Separate Proms -- and Racism -- Linger in Parts of the South

Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is a law student at the University of Florida.

Last weekend, parents of students attending Johnson County High School in Wrightsville, Ga., paid to hold a private, whites-only prom for their children in hopes of perpetuating a dying Southern tradition.

That tradition was challenged a year ago in a neighboring county by a lone high school student named Gerica McCrary, who organized the first integrated prom at Taylor County High School in decades. But McCrary’s bold initiative didn’t catch on. Johnson County High decided not to follow suit, and even at Taylor County High -- where McCrary is now a senior -- some white students chose this year to go back to holding a segregated prom.

It’s hard to imagine that the practice of segregation still exists in the United States, but it does.


In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that the separate-but-equal doctrine had no place in education because separation by its very nature created unequal conditions. The court ruled that segregation in public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment, and in time the court desegregated public beaches and parks as well. The decision reversed the infamous 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling that created the doctrine of separate but equal.

Despite these great strides in American history, hopes for integration in small Southern towns haven’t always materialized. Today in Georgia, some high schools still elect a black class president and a white class president, and some hold separate senior trips for the two races.

To skirt desegregation mandates and keep proms from being integrated, some Georgia high schools simply stopped holding school-sponsored proms and instead allowed parents to arrange their own. These proms, because they are private affairs, don’t fall under the auspices of Brown and other desegregation decisions. Authorities are powerless to interfere.

Nonetheless, the practice is an obvious dishonor to the notion of racial equality. As Justice John Paul Stevens once wrote, “It is one thing for a white child to be taught by a white teacher that color, like beauty, is only ‘skin deep’; it is far more convincing to experience that truth on a day-to-day basis during the routine, ongoing learning process.”

Holding private, segregated proms perpetuates racist scorn against what was once considered the most forbidden crime in the Old South -- the exercise of love between a white and a black. African Americans enslaved before 1865 were tortured and lynched if they admired a white woman; white women who responded to their black admirers often met the same fate. After the Confederacy fell, the South prosecuted black men simply for looking at white women. The underlying goal was simple: enforce a racist status quo by frightening blacks into feeling inferior.

Segregated proms, although apparently few, are one of the worst public displays of racism in today’s America. By their very nature, separate proms teach a child that to love another whose skin color is different is immoral and forbidden. It is shameful that nearly 50 years after the Brown decision, the practice is still going on.