Injustice Along the Color Line
In the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the United States Supreme Court turned down a petition for freedom from an enslaved African American. The author of the court’s ruling, Chief Justice Roger B. Tawney, declared that Blacks could never be granted equal protection under the law or civil rights, because they were inherently inferior to Whites, and forever would be.
Tawney observed that “the unhappy Black race” had always “been excluded from civilized governments and the family of nations, and doomed to slavery. Negroes were beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the White race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the White man was bound to respect.”
The infamous Dred Scott decision reaffirmed the fundamental legal condition of African Americans, not as citizens or human beings, but as property. Black people were to be treated by law enforcement officers and the courts primarily based on the color of their skin. Despite the nearly 150 years since the Dred Scott decision, African Americans still encounter nearly identical racist attitudes from the police and the courts.
Among thousands of cases in recent years that make this point, one of the best is provided by certain bizarre events in Oneonta, New York, in 1992. A 77-year-old White woman phoned the Oneonta police to report that she had been attacked by a burglar. She was unable to see the man’s face, but she thought the assailant was a Black man who may have cut his hand or arm with the knife used in the robbery.
This was all the “evidence” the police needed. Every African American male in the town was to be stopped and checked.
African American men and boys waiting for public transportation were all stopped and interrogated. Black men found riding in automobiles were pulled over and questioned. Local and state police then demanded that academic officials at the State University of New York at Oneonta campus turn over a list of all Black male students. Students were interrogated, and checked for wounds. Finding no suspects, the cops began questioning every African American they could find both in and around the city of Oneonta. Everyone stopped was innocent, and the assailant was not apprehended.
Civil rights and civil liberties groups were appalled by these police state tactics, and the state’s Governor at that time, Mario Cuomo, apologized for this official misconduct. Several Black people filed a legal suit, charging that cops had blatantly violated their civil rights.
Late last year, a three-judge panel from the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case, and made a decision—in favor of the police. In its ruling, the judges declared that the racial dragnet used to identify, stop and interrogate only Black men did not violate their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, nor their 14th Amendment Rights to equal protection regardless of race. The court recognized that the hundreds of innocent people who had been humiliated and violated by the police might feel a “sense of frustration.” Nevertheless, the court declared that the police sweep was not racially discriminatory because the cops were acting on a physical description of the suspect that included more than racial identity.
The Oneonta decision of 1999 was so outrageous that even the New York Times editorialized that the federal appeals court’s decision could mean that “police are free to treat every Black person they see on the streets as a potential suspect, so long as there is a pending complaint that a Black person committed a crime.” In effect, this ruling gives police the right to stop, question and harass any Black person, anywhere and anytime, if they have an allegation that a Black person somewhere committed a crime.
However, the Oneonta case is also representative and indicative of the hundreds of indiscriminate and routine stops and searches that happen to Blacks and Latinos in every U.S. city every day. A recent report of the New York Attorney General’s office on racial disparities in street searches by the New York City Police Department provides more evidence. The study was based on a thorough review of 175,000 documented cases in which individuals were stopped by the New York police over a 15-month period in 1998-1999. The study found that African Americans were stopped six times more often than Whites, and Latinos were stopped four times more frequently than Whites. Blacks comprise 25 percent of New York City’s total population, but are one-half of all the people police stopped.
Dred Scott is unfortunately still alive and well in America’s racist criminal justice system. Despite all the legal and legislative reforms, apparently African Americans still have “no rights Whites must respect.”
— Dr. Manning Marable is professor of history and political science, and the director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University.
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