While the vast majority of Americans consider themselves unprejudiced, many of us unintentionally make snap judgments about people based on what we see—whether it’s race, age, gender, religion, sexuality, or disability. The Love Has No Labels campaign challenges us to open our eyes to our bias and prejudice and work to stop it in ourselves, our friends, our families, and our colleagues. Rethink your bias at http://www.lovehasnolabels.com
by Tom Head
Updated March 03, 2017
The Supreme Court has issued some fantastic civil rights rulings over the years, but these aren’t among them. Here are ten of the most astonishingly racist Supreme Court rulings in American history, in chronological order.
Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856)
When a slave petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for his freedom, the Court ruled against him—also ruling that the Bill of Rights didn’t apply to African Americans. If it did, the majority ruling argued, then African Americans would be permitted “the full liberty of speech in public and in private,” “to hold public meetings upon political affairs,” and “to keep and carry arms wherever they went.” In 1856, both the justices in the majority and the white aristocracy they represented found this idea too horrifying to contemplate. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment made it law. What a difference a war makes!
Pace v. Alabama (1883)
In 1883 Alabama, interracial marriage meant two to seven years’ hard labor in a state penitentiary. When a black man named Tony Pace and a white woman named Mary Cox challenged the law, the Supreme Court upheld it—on grounds that the law, inasmuch as it prevented whites from marrying blacks and blacks from marrying whites, was race-neutral and did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. The ruling was finally overturned in Loving v. Virginia (1967). More »
The Civil Rights Cases (1883)
Q: When did the Civil Rights Act, which mandated an end to racial segregation in public accommodations, pass? A: Twice. Once in 1875, and once in 1964.
We don’t hear much about the 1875 version because it was struck down by the Supreme Court in the Civil Rights Cases ruling of 1883, made up of five separate challenges to the 1875 Civil Rights Act. Had the Supreme Court simply upheld the 1875 civil rights bill, U.S. civil rights history would have been dramatically different.
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
Most people are familiar with the phrase “separate but equal,” the never-achieved standard that defined racial segregation until Brown v. Board of Education (1954), but not everybody knows that it comes from this ruling, where Supreme Court justices bowed to political pressure and found an interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment that would still allow them to keep public institutions segregated. More »
Cumming v. Richmond (1899)
When three black families in Richmond County, Virginia faced the closing of the area’s only public black high school, they petitioned the Court to allow their children to finish their education at the white high school instead. It only took the Supreme Court three years to violate its own “separate but equal” standard by establishing that if there was no suitable black school in a given district, black students would simply have to do without an education. More »
Ozawa v. United States (1922)
A Japanese immigrant, Takeo Ozawa, attempted to become a full U.S. citizen, despite a 1906 policy limiting naturalization to whites and African Americans. Ozawa’s argument was a novel one: Rather than challenging the constitutionality of the statute himself (which, under the racist Court, would have probably been a waste of time anyway), he simply attempted to establish that Japanese Americans were white. The Court rejected this logic.
United States v. Thind (1923)
An Indian-American U.S. Army veteran named Bhagat Singh Thind attempted the same strategy as Takeo Ozawa, but his attempt at naturalization was rejected in a ruling establishing that Indians, too, are not white. Well, the ruling technically referred to “Hindus” (ironic considering that Thind was actually a Sikh, not a Hindu), but the terms were used interchangeably at the time. Three years later he was quietly granted citizenship in New York; he went on to earn a Ph.D. and teach at the University of California at Berkeley.
Lum v. Rice (1927)
In 1924, Congress passed the Oriental Exclusion Act to dramatically reduce immigration from Asia—but Asian Americans born in the United States were still citizens, and one of these citizens, a nine-year-old girl named Martha Lum, faced a catch-22. Under compulsory attendance laws, she had to attend school—but she was Chinese and she lived in Mississippi, which had racially segregated schools and not enough Chinese students to warrant funding a separate Chinese school. Lum’s family sued to try to allow her to attend the well-funded local white school, but the Court would have none of it.
Hirabayashi v. United States (1943)
During World War II, President Roosevelt issued an executive order severely restricting the rights of Japanese Americans and ordering 110,000 to be relocated to internment camps. Gordon Hirabayashi, a student at the University of Washington, challenged the executive order before the Supreme Court–and lost.
Korematsu v. United States (1944)
Fred Korematsu also challenged the executive order and lost in a more famous and explicit ruling that formally established that individual rights are not absolute and may be suppressed at will during wartime. The ruling, generally considered one of the worst in the history of the Court, has been almost universally condemned over the past six decades.
Will the U.S. Department of Education back pedal on another key education civil rights action of the Obama administration?
As the agency reversed Obama-era civil rights policies—those related to issues like sexual assault, systemic investigations, and transgender students—policy watchers have wondered if it will next withdraw or alter 2014 guidance on racial disparities in school discipline.
That guidance, which was long anticipated by civil rights groups before it was released, put schools on notice that discipline rates that are disproportionately high for students in one race could trigger a civil rights investigation, even if the school’s policies weren’t written with discriminatory intent. For example, if a school suspends black students at higher rates than their peers, federal officials might explore data to see if they are facing harsher punishments for the same rule violations compared to their peers.
Supporters of that move said it would help to slow the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” a term they use to describe overly punitive discipline policies that research links to negative outcomes for students.
But critics said the guidance amounted to putting “racial quotas” on school discipline and that it had a chilling effect, causing schools to avoid disciplining students for some behaviors.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has regularly criticized the Obama administration’s aggressive approach to civil rights enforcement, referring to it as “the era of rule by letter.”
Now, DeVos plans to hire an outspoken critic of the discipline guidance to work in the the department’s office of general counsel, according to a Politico report. That reported hire, Hans Bader, previously served as a senior attorney for the Competitive Enterprise Insitute. He’s written numerous opinion pieces and letters to the editor at major newspapers on the Obama education department’s approach to discipline.
Higher suspension rates for black students “reflect higher rates of misbehavior among blacks, not zero-tolerance policies,” Bader wrote in a 2014 opinion piece in the Daily Caller.
That’s a claim that many school discipline researchers dispute.
Is Bader’s hiring a signal that the discipline guidance will be changed? Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, seems to think so.
SAN FRANCISCO — Two years ago, a groundbreaking study on lynching documented the brutal mob violence that forced many African Americans to flee the south.
With help from Google, the racial justice group that published the study has transformed Lynchings in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror into an interactive digital platform that combines historical data and personal stories so people can explore one of the darkest passages in the nation’s history.
The goal is to spark a national dialogue about a subject that is too rarely discussed yet is crucial to understanding racism today, says Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of the best-selling book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.
Google.org, the Internet giant’s philanthropic arm, also announced it’s giving another $1 million to the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative to support its racial justice work. In 2015, Google.org gave $1 million to the Equal Justice Initiative to help fund a national memorial for lynching victims that the Equal Justice Initiative is building on six acres of vacant land in downtown Montgomery and a museum on the country’s racial history planned for the group’s headquarters that was once a slave warehouse.
“We want to change how we think about this era in America,” Stevenson said.
Doria Dee Johnson’s great-grandfather, Anthony Crawford, a father of 13 who started a school for black children and a successful businessman who owned 427 acres of prime cotton land in Abbeville, NC, was lynched in 1916 for cursing a white store owner he believed was trying to cheat him.
Johnson, an activist and PhD candidate in American history at the University of Wisconsin, says the trauma of lynchings created silence. This new digital platform, with its capacity to reach millions, is now helping to break it.
Several months later, I hesitate to offer yet another election postmortem for higher education. Like many of you readers, I have read countless such essays from within and beyond the academy. Some people have argued that the rise of white supremacists (they prefer to be called the “alt-right”) was only to be expected given the proliferation of identity politics in higher education. According those observers, by providing limited space and resources on campuses for the acknowledgment and celebration of various social identity groups that are underrepresented in colleges and universities, as well as marginalized across society, it was only a matter of time before white students would want to assert themselves as well.
The only trouble with that view, as was brilliantly enunciated by Cheryl Harris in 1993 in her discourse on whiteness as property, is that the very idea of whiteness and the racialization of white people over and against all others is the invention of propertied, Protestant Christian, Western European settlers in the Americas. Whiteness was the means of preserving their wealth and status within an ideologically theocratical capitalist system. This argument is disingenuous and ahistorical.
Other commentators, such as Mikki Kendall recently, have noted higher education’s failure to educate its students about race and racism. In that argument, white students are rightfully presented as being allowed to believe in their own merits while at the same time denying the meritorious potential of anyone unlike them — particularly those who are members of racially minoritized groups. Despite first-year orientation diversity sessions and general-education requirements including a plethora of options to expose students to diverse perspectives (but few which present a challenge to normative worldviews), most students leave college with the same assumptions with which they entered: that the dominance and overrepresentation of certain people in college, in leadership and among the ranks of the wealthy and envied is natural and optimal. Most students — not even just white students, necessarily — believe that advancement and opportunity is exclusively a function of merit, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, as noted by legal and educational scholar Lani Guinier.
What I have not yet seen in these electoral postmortems seeking to diagnose how working-class white people in the United States seemingly voted against their own economic interests leading to the election of Donald J. Trump is: 1) an acknowledgment by higher education scholars that it was as much the vote of college-educated, middle-class white men and women that informed this presidential election’s outcomes (see here), and 2) that reality is a result of the decision of historically white colleges and universities to engage a politics of appeasement instead of a true liberal education.
Kendall’s prescient observations reflect the effects of this politics of appeasement, except those who are being appeased are not who some pundits, decrying the excessive political liberalism of the academy, have led us to believe. The greatest strength of an institution lies in its ability to persevere over time, with its most fundamental modus operandi challenged but unchanged. That has never been more true of the institution of American higher education as engendered and still practiced by historically white institutions (HWIs).
As I shared during a talk at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently, acknowledgment and celebration of diversity were not the primary goals of the student activists of the 1960s through the 1980s, who pushed for ethnic studies departments, student centers and increased recruitment and retention efforts focused on racially minoritized students, faculty members and staff members. No, it was through such avenues that those generations of activists hoped to inspire institutional transformation through the presence of a critical mass of people of color on campuses.