As I watched the news coverage of the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, I thought about a historical figure I didn’t expect to think about at a time like this: Justice John Marshall Harlan.
Born in Kentucky in 1833, Harlan was a defender of slavery who ultimately changed his views enough to support Reconstruction and write the sole dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 case in which the majority of the United States Supreme Court (everyone except for Harlan) upheld racial segregation laws under the “separate but equal” doctrine.
Harlan’s dissent in Plessy isn’t progressive by today’s standards–for example, he acknowledged the “dominance” of the “white race” and exhibited anti-Chinese sentiment–but it was certainly progressive for that all-white, all-male court at the turn of the last century. He proclaimed, “There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens,” and stated that the majority opinion’s decision to uphold racial segregation would “prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case,” which, if you remember, is the case from 1857 that denied African Americans citizenship.
Harlan was right about Plessy, as the Supreme Court acknowledged in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education, which finally declared race-based segregation laws and policies unconstitutional. He was ahead of his time for someone of his privileged background.
Why were Harlan’s views different?
As many scholars have argued, he had a brother who was a slave, a man who became free at the age of 32. His name was Robert Harlan. They had the same father, and they also had what appears to be a close relationship.
According to historian Allyson Hobbs in A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing In American Life, a book I discussed on this blog in A Family Secret:
It is plausible that John Marshall Harlan’s relationship with Robert Harlan shaped the Supreme Court Justice’s enlightened views on race and particularly his dissent in the landmark 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case.
By the majority’s reasoning in Plessy, with which Harlan disagreed, legislatures could segregate the two Harlan brothers without violating the Constitution. Justice Harlan had a personal basis for seeing the repugnance of segregationist laws, a basis the other Justices either didn’t have or didn’t acknowledge.
I hope people do not need to feel directly affected by racism to care about it, but personal connections seem to make a difference.
While watching those angry white men marching in Charlottesville, I wondered how they would react if they met family members who weren’t white. Or, perhaps more likely, learned through a DNA test that their lineage included African, Asian, Native American, Jewish, Middle Eastern, or Aboriginal ancestry. As genetic studies have shown, many Americans come from racially mixed backgrounds and don’t know it.
For those who somehow pride themselves on their whiteness, would it make a difference to know that they wouldn’t exist but for the ancestors from diverse backgrounds they abhor? Wouldn’t it show them that we are all connected?
Sadly, maybe not. In a Mother Jones profile of right-wing extremist Richard Spencer (the one who was punched on camera on Inauguration Day), he confided that a genetic test revealed he had a small percentage of African heritage. But he dismissed it entirely, saying, “I almost wonder if this is thrown in [by 23andMe] for shits and giggles. Like, ‘We’re all Africans.’”
There may be no hope for white supremacists who are so morally bereft that they proudly display their bigotry. But what about the people who don’t purport to hold these beliefs but who support a government agenda that exacerbates racial inequality (an agenda, coupled with rhetoric, that emboldens white supremacists)? I wonder how they would respond to a “surprise” in their ancestry. Are they capable of changing?
ETA: I hadn’t seen this article–White Nationalists Are Flocking To Genetic Ancestry Tests. Some Don’t Like What They Find by Eric Boodman/STAT— when I was writing this post, but I wish I had. It includes interesting information about how white supremacists respond to DNA test results and how genetic testing companies analyze genetic material.