The story of blacks on the American continent began with total racial oppression on slave ships and plantations. While the goal of true racial equality remains unattained, the history of law and race has been a journey to the “shades of freedom” in SHADES OF FREEDOM: RACIAL POLITICS AND PRESUMPTIONS OF THE AMERICAN LEGAL PROCESS.
Legal systems do not operate in a vacuum. A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. concludes that the American legal process maintained the system of slavery by using what he calls “precepts” of slavery jurisprudence. These precepts represent common understandings about the nature of blacks as a race and how the institution of slavery should be governed. Never formally defined, they were often left implicit even in legislation and judicial decisions. The primary focus of this study is the role of the American legal process in substantiating, perpetuating, and legitimizing the precept of inferiority—the cornerstone of United States racial politics.
In the first great setback to black civil rights, 1857’s Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, the Supreme Court declared that blacks were “so far inferior that they had no rights to which the white man was bound to respect.” This attitude would seem to have been reversed by the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, all explicit declarations of the civil rights of former slaves. Yet in 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision the Supreme Court legitimized segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine. Sobering examples of recent vintage serve as reminders that politics and courts are still not color blind.
SHADES OF FREEDOM illuminates the successes and failures of the American legal system in promoting racial equality, and the extent to which the law has always mirrored the larger society. Failures of the law are also social failures—a fact which all thoughtful readers can take to heart.