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Class, Race, Gender & Crime: Social Realities of Justice in America, 4th ed

Up ] Intro ] Class chapter ] [ Race chapter ] Gender chapter ] Fatal Females ] Black Genocide? ]Race & Blood ]

Earlier editions of this book had Class as Chapter 2, but we have reorganized. Part 1 of the book now covers The Crime Control Enterprise and Its Workers (Ch 1) and Criminology and the study of Class, Race, Gender and Crime (Ch 2). Part 2 of the book is now Inequality and Privilege, with chapters for understanding Class and Economic privilege (Ch 3), Race and White Privilege (Ch 4), and Gender and Male Privilege Ch 5). (Chapter 6 covers the intersections of class, race, and gender, but it isn't on the website yet.)

Chapter 4, Understanding Race and White Privilege

In Plessy v Ferguson (163 U.S. 537, 1896), the Supreme Court set the precedent of ‘separate but equal’: separate facilities for blacks did not offend Constitutional provisions so long as they were equal to those provided whites. Louisiana law required separate railway cars, and when Plessy sat in a car designated for use by whites only, the conductor told him to leave. As the Court described it, upon his “refusal to comply with such order, he was, with the aid of a police officer, forcibly ejected from said coach, and hurried off to, and imprisoned in, the parish jail."

The Court found that the requirement of separate accommodations was a reasonable regulation, made “with reference to the established usages, customs, and traditions of the people, and with a view to the promotion of their comfort, and the preservation of the public peace and good order.”  Social prejudices, said the Court, cannot be overcome by legislation, and if the races “are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits, and a voluntary consent of individuals.”  Although Plessy argued that enforced separation “stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority,” the majority held that it is “not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”

What is less known about the case is that Plessy “was seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighth African blood; that the mixture of colored blood was not discernible in him,” so the suit involved a claim “that he was entitled to every right, privilege, and immunity secured to citizens of the United States of the white race.” Plessy argued that “in a mixed community, the reputation of belonging to the dominant race, in this instance the white race, is 'property,' in the same sense that a right of action or of inheritance is property.” The Court conceded it to be so, for the purposes of the case, but argued the statute did not take his property: either he was a white man who was entitled or a black man who was not.  But who decides, and how?  The train conductor seemed to have power to make racial classifications, but the Court did not see that issue as properly before it. The state legislatures should properly decide on racial classifications, but some said “any visible admixture of black blood stamps the person as belonging to the colored race; others, that it depends upon the preponderance of blood; and still others, that the predominance of white blood must only be in the proportion of three-fourths.”

Justice Harlan was the sole dissenter, claiming that the decision will prove to be as “pernicious” as the Dred Scott case, which declared that escaped slaves who traveled North to freedom were still property and should be returned to their Southern masters.  For him, the statute seemed inconsistent, for example in allowing black nurses to attend white children but not an adult in bad health.  The black employee of a white woman can not be in the same coach, and the statute criminalizes the attendant’s “exhibition of zeal in the discharge of duty.”  Harlan also pointed to another group that “is a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States” and are “with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country.” But under the law “a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger coach with white citizens” yet blacks “many of whom, perhaps, risked their lives for the preservation of the Union, who are entitled, by law, to participate in the political control of the state and nation, who are not excluded, by law or by reason of their race, from public stations of any kind, and who have all the legal rights that belong to white citizens, are yet declared to be criminals, liable to imprisonment, if they ride in a public coach occupied by citizens of the white race.” 

 Harlan wondered if the Court’s ruling about the reasonableness of separation would allow a town to assign the races to different sides of the street or prohibit the co-mingling of Protestants and Catholics.  Perhaps partitions should also be placed in courtrooms, or even jury boxes and one for the deliberation room to “prevent black jurors from coming too close to their brother jurors of the white race.”  Unlike the majority, Harlan argued the purpose of the law was to compel blacks to “keep to themselves” while traveling rather than keep whites out of black areas, and “no one would be so wanting in candor as to assert the contrary.” He acknowledged that whites were the dominant race and said that while “every true man has pride of race” that can be shown in appropriate situations, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and “prevents the imposition of any burdens or disabilities that constitute badges of slavery or servitude.”  Even though whites were the dominant race, and “will continue to be so for all time,” he was clear that:

in the 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 is involved.


LOÏC WACQUANT, FROM SLAVERY TO MASS INCARCERATION: Rethinking the ‘race question’ in the US (full text)

Not one but several ‘peculiar institutions’ have successively operated to define, confine, and control African-Americans in the history of the United States. The first is chattel slavery as the pivot of the plantation economy and inceptive matrix of racial division from the colonial era to the Civil War. The second is the Jim Crow system of legally enforced discrimination and segregation from cradle to grave that anchored the predominantly agrarian society of the South from the close of Reconstruction to the Civil Rights revolution which toppled it a full century after abolition. America’s third special device for containing the descendants of slaves in the Northern industrial metropolis is the ghetto, corresponding to the conjoint urbanization and proletarianization of African-Americans from the Great Migration of 1914–30 to the 1960s, when it was rendered partially obsolete by the concurrent transformation of economy and state and by the mounting protest of blacks against continued caste exclusion, climaxing with the explosive urban riots chronicled in the Kerner Commission Report. [1]

The fourth, I contend here, is the novel institutional complex formed by the remnants of the dark ghetto and the carceral apparatus with which it has become joined by a linked relationship of structural symbiosis and functional surrogacy. This suggests that slavery and mass imprisonment are genealogically linked and that one cannot understand the latter—its timing, composition, and smooth onset as well as the quiet ignorance or acceptance of its deleterious effects on those it affects—without returning to the former as historic starting point and functional analogue. 

Pew Hispanic Center: Chronicling Latinos' diverse experiences in a changing America

The Lawsuit Brought by African-Americans Seeking Compensation from Corporations for The Wrongs of Slavery:
Why the Opinion Dismissing the Suit Is Unpersuasive

Loving v VA (antimiscegenation law, preventing the marriage of people from different races) 1967 (388 U.S. 1)

In June 1958, two residents of Virginia, Mildred Jeter, a Negro woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, were married in the District of Columbia pursuant to its laws. Shortly after their marriage, the Lovings returned to Virginia and established their marital abode in Caroline County. At the October Term, 1958, of the Circuit Court of Caroline County, a grand jury issued an indictment charging the Lovings with violating Virginia's ban on interracial marriages. On January 6, 1959, the Lovings pleaded guilty to the charge and were sentenced to one year in jail; however, the trial judge suspended the sentence for a period of 25 years on the condition that the Lovings leave the State and not return to Virginia together for 25 years. He stated in an opinion that:

"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

The present statutory scheme dates from the adoption of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, passed during the period of extreme nativism which followed the end of the First World War. The central features of this Act, and current Virginia law, are the absolute prohibition of a "white person" marrying other than another "white person," a prohibition against issuing marriage licenses until the issuing official is satisfied that [388 U.S. 1, 7] the applicants' statements as to their race are correct, certificates of "racial composition" to be kept by both local and state registrars, and the carrying forward of earlier prohibitions against racial intermarriage. 

In upholding the constitutionality of these provisions in the decision below, the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia stated the reasons supporting the validity of these laws: the State's legitimate purposes were "to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens," and to prevent "the corruption of blood," "a mongrel breed of citizens," and "the obliteration of racial pride," obviously an endorsement of the doctrine of White Supremacy. 

The Supreme Court - in an opinion written by Chief Justice Warren - struck down the law. About 16 states had similar laws at the time. 


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