Racism from a United States judge. You’ll never guess which one!

Tags: , , , , , , , — Jeff @ 22:17

A couple days ago I found this ugly passage in a United States legal opinion:

The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty.

Take a guess who wrote it, and in what context.

A hint

The same person who wrote this immediately continued with these further words, some of which might sound familiar (if improbable):

But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.

I’ll give you a little space to try to come up with the name and context, if you haven’t already gotten it.

The answer

These passages were written by the first Justice Harlan, dissenting in the notorious Plessy v. Ferguson case. It’s interesting how we now remember Justice Harlan for this solo dissent and for his statement that, “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” Yet I’d never heard before, anywhere, that in the exact same paragraph he validated the idea of a dominant race and basically asserted that whites would always be so in the United States.

Justice Harlan certainly deserves credit as the only one of eight justices to hold in favor of Homer Plessy, the New Orleans Comité des Citoyens, and the railroad company that ejected him from a whites-only car (all of whom conspired in a test case to overturn the law). (The ninth justice, David Josiah Brewer, didn’t participate in the case because of the abrupt death of his daughter. It’s unclear how he would have voted had he participated, with his personal history and voting record pointing in somewhat different directions.) As the only Southerner on the Court, and a former slave owner at that, it’s far from what one might have expected of Harlan, or of his colleagues.

Yet at the same time, Justice Harlan adhered to some of the beliefs and prejudices of his time. It is an unfortunate gloss on history that we are less aware of this, than we are of his better-known, more admirable words. We should be aware of both: to correctly understand history, to not fall prey to knowing only that which we want to be true, and to place a historical figure in full context.

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