Racism In Law: Plessy Vs Ferguson

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Racism in the United States has plagued our nation since its creation and has plagued the legal world since its establishment. Despite the modern world, the US judicial system is still lacking when in the case of people of color. What does it mean to be a person of color? A person of color is any person who is considered not white and the term emphasizes races who are bound by institutional racism. Discrimination from strangers, work, and the legal system; people of color are still scrutinized in a way white Americans are not. This leads to an inherent issue that is not recognized by most whites: white privilege.

'I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.' (McIntosh, 2000, p. 1) Many of people hear the word “privileged” and will respond with “I am white, I am not privileged, here is a list of my struggles...” however, this is not the intent of white privilege. White privilege does not mean white people do not struggle, it does not mean white people do not suffer in life, it means that there are intrinsic “privileges” that are given to white people that are denied to people of color. For example, white privilege comes in the form of not being discriminated against because of the color of your skin, it is not being stereotyped by your race, it is seeing your race mass represented in media, it is going to the store and having products be targeted to your skin color.

Life is not easy but life becomes harder for people of color when the entirety of American culture caters to white Americans. (McIntosh, 2000). Taking this all into consideration, people of color then find themselves institutionally discriminated against. Now what does it mean to be institutionally discriminated against? Institutional racism/discrimination is when racial discrimination leads to a statistic disparity between races for example, in the work place; pay differences, worker diversity, legal cases; harsher sentencing, lack of trust in victims of a crime, police brutality; higher rates of death and severe injuries committed by police to people of color. This list can go on and is all interconnected; pay gaps limit people in options for housing, lower rent communities experience higher rates in crimes and have less access to proper education, this leads to higher rates of imprisonment in people of color, and then people of color find themselves limited to the circumstances provided to them by the world they live in. “Getting out” is not a possibility when the entirety of the United States intuitionally discriminates against you. (Tourse, 2018).

How does this play into the legal system? When considering racism there are a multitude of negative stereotypes that are applied to races, and then these stereotypes are then applied when considering the sentencing or court ruling of a person or persons of color. Court rulings are harsher to people of color than to white people offering yet another example of white privilege, not just this but people of color looking to prosecute someone of a crime are less likely to even have their case filed. (Brennan, 2017). Now, there are statistics to these statements however that will be discussed later into the paper.

All in all, this paper will discuss and analyze how deeply implemented racism is in the US legal system, United States court cases which had racist rulings, and in what way we can ameliorate the US justice system.

Statistics and State + Local Cases:

Before delving into supreme court cases which had inherent racism sewed into its rulings, one must first consider the limited amount of cases the US Supreme Court takes in a year. The Supreme Court will hear upwards to 150 cases a year, these cases do not reflect the day to day life of Americans especially American people of color. Supreme Court cases that involve people of color typically do not deal with crimes committed by the person filing for appeal of their case, but rather overall social injustices. That being said, this is why one must first consider how the American judicial system handles cases involving people of color on a local and state level and how racism plays apart in these cases.

Though, people of color go to probate court, small claims court, district court for divorces and other cases, cases filed by people of color who are victims of a crime and cases of people of color being accused of a crime are the most common cases which institutionalized racism is most evident statistically. These are the cases that this paper will focus on in order to provide a baseline concept of how racism affects the law.

There a very few studies done on racial inequalities in court sentencings, in the few studies done Blacks and Hispanics are the two races primarily focused on statistically. It must be noted that people of color face these inequalities together; Indian, Asians, American Indian/Alaskan Natives, Pacific Islanders, and mixed races among Blacks and Hispanics all face racial injustices in the American court system. Though, covering the statistics on as many races among people of color who face institutional racism is the goal, the data currently is skewed to be more plentiful for certain races. (Crump, 2019). Considering this, here are some key statistics provided:

  • Persons of color are 3x more likely to receive a harsher sentencing for the same crime committed by their white counterpart
  • African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5.1 times the imprisonment of whites. In five states (Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin), the disparity is more than 10 to 1. In eleven states, at least 1 in 20 adult black males is in prison.
  • States exhibit substantial variation in the range of racial disparity, from a black/white ratio of 12.2:1 in New Jersey to 2.4:1 in Hawaii.
  • Latinos are imprisoned at a rate that is 1.4 times the rate of whites. Hispanic/white ethnic disparities are particularly high in states such as Massachusetts (4.3:1), Connecticut (3.9:1), Pennsylvania (3.3:1), and New York (3.1:1).
  • 1 in 3 black men will be incarcerated at some point in his life
  • Black men are 5.9x more likely to be incarnated than their white counterparts
  • Hispanic men are 3x as likely to be incarnated than their white counterparts
  • American Indian youth are 3x as likely as their white counterparts to be held in Juvenile Detention Centers
  • White custody rate (per 100,000) 86; Black custody rate (per 100,000) 433; Latino custody rate (per 100,000) 142; American Indian custody rate (per 100,000) 26; Asian custody rate (per 100,000) 23

(Ghandnoosh, 2019). What can be drawn from this information? Considering the amount of people of color in prison, predominately made up of Blacks and Latinos, and the difference in population between people of color and white Americans in the US it leaves one wondering how can so many people of color be in prison? Again, it is the institutional racism that structures our justice system that leaves this insane disparity between whites and people of color. It is in our nation’s fabrication that the thought process towards people of color is inherently racist and unfortunately, this can be seen in the judicial in just these simple statistics.

When diving into specific crimes one can see this disparity even more clearly. For example, in rape cases victims of rape when presenting their case are less likely to be taken seriously if they are a person of color, a perpetrator who commits a rape will more likely receive a harsher sentence if they are a person of color. When a person of color reports a rape, prosecutors are less likely to file charges, if a person of color’s case does get filed, their jury is less likely to believe the victim especially if the perpetrator is white. (Ghandnoosh, 2019). This is not to mention other crimes like drug charges, assault, car related crimes, illegal operations, etc. These statistics could go on for ages but the bottom line is that there is a system in place that is faulted and racism is at its core. (Chamallas, 2013, p. 167-198, 296-300).

Now that we have dived into the local legal struggle of people of color and have learned how court rulings are harsher to people of color than to white people let us focus on large scale cases which set a standard across the United States through the Supreme Court.

US Court Cases:

United States Supreme Court cases are typically the bases of what shapes American thought. When gay marriage was illegal most Americans felt to be gay was wrong, but since the legalization of gay marriage, through ruling of the Supreme Court, the acceptance of gay people in America has increased and American thought is changing. Despite there still being a lot of resistance and hate directed at gay people, the world is different and everyone is working diligently to create a world without homophobia.

This same concept can be then transferred to racism. Yes, slavery is no longer legal, people of color have the right to vote, people of color can hold jobs and lives like anyone else can but the inherent hate towards people of color remains. A lot of progress has been made in terms of creating a world where people accept each other as they come but that future is a longs way away and that is because of America’s racist history and racist present. In the following summary and analyzation of Supreme Court cases the good and bad will be recognized in three ways. Firstly, discussing cases in American history which ruled unjustly to a person or people of color and has subsequently left remnants of an institutionally racist justice system. Secondly, discussing landmark cases that continue to perpetuate this system and thirdly, landmark cases that are helping put an end to this system. Separating these cases into these three subcategories, which will be addressed as subcategory 1-3, will allow for the understanding of how the past has shaped the present, how the present is still in need of change, and how our future has hope.

Dred Scott v Sandford (1857)- Dred Scott was a black slave who was bought by a man named John Emmerson. Emmerson moved quite a few times and for a short period resided, with Scott, in a slave free territory. After Emmerson passed, Scott was left to Emmerson’s wife Eliza Sanford. Scott attempted to buy his and his families freedom, but Sanford denied the family their freedom. Scott took this to court and claimed that having previously lived in a slave free territory Scott and his family were free from slavery. In this time Ms. Sanford remarried and left her brother Mr. Sanford to handle her affairs and Scotts wages were withheld.

The local court ruled in Scotts favor, but Mr. Sanford did not want to pay Scott his withheld wages and appealed to State court. State court ruled in Sanford’s favor and Scott was deemed not free and still a slave. Scott attempted to appeal to the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court concluded that Scott did not have the right to appear in court as free or a slave, African-Americans were not free to sue in federal court, dually the Supreme Court held the standing that Scott remain a slave as slaves were considered property and the rights of slaveowners would be violated otherwise. (Zee, 2013).

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*It should be noted that due to a written error Sanford’s name was incorrectly recorded and thusly lead to the case being known as Scott v Sandford.

Plessy v Ferguson (1896)- Homer Plessy teamed up with the East Louisiana Railroad Company to fight the Separate Car Act of 1890 which stated that whites and blacks would be segregated on railroad cars. The company sent Plessy to sit in a white’s railroad car and Plessy was arrested when he did not comply when asked to move. Taking the case all the way up to the Supreme Court Plessy did not find justice and was instead met with the ruling that segregation in railroad cars was upheld by the Separate but Equal doctrine. (Thomas, 1997).

Gong Lum v Rice (1927)- Gong Lum sent his American born daughter, Martha Lum, to an all whites school. Martha Lum was sent home and banned from returning from the school as she was from Chinese descent and thusly not white. Gong Lum took this to court and eventually reaching the Supreme Court the court cited Plessy v Ferguson and stated that the school acted within their rights of the law. (University, 1975).

Korematsu v United States (1944)- After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an Executive Order in which Japanese and people of Japanese ancestry on the west coast were banned from military areas and occupying cities. This meant many Japanese and Japanese-Americans had to be relocated, subsequently the government decided the Japanese were to be put in detention camps.

Fred Korematsu was Japanese-American but underwent plastic surgery to change his eye shape to appear more Western. Korematsu even changed his name to Clyde Sarah so it came to no surprise when Korematsu refused to go to a detention camp. Korematsu was subsequently arrested and tried by State Court in which the court ruled that Korematsu ignored a military order and was sentenced to 5 years’ probation. Korematsu appealed to US Court of Appeals were the same ruling was made. Korematsu appealed to the Supreme Court and the court ruling remained and concluded that military orders are necessary and not based on race. (Gold, 2006).

Conclusion: These cases do not even date back a full 200 years ago, racism obviously has a deeply seeded history with the United States, but it is still very recently that black people were even legally considered people. Considering this, one can come to understand how racism is still present in our society today, even our legal system, and how institutional racism came to be.

Jennings v Rodriguez (2017)- “In Jennings v Rodriguez the Supreme Court declared that immigrants lacking United States citizenship who have been targeted for possible deportation can be detained without bond hearings- even if they are in the United States legally.” (Some, 2019, p. 50) In 2004 Alejandro Rodriquez, a Mexican citizen and legal resident of the United after a 2004 convection Rodriquez was detained and in 2007 filed a petition to claim that he was entitled to a bond hearing to find out if his continued detention was justified. (Jennings, 2018, p. 1).

Trump v Hawaii (2018)- President Donald Trump, in 2017, issued a presidential order in which a travel ban was placed on North Korea, Chad, Libya, Iran, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Venezuela. This order was taken all the way to the Supreme Court in which the court ruled that this was within the presidential powers and would be unconstitutional to revoke the order. (Lamb, 2020, p. 60-70).

Conclusion: It is clear in both these cases that the fundamentality of humanity is discarded and replaced with an inhumane approach to treating immigrants, and these were very recent cases asa well. It is a bit worrisome that this racism towards immigrants continues to the point of such a petty level, however the following cases show that there is hope.

Brown v Board of Education (1954)- The Supreme Court ruled that under the Equal Protection Clause it would be unconstitutional to continue the idea of “separate but equal” in regards to segregated schools. This came to be as Linda Brown and her sister had to cross dangerous railroad tracks to go to their all black elementary school, Linda’s family took this all the way up to the Supreme Court stating there was an all whites school that was closer to the Brown’s home and it was unconstitutional to Black children as all-white schools had better funding, transportation, teachers, and overall gave a better education to white children. (Ruben, 2016).

Plyler v Doe (1982)- Under the Equal Protection Clause the Supreme Court stated that it was considered discrimination to bar children of illegal immigrants from going to public school. This was decided after Texas passed a 1975 which allowed children of illegal immigrants to be denied enrollment in public school. (Simiris, 1983).

Abbot v Perez (2011)- “A challenge to Texas’s 2011 state legislative and congressional redistricting plan contends the maps were drawn with an unconstitutional discriminatory intent as well as violate the Voting Rights Act.” (Abbot, 2019).

Flowers v Mississippi (2019)- Sentenced to death for murder in Mississippi, Curtis Flowers was tried six times for the crime, in two of the trials there was blatant discrimination in the decision to reject Black jurors. Flowers took this to the Supreme Court where the court decided the court had violated the ban on racial discrimination in juror selection and the Supreme Court urged Mississippi to reconsider Flowers’ case. The Mississippi court retried his case and the death sentence remained. (Flowers, 2019).

Conclusion: All of these cases show the hope in how institutionalized racism will one day be mostly overturned and defeated. This can be seen in how the Supreme Court is beginning to side with people of color, and like previously stated before, this has a ripple effect in which the United States people begin to follow the mindset of the Supreme Court to stand up to racism. Though, a long way off change is around the corner.

Final Conclusion:

Racism is still deeply implemented in the US legal system so in what way we can ameliorate the US justice system?

If you are not a person of color then recognize your white privilege and use this privilege to bring attention to institutional racism, the more people who know about it the more people are able to fix their own mistakes and help funnel change. If you are interested in the field of law be knowledgeable of the subject, be an advocate for change, and do your best to help people of color in situations where they would otherwise turn into a statistic. Sign petitions, go to peaceful protests, be loud about this injustice, and most importantly be an ally for people of color. If you are a person of color this is just a reminder that you are so strong and the vile way in which the justice system treats people of non-white races WILL end. The fight will be long, it will be difficult, and it’s hard to say that racism would end entirely- that’s farfetched, but the fight will have a clear winner and it will NOT be those who hold racist ideals.

All in all, Racism in the United States has plagued our nation since its creation and has plagued the legal world since its establishment. Despite the modern world, the US judicial system is still lacking when in the case of people of color. Discrimination from strangers, work, and the legal system; people of color are still scrutinized in a way white Americans are not. Life is not easy and life becomes harder for people of color when the entirety of American culture caters to white Americans. Institutionalized racism needs to be realized by our legal system and the legal system must realize change must happen now. Though, there is hope for a better and brighter future, that future is unattainable if action is not taken today. 

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