the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the Supreme Court turned down a petition for
freedom from an enslaved African American. The author of the court’s ruling,
Chief Justice Roger B. Tawney, declared that blacks could never be granted equal
protection under the law or civil rights, because they were inherently inferior
to whites, and forever would be.
observed that "the unhappy black race" had always "been excluded
from civilized Governments and the family of nations, and doomed to slavery.
Negroes were beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with
the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior
that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."
infamous Dred Scott decision reaffirmed the fundamental legal condition of
African Americans, not as citizens or human beings, but as property. Black
people were to be treated by law enforcement officers and the courts primarily
based on the color of their skin. Yet despite the nearly 150 years since the
Dred Scott decision, African Americans still encounter nearly identical racist
attitudes from the police and the courts.
thousands of cases in recent years that make this point, one of the best is
provided by certain bizarre events in Oneonta, New York, in 1992. A 77-year-old
white woman phoned the Oneonta police that she had been attacked by a burglar.
She was unable to see the man’s face, but she thought the assailant was a black
man who may have cut his hand or arm with the knife used in the robbery.
was all the "evidence" the police needed. Every African American male
in the town was to be stopped and checked.
American men and boys waiting for public transportation were all stopped and
interrogated. Black men found riding in automobiles were pulled over and
questioned. Local and state police then demanded that academic officials at the
State University of New York at Oneonta campus turn over a list of all black
male students. Students were interrogated, and checked for wounds. Finding no
suspects, the cops began questioning every African American they could find both
in and around the city of Oneonta. Everyone stopped was innocent, and the
assailant was not apprehended.
rights and civil liberties groups were appalled by these police state tactics,
and the state’s Governor at that time, Mario Cuomo, apologized for this official
misconduct. Several black people filed a legal suit, charging that cops had
blatantly violated their civil rights.
last year, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals
heard arguments in the case, and made a decision-in favor of the police. In its
ruling, the judges declared that the racial dragnet used to identify, stop and
interrogate only black men did not violate their Fourth Amendment rights against
unreasonable search and seizure, nor their Fourteenth Amendment Rights to equal
protection regardless of race. The court recognized that the hundreds of
innocent people who had been humiliated and violated by the police might feel a
"sense of frustration." Nevertheless, the court declared that the
police sweep was not racially discriminatory because the cops were acting on a
physical description of the suspect that included more than racial identity.
Oneonta decision of 1999 was so outrageous that even the New York Times
editorialized that the federal appeals court’s decision could mean that
"police are free to treat every black person they see on the streets as a
potential suspect, so long as there is a pending complaint that a black person
committed a crime." In effect, this ruling gives police the right to stop,
question and harass any black person, anywhere and anytime, if they have an
allegation that a black person somewhere committed a crime.
the Oneonta case is also representative and indicative of the hundreds of
indiscriminate and routine stops and searches that happen to blacks and Latinos
in every U.S. city everyday. A recent report of the New York Attorney General’s
office on racial disparities in street searches by the New York City Police
Department provides more evidence. The study was based on a thorough review of
175,000 documented cases in which individuals were stopped by the New York
police over a 15-month period in 1998-1999. The study found that African
Americans were stopped six times more often than whites, and Latinos were
stopped four times more frequently than whites. Blacks comprise 25 percent of
New York City’s total population, but are one half of all the people police
Scott is unfortunately still alive and well in America’s racist criminal justice
system. Despite all the legal and legislative reforms, apparently African
Americans still have "no rights whites must respect."
Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and the
Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia
University. "Along the Color Line" is distributed free of charge to
over 325 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally. Dr. Marable’s
column is also available on the internet at www.manningmarable.net.