How Racist was John Marshall Harlan?

29Oct15

The story of John Marshall Harlan and African-Americans is complicated but has traditionally followed a set path. He was a slave owner who fought for the Union during the Civil War. After the war, he campaigned against the Reconstruction amendments. Then he joined the Republican Party and once appointed onto the Supreme Court and became one of America’s greatest (white) advocates for blacks in American history. His dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson is a stinging rebuke against legalized discrimination and an impassioned argument for the full equality of blacks.

Except that last part may not be true according to a new article being published later this year in the Journal of African American Studies: “The Harlan Renaissance: Colorblindness and White Domination in Justice John Marshall Harlan’s Dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson” by Phillip Hutchison. In it, Hutchison draws a distinction between social equality between whites and blacks, and legal equality. The majority of Harlan’s dissent clearly argues in favor of a legal equality between the races, but Hutchison contends that a careful reading of the decision reveals that not only did Harlan not feel that social equality was possible, but that it was also undesirable. According to this interpretation, a Constitution that was “color-blind” and knows no caste would actually keep blacks socially inferior to whites.

This is in direct contradiction with the interpretation of most (although by no means all) historians and legal scholars. Does Hutchison make a convincing argument? The issue of the journal won’t be published until later this year but a copy of it is available online now. Read it and decide for yourself.

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