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.