The Pernicious Prevalence of Race in American Discourse

In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case.

Justice John Marshall Harlan, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

Harlan’s opinion was, of course, the correct one. As the lone voice of dissent in what remains one of the more odious Supreme Court decisions, it serves as a cautionary reminder that majority opinions are not always the correct ones. Plessy may not have touched off a civil war, but by legitimizing segregation, it exacerbated the deep-rooted divisions that sundered this country for too much of its history.

The case itself was not without its ironies. In the now-antiquated parlance of the time, Homer Plessy was an octoroon whose want of racial “purity” never would have been noticed had he not brought it to the attention of the train conductor who came to collect his ticket. Plessy’s disclosure was the key to a larger plan devised by the Citizens Committee to test the constitutionality of the Separate Car Law, whose name hardly could do more to announce its purpose. Though succeeding in testing the law’s constitutionality, the test ultimately failed. As the Court opined, "We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it."

It was a strange place to locate the underlying fallacy, seeing that there was an all-too-flagrant fallacy in the very notion of a separate equality that was imposed on the other. A more considerate court might have, at the very least, suggested that in the future, Plessy not reveal his racial heritage so that he could enjoy the equality reserved for whites rather than suffer the one reserved for blacks. That the seven-eighths white Plessy had the abrogation of his rights upheld by seven-eighths of the Court that day, that the one-eighth of the Court that found that abrogation opprobrious was a former slave-owner, and that the last name of the justice who delivered the majority opinion was Brown were further ironies that apparently were lost on the eminent tribunal that day.

Of course, irony does nothing to mitigate the odium of the decision. If Plessy marks one of those indelible stains on the fabric of American history, one can find consolation in the fact that that age has been transcended and the perverse logic that sanctioned something as execrable as the "separate but equal" doctrine has been refuted. Yet it is precisely because such progress has been made that the prevailing inclination to judge a person according to his racial composition is that much more disheartening.

Of late, nowhere has this atavistic tendency been more on display than with respect to the Tiger Woods scandal. From radio shows to the blogosphere to the editorial pages, one has encountered a rather wayward way of thinking that would seem to belong to an age more myopic than this one.