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Racial Inequality in America

In June 1892, Homer Adolf Plessy purchased a first class ticket to Covington, Louisiana. Residing in Louisiana at the time, Plessy, a “mixed” Negro, seven eights white and one eighth black, boarded the train and took a seat in the section reserved for whites. Immediately, the conductor informed Plessy that his actions would result in removal from the train followed by imprisonment should he fail to move to the section set aside for non-whites. Plessy ignored the warning and was removed, imprisoned, and charged with the crime of failure to adhere to the Louisiana’ Separate Car Act approved by the New Orleans State Legislature in 1890.

Intending to test the constitutionality of the Act, Plessy filed a “writ” in the Louisiana State Court against Justice John Howard Ferguson, criminal judge for the New Orleans District Court, arguing that he was a United States citizen who lived in Louisiana; that he was not obviously black, and that he was entitled to the same rights as all other citizens as defined by the Constitution. The state courts ruled against Plessy and he, along with a liberal white legal team and the support of the Citizens Committee took their case to the United States Supreme Court.

In April 1896, the Supreme Court heard arguments. Plessy’s attorneys argued that the Louisiana Law was unconstitutional in that it violated the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery as well as the 14th Amendment, an added measure to provide federal protection to minorities, particularly blacks during this period, from state actions that might infringe upon their civil liberties. In disagreement, Justice Brown in his majority opinion argued that the13th Amendment did not apply only to blacks and was more concerned with labor relations than color.

The 14th amendment, he argued, was an attempt to legislate social equality, insisting that social intercourse required a “mutual” and “voluntary” arrangement (Plessy vs. Ferguson 557). In May 1896, the highest court in the land, in a 7-1 vote, upheld the decision of the lower court legalizing racial segregation in public transportation and other places. Yet there was one lone dissenting voice in the Plessy decision. Justice John Harlan who stated that “our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.

All citizens are equal before the law …. The thin disguise of equal accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong done this day” (Plessy vs. Ferguson 559). While the courts had established the legal place of blacks, ideas regarding inherent black inferiority were also espoused by the white intelligentsia many of whom used or misused scientific evidence to support their claims. The professional and lay communities tended to read the United States Constitution and its Amendments through the prism of white supremacy.

Whether a southern politician, a German born insurance agent, or a northern, liberal, minister-journalist, their scholarship leaned toward the view that “pure” blacks were inherently inferior and innately unfit for citizenship and, if so, not equal to their white counterparts. For many white Americans the greatest fear was that social interaction would degrade the privileges and powers assigned to white skin. For example, John Tyler Morgan, in “The Race Question in the United States,” published in 1890, argues that blacks were a innately inferior. Morgan, born in Tennessee in 1824, was exposed to a rudimentary education.

He became a lawyer as the age of twenty-one as well as a Secessionist Democrat although pardoned by Republicans in Congress. Morgan believed that the south should be redeemed from black rule and, therefore, was opposed to their political participation. (Thomas, Plessy vs. Ferguson: A Brief History 62-63). Morgan argued, much like the majority Justices in the Plessy decision, that the 14th Amendment’s voting provision was an “unnatural” elevation of the race. Their only hope for the future and that of the whites, according to Morgan, was to return to Africa.

Designed to protect blacks, the problem with the Amendments was, in Morgan’s view, due to the “admitted inferiority of the negroes, as a race; and, in the other case, it appeared in the admitted aversion between the races” (Thomas 64). At the same time, Frederick L. Hoffman, in his essay, “Race Amalgamation,” published in 1896, offered a scientific approach to America’s “race problem. Through measurements of brain weights, statistical data on intermarriage, and illegitimate births he concluded that race mixing contributed to a deterioration of black physicality, yet found that amalgamation improved intellectual capacity.

While Hoffman’s essay was published subsequent to the Plessy ruling, his work provided a “scientific” justification for segregation. “There is a natural aversion between some races,” he argued, “attempts to cross this natural barrier, determined by the ‘law of similarity’ have invariably led to the most disastrous consequences” (Thomas 93). Hoffman, born in Germany, immigrated to the United States in 1884. An insurance agent turned statistics analyst, Hoffman explained racial differences based on an evolution paradigm of white over black.

He was part of a school of social science intellectuals who insisted that blacks were incapable of improvement and, therefore, racial equality was an impossible goal; naturally or through extra-political measures (Thomas 76-77). For example, Hoffman insisted that intermarriage and prostitution promoted the inferiority of both races and that commingling diluted racial purity. “Individuals of both races who intermarry or live in concubinage,” insists Hoffman, “are vastly inferior to the average types of the white and colored races” (Thomas 99).

Hoffman argued that amalgamation was “a positive hindrance to black social, mental[,] and moral development” (Thomas 100). But more important, he lamented, was the fact that the “physiological consequences alone demand race purity and a stern reprobation of any infusion of white blood” (Thomas 100). Hofmann’s views, while purporting to offer a scientific and, therefore, objective explanation for racial segregation substantiated the majority’s claim in Plessy particularly regarding the intent of the 14th Amendment.

Justice Brown stated that the 13th Amendment was “not intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races” (Plessy vs. Ferguson 555-556). Hoffman differs from Morgan, in that Morgan is concerned about the political implications of racial equality insisting that voting was “the only reliance of the negro for lifting his race to the level of social union or equality with the white race … and that the race jealousy that the exertion of that power inflames, has united the white race on the color line” (Thomas 73).

Both scholars ascribed to the notion that the 13th and 14th Amendments were unnatural and external measures to artificially elevate blacks to an impossible state of equality with whites. “Neither laws,” according to Morgan, “nor any form of constraint, can force open the doors to our homes and seat them at our firesides” (Thomas 73). Similar sentiments were evidenced in the Court’s ruling in Plessy, a decision that insured a white consensus on racial segregation. Still, there were intellectuals such as Henry M.

Field who, in his “Capacity of the Negro – His Position-The Color Line in New England,” published in 1890, believed that ex-slaves had not been able to progress even with recent political advantages. A Massachusetts-born, Presbyterian minister, Field, upon completion of his theological studies, in 1842, had traveled to Europe. Returning in 1851, Field served as a Congregational Church minister and, in1854, he began editing his own religious journal. In 1890, the curious Field embarked upon an extensive tour of the south (Thomas 101-102).

Field’s training, travels, and journalistic activities greatly influenced his thoughts about race relations. He argued that the races were “different,” and that separation in railways was of another matter insisting that “a black man’s money is just as good as a white man’s, if he pay’s the same fare, he is entitled to the same accommodation” and if whites are uncomfortable, “let them separate (Thomas 118). Field, much like Morgan, Hoffman, and Justice Brown, insisted that “social intercourse [could] not be regulated by law” (Thomas 118).

Field was also critical of black and white supremists in both the north and south, yet argued that the desire for segregation was a “matter of instinct, which is often wiser than reason” (Thomas 119). In this sense, Field, departs from many conservatives extremists and is more in tune with conservative liberals such as Plessy’s attorney, Albion Tourgee, who believed in equality under the law. Both positions highlighted an underlying cultural belief regarding black inherent inferiority.

Whether one ascribed to Field’s liberal reasoning or the conservatism espoused by Hoffman, Morgan, and the Supreme Court, their ideas were born of an assumed feeling of white superiority. While many whites were divided on the causes of their “aversion” to black skin, most all believed segregation a necessary remedy for the race problem in America. The voices of the Justices echoed those of the society at large, and not until half century later would the minority voice ring louder and make good on the promises of the Constitution. Works Cited Field, Henry M.

“Capacity of the Negro – His Position in the North. The Color Line in New England. ” Plessy vs. Ferguson : A Brief History with Documents. Ed. Brook Thomas. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997. 101-119. Hoffman, John L. “Race Amalgamation. ” Plessy vs. Ferguson : A Brief History with Documents. Ed. Brook Thomas. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997. 76-100. Morgan, John T. “The Race Question in the United States. ” Plessy vs. Ferguson : A Brief History with Documents. Ed. Brook Thomas. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997. 62-76. United States Supreme Court. Homer Adolf Plessy vs. John Howard Ferguson. 163, 537, 1896.

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