The Louisiana General Assembly passed in 1890 the “Separate Car Act” granting railroad companies the right to provide separate railway cars for the “white” race and the “colored” race.
On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy, a shoemaker, was jailed for sitting in a “white” car on the East Louisiana Railroad. Though demographically he was defined as one-eighths black and seven-eighths white, he was required to sit in the “colored” car under the so-called “one drop” rule — one drop of “black” blood makes you “colored.”
Mr. Plessy sued Louisiana in 1892 claiming in state court that the Separate Car Act violated the 13th (abolition of slavery) and 14th (equal protection) Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Judge John Howard Ferguson ruled against Plessy by declaring that the state could indeed regulate railroad companies operating within Louisiana.
Plessy appealed to the Louisiana state Supreme Court, which upheld Judge Ferguson’s decision. As his final recourse, Homer Plessy took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, in what became a deep-seated stain on the cause for human and civil rights until it was reversed in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court, by a ruling of 7 – 1, upheld the lower court’s decision.
Writing in 1896 for the majority, Justice Henry Brown asserted:
“That [the Separate Car Act] does no conflict with the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery…is too clear for argument….A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races — a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color — has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races….The object of the [Fourteenth Amendment] was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.”
The precedent set in this ruling came to be known as the “Separate but Equal” doctrine, which argued that separate facilities for black people and white people were constitutional if they were allegedly “equal” (though in actuality, where were not). This doctrine soon spread to other areas of public life including restrooms, restaurants, theaters, hospitals, and public schools.
It also extended the “Black Codes” — the so-called “Jim Crow” laws — throughout the South. These laws were passed following the enactment of the 13th Amendment to limit rights of newly-freed enslaved black people. “Jim Crow” statutes got their name from Jim Crow, a southern minstrel performer.
This now-metaphoric “colored” segregated train car recently pulled into a Michigan police station after a presumed white officer told others on the force that he is part African American.
Sergeant Cleon Brown, a respected veteran of 19 years in the Hastings police department, had been curious about his ethnic heritage:
“There’s always been questions reference to my dad. He had darker skin and black curly hair,” Brown said. “My oldest daughter was born with a medical issue and the specialist thought there was African heritage in our blood line.”
Genetic testing disclosed that Brown is of 18% African heritage. After relating the results to other officers, “They were real quiet to me and in police work, you have to communicate,” he said.
Sergeant Brown filed an Equal Employment Opportunities Commission discrimination complaint, though he contends that the situation only worsened. He found a black Santa Clause ornament with “18%” marked on it placed on a station’s Christmas tree. He also charged that the Hastings police chief called him “Kunta” after Kunta Kinte in the popular Alex Haley book and TV miniseries, “Roots.”
In Brown’s civil rights suit, he is asking for $500,000 in damages and a demand for Chief Jeff Pratt’s resignation. Brown, however, firmly maintains that the lawsuit is not about money.
“Absolutely not, from the beginning we said this was about them making a hostile work environment,” he said.
The attorney for the city of Hastings argues that Brown cannot sue for racial discrimination because he does not “appear” to be African American. This attorney’s diversionary tactics tap into societal myths that “race” represents objective, observable, and immutable biological characteristics rather than arising as socially-determined norms.
Looking back to the historical emergence of the concept of “race,” critical race theorists remind us that this concept arose concurrently with the advent of European exploration as a justification and rationale for conquest and domination of the globe beginning in the 15thcentury of the Common Era (CE) and reaching its apex in the early 20th century CE.
Meanwhile, geneticists tell us there is often more variability within a given so-called “race” of humans than between human “races,” and that there are no essential genetic markers linked specifically to “race.” They assert, therefore, that “race” is socially constructed — a historical, “scientific,” and biological myth. Thus, any of these socially-conceived physical “racial” markers are fictional and are not related with what is beyond or below the surface of the body.
Though biologists and social scientists have proven unequivocally that the concept of “race” is socially constructed, however, as Sefa Dei asserts, “the knowledge that race is an ideological, social/material construct does not take away the consequences when one is faced with actual racist incidents or practices.”
Sergeant Cleon Brown discovered what minoritized “races” have always understood: that racism is widespread in “law enforcement” agencies, and the racist railroad train travels on a regular schedule to towns and cities throughout the land.
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