and we bring our history with us. And we have not let go of some of the remnants of slavery, and how we treat people. And we created this institution that we call the United States of America based off of slavery. 

So there, there are historical artifacts that we have to look at and we have to examine about how that has an impact in our lives today, currently today. And we have to stop saying, we don't want to talk about it, or we don't need to talk about it, or that's not me because I didn't live back then. We have to really say these artifacts, tell us who we are. And they shape who we are today. And if we don't examine them, then we are really not addressing the issues that we are currently facing, which then don't allow everybody to show up as their authentic selves. 

Andrew: And we can't repair. 

Paula Forbes: And we can't repair. We can't move forward.

Andrew: But, well, so let's, so let's do that, that with the Plessy v Ferguson case, because I feel like we're here, we're 125 years after Plessy V Ferguson. It's, you know, if anybody has heard of it, maybe they have some association with it in separate, separate but equal. But I, I knew next to nothing about it until I started reading up, in preparation for this conversation. So maybe let's like, start with the details of the Plessy V Ferguson case and then we can talk about why it's important.

Paula Forbes: Plessy was a case, it was brought and argued and decided in 1896. So you're right, it's a very, very old case. But it started because of the state of Louisiana in 1890, instituted this legislation that required the railway companies, carrying passengers and their coaches within the state to provide equal, but separate cars for White and Black railway passengers.

Andrew: Basically, this is like in response to the 13th Amendment in 1865, the 14th in 1868. And now we're sort of in this new, new, well, new-ish era and, and the state says, okay, we can't, we can't not let Black people on the train, but at least we can make sure they sit in separate cars.

Paula Forbes: Right. Because of the 13th, but also because of the 14th Amendment. Remember the 14th Amendment basically said, everybody has equal protection. And as long as you provide everybody equal protection under the law, the argument then becomes, well, why can't they be separate?

Right? And that's really what the crux of Plessy is. It is the state of Louisiana said, well, everybody can get on this railway car, but we can require you to sit in separate sections based on race. 

It's saying that there is a social caste system that basically says we can still separate ourselves from you. We can still be in a different class of citizenry from you, as long as we provide you the same access that we have to the things that are public. Right? And so Plessy becomes this test case. 

Mr. Plessy, by all intents and purposes appears White. He is of mixed race, but he has one-eighth Black. Now what's really interesting about the Plessy case is that the railroad conductors, the people that took your tickets when you got on the train, they had to make determinations based on how you appeared, who was White and who was Black.

And if they decided that you were a Black individual, they would move you to the, what they call the colored section of the train. If you appeared White, you could sit in the White section of the train. So it's very interesting because what it tells us is that the color of your skin did matter. And the color line, your hue, the lighter you became, the more privileges you got in community and in society. So it was, that's where we get to this word privilege. You get treated better, the lighter skin you are, and the darker skin, the less privileges you actually get and you get treated worse.

Andrew: Because nobody's, nobody's like checking your birth certificate or asking very family lineage, the train conductor who's working, the train conductor job is like, yeah, you look Black, go to the Black section. Ah, yeah, you look pretty White enough. Go ahead. And you can sit up front.

Paula Forbes: Exactly. But in this case he knew Mr. Plessy, who bought a first-class ticket to sit in the first class part of the train. He knew he was one-eighth Black. It was a setup. It was going to be purposefully a test case to challenge this statute. 

Andrew: He needed to get arrested so that they could then take it to court.

Paula Forbes: Yes, and he was, he was ejected from the train. He was arrested and he was  not just kicked off the train. He was charged with a criminal offense. 

Andrew: For trying to sit with the White people.

Paula Forbes: For sitting with the White people, yep. And, and so he challenged it on the 13th and 14th Amendment grounds. He says, wait, under the 13th Amendment, I'm a freed man. I shouldn't be, unless I'm incarcerated, I shouldn't be told where I can sit. I have the same citizen rights as everybody else. And under the 14th Amendment, I have equal protection. So I should be treated equally. Like everybody else. And to be able to sit where I want. So he takes that up, and challenges it in the state. And then that case finds its way, all the way to The Supreme Court.  

And they make this decision that even though you have equal protection pursuant to the law, that it doesn't necessarily mean that you have equal social protection pursuant to the law. That socially people should be allowed to be around and to form relationships with who they want to. And that they shouldn't be required technically to be amongst people that they don't favor. And so they have every right to basically compartmentalize themselves off from certain populations, in social situations who they feel they don't need to be around. As long as we provide them with the same privileges and equal access that, White people have. 

But what you really learn in Plessy is what the social condition was at the time through the descent of the Plessy case.

Andrew: Right because it wasn't a unanimous decision. I mean, it was decided, against Homer Plessy. He was not allowed to ride the train. The Supreme Court decision eventually says as long as it is equal and you know, plenty of arguments about what actually constitutes equal, but separate but equal is okay.

But, but he, but there was one lone dissenting voice in the case. Right?

Paula Forbes: One dissenting voice and that was Justice Harlan. And he writes this incredible decision that really you find the remnants of even today in today's cases. And I'll quote from  from some of his language because I think that's really what's most important.

He says, “There is a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it even to become citizens of the United States.”

Andrew: These are Chinese people that he's referring to.

Paula Forbes: These are Chinese people.

Andrew: Right.

Paula Forbes: And he says, we allow this population of people to be able to sit in the White section of the car, but we will not allow citizens of the United States, because they are Black, to sit in the White section of a railroad car. 

And that takes you back to really that when we thought of Black people as chattel, you were property, you were slaves. And it doesn't matter what the Constitution says, we still see you that way. We still see you as subhuman, less than us. And we don't want to have to sit next to you and give you the same privileges that we believe we have.

Andrew: There's like this idea baked into the majority opinion that, that Harlan is pushing back on, that as long as things are equal, then there won't really be any harm caused, right? We, we can keep things socially separate, but there's no harm in keeping things legally separate as long as they are equal. It's like they're they're ignoring the way that this sets up a hierarchy within society.

Paula Forbes: That's a serious, caste system in the United States. And that's what we fight, from that decision all the way up until Brown versus the Board of Education, where they have to show that it has an impact on Black children psychologically. 

Andrew: Being separate.

Paula Forbes: They don't just show that the bricks and mortar and all the tangible things are unequal, even though they were. They had to show that segregation had a harmful, psychological impact on children, in order to overturn the Plessy decision.

Andrew: Right. Yeah. I mean, he's fascinating, Harlan, so much of what he says in his dissent feels like very far removed from 1896, and yet I think like the opening line is “The White race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country, and so it is in prestige in achievements in education and wealth and power. So I, no doubt, it will continue to be for all time if it remains true to its heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty”. 

So he's not like - he's not all the way woke. He's he's, he's like still very much a White man in the late 18 hundreds in America. But, but somehow he also has this vision of the Constitution as calling us to some sort of higher version of, of citizenship and higher version of humanity.

Paula Forbes: Right, because he looks at the 14th Amendment and he said, there's no distinctions under the 14th Amendment. Right? It didn't make any distinctions about how you have to look at each other socially, equal protection is equal protection. And if you tell somebody that they can't do something, you are violating the 14th Amendment, you're violating them their equal protection.

And he says “The arbitrary separation of citizens on the basis of race while they are on a public highway is a badge of servitude, wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by The Constitution. It can not be justified upon any legal grounds.” 

So he completely disagrees with it, even though he understands that there is a social order.

Andrew: Right.

Paula Forbes: That's that piece that we are always in conflict is, we know that there is a social order. We recognize a social order in society, but when we have to apply it to legal principle, can we make that distinction of our social place in society and our legal rights pursuant to The Constitution?

And he says, no, you can't. But the majority opinion says absolutely, yes, you can.

Andrew: Well, I guess there are pieces of that descent that, you know, sort of are slowly working their way into our current understanding of the law. Really, that majority opinion there so much of that is still, is still true right?

Paula Forbes:  It's just like what you see now where we are in this wave of a civil movement to say that Black Lives Matter. And where do we fall into this space of access and opportunity? We still are going through that conflict and that fight. And that is still there in front of us. This has not gone away. It might take a new iteration, but this is the same undertones that take us all the way back to Plessy. 

So when we think about equity and equality, and we think about access and opportunity, and we think about the civil rights of human beings. That's what this is. This is about the civil right of a human being, being able to move around your own community, to have the freedom to be able to move without the fear of repercussions, without being tainted a criminal, like Mr. Plessy was, because you choose to sit down in a seat in which you want to sit down. And you pay a ticket to sit in a seat, and then you get branded as a criminal for that.

That's how, that's how that history has showed up today, where we take acts of citizens and we turn them into criminals, because of some of these strains that have literally been with us since 1896.

Andrew: Right. Right. Yeah, there's a couple of things that feel really interesting. The, the, you know, ostensibly, it was just a case about train cars, but obviously it had like such bigger implications and led to, separate schools led to separate drinking fountains, led to separate neighborhoods, led to, you know, all these things that were supposed to be equal.

And then I feel like, you know, a lot of the kind of pushback was like, no, it's not actually equal. We need to make it more equal. And it wasn't really until Brown that we said, you know what, even equal is not, is still unconstitutional. And that was ostensibly about schools, but also had such wider ranging societal impacts.

Paula Forbes: Right. I mean, you have the Brown decision, that comes, but you still don't have the Civil Rights Act that's passed. You still have legal segregation throughout the country in 1954. And so, even though you were desegregating schools, which took several years, and they dismantled Black schools and they moved Black children into White schools. I mean, that's basically how they desegregated public schools. You still met with a lot of resistance. 

So true integration didn't didn't really happen until the courts started to give injunctive relief and mandate integration plans and review them and hold people in compliance to them. So it's still there. It's still very much a part of who we are.  And it goes back to the principles that were articulated in Plessy, which was, you may get equal access or equal rights, but that doesn't mean socially, we have to be around you. 

Andrew: We can still maintain this social, social caste system. Uh, even if, down to the letter of the law, we, you can't charge Black people more to ride on the train, but you can make them sit in, in separate, which inevitably also becomes inferior.

Paula Forbes: Right. And it's not even just sitting. For instance, you know you have the whole bussing -  the Rosa parks and the busing integrated of the bussing system. It was to the point where if the bus is full, then Whites could mandate that Blacks get out of their seat. Right? So the privileges didn't just extend to geographical locations on a carrier or on a bus. It actually extended to, we have rights first and then you get rights.

You don't get to come in the front door, you have to come in through the back door. You can't swim in this pool. You have to swim in that pool. Right? We get to decide what your freedoms are. We get to decide how you will live in our community.

We get to have jurisdiction over the way in which you live and how we socialize with you. And that's at the very core of it, which basically then the essence of that is, I am not being recognized as a full human being. There's still a piece of me that has been left on the plantation.

Andrew: Yeah, there's a piece of the descent that, that sort of stuck out to me where he, he mentioned a couple of times kind of the, the harms that he thinks this decision will, will cause not, I mean, he actually doesn't seem like overly concerned about the fate of Black people. But he, he mentioned that there will be harm to everyone from, from these decisions that like the country as a whole is harmed. 

Paula Forbes: And he says “Slavery as an institution tolerated by law would, it is true, have disappeared from our country, but there would remain a power in the States by sinister legislation to interfere with the full enjoyment of the blessings of freedom to regulate civil rights, common to all citizens upon the basis of race and to place in a condition of legal inferiority, a large body of American citizens now constituting, a part of the political community called the people of the United States for whom and by whom through representatives, our government is administered.” 

So he literally says even though slavery is abolished, if we still live in a mindset of that discourse, then we really truly are not living into the principles of our constitution.

Andrew: Right. And that harms everybody.

Paula Forbes: And that harms everyone.

Andrew: Not, not equally, but we are, we are harmed as a country. Our Constitution is harmed and we are harmed as people by that.

Paula Forbes: Right. And not only are we harmed by it, but then we are, we are all really at risk for it. Right? Because if you can do that to one segment of the population, through an enactment of a law, you could actually do it to others.

Andrew: Yeah. Right particularly given how fluid the definitions of race are and continue to be. Right? If your skin happens to be light enough now doesn't mean it will be light enough in 15 or 20 years or 50 years.

Paula Forbes: Right. And we're in this case, we're talking about Black children. And we're talking about Black children specifically because of the 13th Amendment. No other race in the United States was enslaved and under the Dred Scott decision said, you cannot be a citizen. 

Andrew: Right. Yeah, this this other part he says “The destinies of the two races in this country are indissolubly linked together. And the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law.”

Paula Forbes: Yeah, I love that. 

Andrew: I like, I like, it. I like, I get goosebumps hearing it and, and yet it's like, it's exactly what we did. Right. It's like we planted, I mean, I guess they were planted there long before, but under law, the seeds of race hate were planted.

Paula Forbes: Yeah. And he really predicts the future. He predicts what happens and comes out of Plessy, the growth of Jim Crow, the segregation in the United States, the red lining of homes and the way that we segregate our schools and the everyday life. And we are still living that - the remnants and the, and the remediation of that. Yes.

Andrew: They're fundamentally this belief that he has, that even if you get rid of the legal caste system, if you don't address the social piece of it, that you're, you're not going to actually get there.

Paula Forbes: Right. What he acknowledges is by creating that distinction, we literally created in the law, a caste system.

Andrew: If we don't, if we don't grapple with that, we can't undo it.

Paula Forbes: So we still have that struggle, socially, politically, economically. We still struggle with it. 

Andrew: Yeah.  How do you think about that? The role of policy, on one hand, the role of the kind of people who are thinking about and trying to pass the laws and you know, the NAACP is fighting and the, the kind of higher level government, like let's try to change things on that level. And then I don't want to say versus, cause I may think they work in tandem, but then on the, on the other hand, the kind of social organizing the people on the ground, the Black Lives Matter movement, the community organizing that happens, that kind of pushes social change.

I feel like there's, there's sometimes like a push and a pull, like Brown felt like policy pushing ahead of society. Right? Brown was maybe there was a lot, there were a lot of people who were not ready for Brown, but The Supreme Court was there and then society kind of had to keep up. And then I think you look at something like marriage equality, society got there much faster than, than the policy. And then society kind of pulled along. How do you think about that? Sort of the difference in approach between those or the, the necessity of the two?

Paula Forbes: Yeah. There's I think that, I think that you’re exactly right. It's a yes, and. I think that whenever you go through turbulent times in society, we call it, The Chaotic Path. It's actually a theory that's out there, where there's this place where whenever you have some type of tribulation or turmoil that's going on in society, that's pushing change because people aren't getting the benefit of a full human in society, they will push for change. 

Society goes through a very chaotic period, a period called chaos. Too much chaos leads to unreasonable discourse. Everybody likes to know kind of what the rules of the games are, and that's really called our social order. Right? But social order always gets challenged over time. Cause we, we change, right? We always make way for people to have equal rights and to be able to have the same privilege as other people. And you always will find when you're dealing with civil rights, that what you first fight for, for one person to have that right, will end up benefiting so many more people that you never even understood needed that.

And that has always happened with regards to civil rights. So we push order so that it becomes bigger and bigger and bigger and includes more people and encompasses the rights of so many more people that normally would be left out of that order. When we do that, we're always kind of creating this thing called chaos yes. Right? 

I always say that like, like you articulated, that there is this intersection between chaos and order. And what comes through that chaos, and I'm not going to take credit for this, but that's where your leadership comes in. That's where your courageous leadership, your innovation thinking, that's where your biggest creativity comes up, which is how will this new sense of order look? How can we design this so that we can have this new sense of order that includes more people? During that process, it's this balancing act, between chaos in order chaos and order, right? And so what we're watching right now is a period of time. We're in a very chaordic time and that pandemic has exacerbated that.

Andrew: Yeah, seriously. 

Paula Forbes: In so many ways. It's illuminated all of these inequities. But it's illuminated not just for Black people. It's created this racial reckoning for a lot of people, including our White population. It's brought that to the surface. And we are in this chaotic time of where is this going to take us? We're going into a new sense of order. I don't know how long it'll take us to get to this place of understanding, but in the process, you can see all of these incredibly courageous leaders that are bringing change and that are providing that guidance and that leadership. 

Andrew: That's right. Yeah. The chaos is uncomfortable. It feels out of control, but it is the only way to get to something new.

Paula Forbes: That's where you see, the need for both. You need your allies and your, you know, what they call accomplices. You know, you need those people there that are pushing and pushing and pushing against the systems that will not change independently on their own because people are comfortable in those types of institutions, the way they are.

 So you need people that are going to stand up and that are going to march, and that are going to protest and that are going to say, this is wrong, right? And, and, and show you what the right side of the law needs to be. And then you need people within these institutions that also can lead people through a policy change and lead people through transformative experiences so that they understand the why, they understand how we move in purpose.

Andrew: How we repair the past and to move forward.

Paula Forbes: Right. So you need both, right? You always need both. You need people doing the right thing and dismantling systems, as well as building new systems that bring people into that space and give them the rights that they deserve as humans.

And we will constantly, we will always be doing that as long as we have this social order that is based on race, that is based on classism.

Andrew: Right. Yeah. The hierarchy of human value. 

Where do you find hope? You have overcome so much in your life, I sort of think about all the things that kind of had to go right. The, the incredible foundation that your parents gave you, and then all of the work that you have done and all of the discomfort that you have been put through as a Black woman in the, in this country, where, where do you find hope? Why do you keep going? Why do you keep fighting this?

Paula Forbes: Oh, I find hope and I find hope in our youth. That's where I see it every day. I find the hope in them. Whitney Houston sang it best, right? She said, you know, teach our children, get out of the way and let them lead. Right? And that is truly, I think at the very core of how we will evolve as a better nation is within the youth and our children.

They are finding ways to be connected, to love each other, to be accepting of each other with, or without us, you know.

Children will find things that they are interested in and they will look to other kids that they're interested in. And it is not until adults tell them that the reason why they can't play with little Timmy is because he's White or he's Black, or he's Asian. They learn that through adults. But children today are defying adults. And they're saying that doesn't make sense to me. And I refuse to believe that. And I refuse to listen to what my coach calls, the old tired path.

Andrew: Yeah.

Paula Forbes: I'm not going down that path.

Andrew: So you're saying it's good news that my children don't listen to me. Is that what you're

Paula Forbes: It's good in that way. Yes. At least they challenge us. At least they say, they will ask us why?

Andrew: Right? 

Paula Forbes: And we better have a good answer because guess what? They'll go find it out on their own.

Andrew: Right. 

Paula Forbes: And if it doesn't work for them, they will tell you. 

Andrew: What does it look like? I mean, I think you're, I think you're totally right in that is certainly like where I take hope. And I may think it's a lot of why you know, Integrated Schools as an organization is focused on the schools, because not that, kind of our generation or older folks are, are a lost cause, but like the hope for the future really comes from setting kids up for success by putting them in environments where they can find each other shared humanity and, and, lean into their innate tendency, which is to find connection and make friends. 

And yet you know, our president is in his late seventies. Like the power structures are much more disrupted by the chaos that we're in living through right now than the younger generation is. What does it look like for us to get out of the way? How do we like empower that youth voice? You know, while acknowledging that there's plenty, that they don't know, but like how do, how do we kind of stay out of their way and let them, as Whitney Houston said, lead the way?

Paula Forbes: You know, the work that I do now is really centered around empowering youth voice, but not just empowering youth voice. Once you hear it and listen to it, developing a framework for which you can help youth turn what they need and want into actionable steps so that they can see the outcomes of it. We can't just really like push them. You need to go march, you need to go do this without them giving them the tools to be able to create policy and change policy. To be able to say, this is what we want it to look like, and to create those strategies and to be able to be in conversation with people that can influence change and make change.

And so we need to, not only allow and empower voice, but we need to also make sure that we have a skillset in our young population that can then move to change. And so one of the biggest pieces that I really want to work on is how do we help them create public policy, create strategies, move to action, and be able to start to build what they vision and see for themselves.

Andrew: I could talk to you all day. This is so fascinating. I'm, I'm so grateful before we wrap up. I, you know, thinking back to your kind of story of growing up and the hands on the windows of the people who you knew were allies. You know, our, our audience is largely, people who are interested in being allies.

What does that look like today? How do we put a hand in our window today? 

Paula Forbes: I think we see it every day. We see it in people that, not only speak up and say,  “this isn't right”, “this doesn't work for me.” No matter what color you are, no matter what race you are, what gender you are, to be able to stand up and say that and speak the truth, speak your truth and the truth and say, “we need to dismantle institutions”. Those are our allies. Those are the people that I can look to my left and look to my right and say, they're right there with me. 

But, we also need people that when I'm not in the room, they're still continuing to do the work. They still speak up. They still call it out in such a way that people have to pay attention to it. They still look at it from a lens of, if I was not White, how would this impact me? And they have to do their own work on how their racial story impacts other people's lives and how they show up in the world based on their own racial story. 

You know, I talk to a lot of White people that say, well, I don't really have a race story.

And I'm like, that is your race story.

Andrew: That's it.

Paula Forbes: If you don't understand and recognize what your privilege is in this world, that in and of itself is something that you have to work on. Once you do your own work and you look at what your privilege buys you in this space, then you will see who it also infringes and marginalizes.

And you have to make a decision at some point as to whether or not you are willing to be committed, to understand and allow other people who have been historically marginalized, the same privileges that you have had and been given purely because of the race you were born into. 

When you get there, then you're going to start to open up. And that's when I know that I don't always have to be the voice in the room. I don't always have to be the one that's challenging. I can look to my right and I can look to my left. And regardless of what race is in the room with me, someone is going to challenge a system that marginalizes one group of people based on race to the benefit of another based on race or gender or how we show up as sexual orientation.

If we don't speak up for that, then we're not speaking up for humanity. And that's to me,  a pretty simple explanation for where we need to go in our community.

Andrew: Not easy but simple.

Paula Forbes: Not easy. But simple.

Andrew: And that's yeah. And then, then that, then we end up repairing rather than just knowing our history, actually being able to go back and as Amanda Gorman said, repair.

Paula Forbes: And, once again, we have to leave it to a young laureate to tell us that in order to walk into our future, we have to repair our history.

Andrew: Thank you so much. Thank you for your time, for your expertise, for all of the work you're doing. I know that, uh, Minneapolis is a much better place because you're there. And  I'm really grateful for you sharing some of your, your expertise and wisdom with our audience.

Paula Forbes: Oh, thanks for having me. 


Andrew: My deepest, thanks to Ms. Forbes for coming on and sharing her wisdom. I've been so fascinated by justice Harlan since learning of this descent and his journey to become the great dissenter. 

He was a man full of contradictions, born into a prominent slave holding family in Kentucky. His parents actually gifted him an enslaved person as a wedding present. He spoke out against the emancipation proclamation. He was opposed to ratifying the 13th amendment. 

However, over the course of his life, his views changed. And while largely forgotten in the time immediately after his death, over the years, his reputation grew and now many legal scholars consider them to be one of the greatest Supreme Court justices of his era. 

This change of heart may have come from his own learning or maybe it was the influence of his wife who had been raised in a strongly anti-slavery family, or maybe his half-brother and enslaved black man who was by many accounts, treated as part of the family. And with whom he maintained a relationship throughout his life. 

What's clear is that he was willing to grow, willing to change his position and willing to speak out about it. Even when he was the lone voice doing so. 

And there was power in those dissenting opinions. In some ways, the dissent in Plessy articulated a vision for our nation. It described what could be, even as we continue to grapple with the hypocrisy baked into our founding ideals. Thurgood Marshall apparently kept a copy of Harlan's dissent on his desk as a beacon of hope. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers cited it in nearly every brief filed in the years, leading up to the Brown v Board decision. And many say that the force of Thurgood Marshall's own dissenting opinions were bolstered by the impact that he saw in the Plessy descent. And of course it was Thurgood Marshall's dissent in the Milliken v Bradley case that gave us his famous quote that “Unless our children learn together, there's little hope that our people can learn to live together and understand each other.” 

And all of this is not to say that Justice Harlan wasn't deeply problematic in many ways, but you know, rather to highlight the power of being willing to grow and change and evolve and to speak up about it. The power of knowing better and doing better. And it does seem to me that the first step to knowing better is as Amanda Gorman said to reckon with our history and repair it. 

And I'm so grateful to Ms. Forbes for helping me understand that history better and illuminating the ways that it's so clearly tied today. Not only is she an accomplished attorney, but also a facilitator, a coach and a presenter. There's a link to her work in our show notes, or you can check her out at

So this is going to wrap up season six, for us 13 episodes ranging from youth theater to Heather McGhee. It's time to take a break. I know that we have been promising middle-school conversations for some time now, and they are coming, but just not yet. And I know that this season had a lot of experts and not much in the way of parent conversations. And I know we need to get back to those as well. 

So we'll be working on that over the summer. We'll likely drop in with a few things along the way, and we'll plan on being back to our regularly scheduled releases in the fall. In the meantime, your continued support of this work means the world to us. If you're not yet a supporter, We'll continue to have podcast happy hours throughout the summer, as well as sharing updates on future episodes on the Patreon forums. 

We'd love to hear from you about what topics we should cover in season seven. What was your favorite part of season six? What drives you nuts that you wish we'd stop doing? We welcome all of your feedback: [email protected]. You can always find us on social media @IntegratedSchools, you can catch our Thought Leader Thursday series, where we highlight influential people who have pushed our thinking and understanding. 

And if you're getting ready to start next school year in an integrating school and want some support, we have a Parent to Parent Program.  We'll connect you with a parent with lived experience to bounce ideas off of, to provide advice or just to serve as a sounding board so that maybe that decision doesn't feel quite so lonely. 

We're reading Heather McGhee's The Sum of Us for our book club selection in early July. You can find a link to register in the show notes. Book club is always a great way to connect with other people around the country who are thinking about these issues. 

And finally, before I sign off just a quick word of thanks to the crew who helps support this podcast at integrated schools. You hear my voice, but this is a team project. And you know, all the work on transcripts and graphics and promotion is incredibly important, I'm most grateful for the partnership in thought. 

From deciding on guests to thinking about edits, to helping me express my thoughts and the values of Integrated Schools in better and more thoughtful ways, I can safely say that this podcast would be significantly worse without them. So Ali, Anna, Bridget, Courtney, Molly, Sarah, Susan. Thank you.

I’m grateful to be in this with you, and with all of you listeners as I try to know better and do better. Have a great summer!