Plessy v. Ferguson: A Piece of Multiracial History


naspa diamond

Author
Matthew Jeffries

Published
October 10, 2016


In honor of the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, I want to revisit another monumental court case in multiracial history, Plessy v. Ferguson.  What is most remembered from Plessy v. Ferguson is the doctrine of “separate, but equal,” yet it is also a major case in multiracial history in the United States.  While the plaintiff is framed as a man of color, he was actually a multiracial man from Louisiana.

Plessy v. Ferguson was a case in which Homer Plessy boarded a train car that was for whites. Plessy was part of the Comité des Citoyens of New Orleans, a concerned group of citizens, which used him to challenge the Separate Car Act: an act which legally segregated train cars in Louisiana. His boarding of this train car was a targeted moment of civil disobedience to fight against this legislation.  Plessy was selected because of his predominantly white heritage, because the Comité wanted to make him a sympathetic plaintiff.

Plessy was what was referred to at the time as an “octoroon” or a person who had 1/8th black blood and in Louisiana, that was considered to be black.  While Plessy phenotypically presented as white, he told the train staff that he was black.  He then defied orders to move from the whites only car and he was subsequently arrested.  His court case took four years to get to the U.S Supreme Court.

While in the Supreme Court, Albion Tourgée, one of Plessy’s attorneys argued that there was not a “national standard” and there are “conflicting rules” for determining who was white.  Tourgée argued

“By what rule then shall any tribunal be guided in determining racial character? It may be said that all those should be classed as colored in whom appears a visible admixture of colored blood. By what law? With what justice? Why not count everyone as white in whom is visible any trace of white blood? There is but one reason to wit, the domination of the white race.” (as cited in Harris, 1993)

Tourgée attempted to use the complexity of race in addition to whiteness as something that one owns and can use.  However, the Supreme Court ruled against Plessy, 7-1 (one justice did not partake in the consideration of this case).  Important to note, I believe, are parts of the majority opinion and the dissent.  Justice Brown wrote the majority opinion,

“The object of the [14th] 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. Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power. The most common instance of this is connected with the establishment of separate schools for white and colored children, which has been held to be a valid exercise of the legislative power even by courts of States where the political rights of the colored race have been longest and most earnestly enforced.” (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896)

In contrast, Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote in the dissent:

“The object of the 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. Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power. The most common instance of this is connected with the establishment of separate schools for white and colored children, which has been held to be a valid exercise of the legislative power even by courts of States where the political rights of the colored race have been longest and most earnestly enforced.” (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896)

Through this court case, race became more complex as the one-drop rule became more prominent. Afterward, states began to pass legislation furthering the acceptance of the one-drop rule and eventually ridding the U.S. Census category of mulatto—a dated term to describe someone who is black and another race—in the 1930s.  As terms have changed throughout the last 100 years, it was only in 2000 that a person could identify as more than one race on the U.S. Census.  This was due to the large increase in multiracial individuals in the United States.  In sum, I believe that Plessy v. Ferguson pushed the U.S. to adhere to a strict binary in terms of race (black/white).  This has complicated racial understandings even 100 years later.

References

Harris, C.I. (1993). Whiteness as property. Harvard Law Review 106(8), 1710-1791.

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).

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Matthew Jeffries works at Washington State University-Pullman where he serves as an academic advisor.  He is also a doctoral candidate in the Cultural Studies and Social Thought in Education program at WSU.


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