Friday, December 10, 2021

Peter Irons's "White Men's Law"

Peter Irons is a noted scholar on constitutional law and the acclaimed author of a dozen books on the Supreme Court and famous (and infamous) cases, including Justice at War, that the justices have decided since the Constitution's adoption in 1788. He is Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of California-San Diego. As an attorney, he has represented clients in state and federal courts, and is a member of the US Supreme Court Bar. Peter Irons is also a long-time civil rights and antiwar activist.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, White Men's Law: The Roots of Systemic Racism, and reported the following:
I put my book to the Page 99 Test and am pleased to report that it passed, at least in giving a prime example of one of its three main topics, showing how privileged White men have drafted, adopted, interpreted, and enforced laws--from the local to federal levels--designed to keep Black Americans in perpetual subjugation to Whites, even before birth and even after death, in every place that people go and every activity they engage in. In 300 pages, it covers more than four centuries of systemic racism, from the first purchase of kidnapped Africans in Jamestown in 1619, to the murder of George Floyd by a racist cop in Minneapolis in 2020. In painting this historical picture, it singles out and explores significant--but often ignored in American history textbooks--events and people on both sides of our ongoing racial chasm.

Back to page 99, which offers a prime example of how privileged White men in black robes have twisted the Constitution's promise of "the equal protection of the laws" to strike down laws designed to give that protection to Black citizens, in this case the first Civil Rights Act of 1875, the Reconstruction-era law banning racial discrimination in all places of "public accommodation." Ruling in 1883, after Reconstruction was literally buried by White "redeemers" who launched a wave of terror across the South, including thousands of lynchings and dozens of outright massacres of Blacks who dared to vote, the Supreme Court upheld their exclusion from "Whites-only" hotels, restaurants, theaters, and railroad coaches. For context, page 98 includes a patronizing lecture by the Court's majority to Blacks who wanted only to eat, sleep, travel, and be entertained in the same facilities as Whites: "When a man has emerged from slavery," the Court said, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizens, and ceases to be a special favorite of the laws." A more hypocritical statement would be hard to fashion. Page 99 includes the reply of the sole dissenter from this racism, Justice John Marshall Harlan. "It is scarcely just," he wrote, "to say that the colored race has been the special favorite of the laws. The statute of 1875, now adjudged to be unconstitutional, is for the benefit of citizens of every race and color." Another century would pass before the last of the Jim Crow laws were "adjudged to be unconstitutional" by a more enlightened bench of White men. But during this century, millions of Black Americans suffered from the "stigma" attached to their skin color, with no regard to "the content of their character," in the prophetic--but still unrealized--words of Rev. Martin Luther King. My accounts of famous--actually infamous--cases like Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson, and others less famous, begin with the stories of Dred and Homer Plessy, putting human faces on the dry pages of judicial opinions. In this respect, page 99 shows readers how White men have subverted the Constitution.

However, the book does much more than exposing the racism of the legal system, even after the historic and almost universally lauded 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. It looks at subsequent decisions in school segregation cases, beginning with the "all deliberate speed" invitation to Southern bigots to delay meaningful integration in Brown II in 1955, resulting in the violent resistance to judicial orders to admit nine Black students to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. A second theme in the book illustrates in graphic and horrifying detail the extra-legal punishment of Blacks who violated--even accidentally--the power of White men over their lives. The book's Prologue frames the book around the lynching of a young Black man, Rubin Stacy, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1935. Accused of assaulting a White woman in front of her three young children, Stacy was dragged by a deputy sheriff into her back yard, hung by the deputy from a pine-tree limb until his neck snapped, his body then riddled with 17 bullets from lynch mob members and left to hang while dozens of White spectators gathered to gaze at Rubin's blood-stained body. Among those spectators was a seven-year-old girl, captured on film by a news photographer, dressed in virginal white, gazing at the body with an enigmatic expression. What would she pass on from that day to her children, and their children: revulsion or approval of Rubin's murder? The book looks backward in time from that gruesome event to colonial Jamestown and the regime of slavery that endured for 150 years; chapter 2 includes the defenses of slavery by prominent southerners--including John Calhoun and Jefferson Davis--who portrayed their slaves as "happy" and well-cared for by their masters, and the stories of former slaves--recorded in the 1930s--who recounted brutal beatings, even murder, by their masters. One of them, Charlie Moses of Marion County, Mississippi, spoke for all slaves: "Slavery days was bitter and I can't forget the sufferin'. Oh, God! God Almighty never meant for human beings to be like animals. Us Niggers has a soul an' a heart an' a mind. We ain't like a dog or a horse." But slaves had no more rights than dogs or horses.

The book's third theme looks closely in several chapters at the impacts of systemic racism on the Black residents of Detroit over the past century, forced by hostile Whites into overcrowded housing, their children squeezed into resegregated schools, toiling at low-paid menial jobs, denied quality health care, with little chance of escape from generations--centuries, in fact--of poverty. Documenting these damaging conditions, I ask: "If we can't find solutions for Detroit, we can't find them for the nation as a whole."

This is an important and timely book in this period of attacks on teaching the real and disturbing history of American racism, of which most White people are ignorant or indifferent. I'm pleased that Congressman Jamie Raskin (a former constitutional law professor) calls the book "mesmerizing and electrifying" and "achingly poignant," and that Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the UC Berkeley Law School, calls it "stunning" and urges that "at a time when society is trying to confront racial injustices, this beautifully written book is a must read." My challenge: read it and decide for yourself if it gives you a new perspective on America's oldest and most deadly crime against humanity, the racism of White Men's Law.
Learn more about White Men's Law at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue