Charlottesville, Common Ancestry, & Change

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?

*See also, Uncovering Our Roots: Why Does Family History Matter?


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.


  1. I’ve been enjoying your blog this morning, A.M.B. Thank you for it. Picking up on the question of whether having an African-American brother played a role in John Harlan’s decision: it likely did. Do you recall the real case which led to Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park”? Chief Justice Lord Mansfield had a niece of mixed-race – Dido Belle. It was he who made the landmark ruling that no person on British soil could be considered a slave — a seminal moment in the fight to abolish slavery in Britain.

    I also notice that some of the most passionate anti-racism advocates in my country, Canada, are white grandparents who have a mixed-race grandchild. Which goes to show that one’s relationships can alter one’s perspectives.

    Finally, there are many in this world who refuse to see Africa as the cradle of humanity. I understand that, actually. Raised with white images of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden and of Christ and his disciples, some people can’t believe otherwise unless their minds get opened somehow.

    By the way, Mansfield Park has been the least popular of all Jane Austen’s novels, despite being an exciting book.

    1. Thank you for raising these important points and examples. I agree with you that relationships can alter a person’s perspective, at least when they are open-minded enough to recognize the need to change. As for Mansfield Park, I love that novel. I have a soft spot for the Austen novels that readers tend to overlook (Persuasion and Northanger Abbey are on that list).

  2. I still can’t believe the president’s response to the Charlottesville violence. It’s shameful. That 2/3 of Republicans surveyed agree with him just shows how much the Republican party has changed over time. I know some former Republicans who don’t align themselves with the party anymore because they can’t recognize it. They aren’t totally aligned with Democrats either, though, so they feel unrepresented. Anyway, I guess I never realized just how back and forth “progress” really was until this year. I pray we can all make it through the next 3.5 years.

  3. I was at the protest here in Seattle yesterday. It was peaceful , but sobering. I have done ancestry DNA. It is interesting to find our roots out and I have embraced my lineage proudly.

    1. It’s nice to see peaceful counter-protests happening across the country. There have been a few in my community too. We are stronger when we come together.

  4. I feel so angry about these people. I feel so angry that we as a country have so steadfastly refused to confront our racism and the history of racism, that we’re now at a place where Nazis can have rallies in Virginia and that’s just a thing that happens. More than anything I want us to have a real, proper truth and reconciliation commission — I feel like nothing will ever be solved until we’ve truly drawn this poison out.

    1. That’s a very interesting idea. Was that what was set up in South Africa? I’ll have to look into it.

      I had hoped that the internet would be a democratizing, unifying force, but I suppose it’s only as good as the person who uses it. If you want to use it to reinforce you’re disgusting views, while ignoring opposing views, then you can. That’s what these white supremacists did. It isn’t surprising that racism still exists in 2017, but it’s hard to believe we have a government that actively encourages it. It’s so disheartening.

  5. I had just read the STAT article and was disappointed, but surprised, that people would refuse to let reality change their beliefs. I definitely agree with you that personal connections can make a difference. I think it’s much harder for people to hate an individual than a group they don’t really know.

    1. Exactly. It amazes how people can just dismiss their own ancestry, but then again, these are the same people who regularly dismiss the news and virtually all facts. It’s so disheartening.

  6. Cobb’s comment about “statistical noise” would make me laugh if it wasn’t so damned pathetic. The time and energy these people invest in hatred is beyond comprehension.

  7. What does “23andme” mean?

    I doubt think that most will change, because they don’t only pride themselves on their ethnicity but also on their culture. If they only are taught the white surpremacist culture throughout generations, then they will learn this is the best ever culture.

    1. I should’ve explained what 23andMe is in the post. Sorry about that. It’s a company that analyzes DNA and provides information on ancestry.

      I also don’t think most people will change their racist views any time soon. Its disheartening.

  8. It’s almost impossible to know how to comment on current events in the U.S. these days. You think you’ve heard it all and then you’re proven wrong, usually within 24-hours. Within this context I really thank you for this truly thought-provoking post, A.M.B. So, so much painful baggage; it is important to be reminded that Trump (God help us) is feeding into something that, sadly, has a long, long history. Racism and bigotry didn’t start with him, although he’s frighteningly good at fanning the flames. Sad, sad, sad.

    1. “Racism and bigotry didn’t start with him, although he’s frighteningly good at fanning the flames.” Well said, Jane. That racism still exists in the US doesn’t surprise me. What surprises me is the president’s open approval of it. He has emboldened the worst members of our society to behave in extremely dangerous ways. It’s terrifying.

  9. I thought about the DNA tests, too, but sadly, like Spencer, they’d dismiss it as ‘fake news.’ And this morning, CBS News reported the 67% (two-thirds!) of Republicans approved of trump’s comments re C’ville. The majority of Republicans are racists, pure and simple.

    1. That’s an appalling statistic about the Republican Party. I can’t imagine that this is how the Republican Party will want history to remember them, but their leaders are doing absolutely nothing about it. It’s disgusting.

  10. I don’t recognize my country. How could the WH say there are good people on both sides? I don’t know how anyone voted for President Trump. I have friends and family who did & their votes have made me see an ugly part of them I never saw before.

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