Teaching Dred Scott in the Era of Trump

I taught Dred Scott v. Sanford this week. As a teacher and scholar of civil rights, it’s my job to teach the constitutional canon and how Dred Scott, and cases fairly called its progeny, misshaped our idea of equality. And while it is unsurprising to teach this canon in a course at Marquette Law on “Contemporary Perspectives on Civil Rights,” or in any civil rights or constitutional law course, what was different this time is that I taught Dred Scott for the first time in the Era of Trump.

Of course, I’ve taught the case before in first-year Property, in my Race Racism & American Law seminar, in public lectures at WVU Law, and in seminars on three different continents. I’ve written about Dred Scott in articulating my view of “tiered personhood” and blogged about its contemporary relevance. And it is fair to say that, after teaching for over 10 years, on some level, I was used to rehearsing the case often called “pure constitutional evil.”

But this time was different.

I walked into class, ready with my practiced confrontation of this intellectual monument to Chief Justice Roger Tawny. And after answering follow-up questions from last class about a case that enforced the racial classification system on which slavery depended, I began Dred Scott by reminding my students that we were studying the origin story of American white supremacy.

But before opening the casebook, I recalled that a student suggested we frame the conversation by watching a recent viral video of Univision News journalist Ilia Calderón. I had attempted to show the video in the class prior, but due to technical difficulties, this video prefaced our discussion of Dred Scott—which was not my original plan but proved more than appropriate for discussing the case in today’s political climate.

After the video ended, I found myself dumbstruck. This Klansman and his wife had the audacity to claim his superiority based purely on the color of his skin (which echoed the race classification cases from last class). He called her a “mongrel” and a “n**ger” and threatened to burn her out of his land. And despite their claims of racial superiority, religious exceptionalism, and entitled grievance, accompanied by threats of rebellion against a government that attacks their heritage and takes their stuff, the couple claimed they are not racist and the Klan is not a hate group.

In that moment, I remembered that Dred Scott is more than precedent. It is the anti-gospel of slavery, echoed anew by this Klansman, as an effort to tell Ms. Calderón (and all of us who can imagine her situation) to keep our place or be ready to burn. My own anger welled up, and my sadness too because that Klansman’s words reminded me of the times I had been called “n**ger” by white people, or told during an internship that “deliveries were around back,” or called “Big boy” by a white senior partner in front of my peers. Watching this Klan couple’s loathing reminded me that their hearts are full of twisted grievance and their minds are the heirs of the racial hierarchy enforced by Dred Scott.

To calm myself after the video ended, I had to let silence overcome the room. As far as I could tell, the students felt some mix of anger, pity, and shock. After this pause, I explained in both legal and moral terms that the structures of racism and the ideology of white supremacy cannot be thought of in isolation. The anti-gospel of the Klan and the words of Chief Justice Tawney must be thought of as parts of a whole.

Indeed, to read Dred Scott is to read a blueprint for structural racism. American citizenship is defined to exclude all black people. Slaves are a property that can be treated with near impunity. People of color do not belong in the American political community. A black person was “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” These are the lessons of Dred Scott, which followed through on the seeds sown in the Constitution of 1789, and which took amendment and 160 years of activism, struggle, and needless death to reverse.

And though the law has changed, the reversal is incomplete. This era—these times we live in now—echo that evil. The boundaries of personhood continue to be drawn to exclude not only race, but also gender and sexual orientation. The borders of the political community are being redrawn to wall off children who live up to the egalitarian American creed but have imperfect immigration status. The Klan and Nazis march with the impunity offered through mealy-mouthed accommodation from the White House. The structures of mass incarceration, disenfranchisement, and police brutality were built according to the same blueprint of white supremacy as Dred Scott, yet there are those who defend these still-functional monuments to slavery and Jim Crow as “law and order.”

Dred Scott and its ideological and doctrinal progeny are still with us. As much as we have moved away from being an apartheid state, as much as we have asserted through the Constitution and laws that we believe in equality, there are those of us who, by their torches, their twisted ideologies, and their policies seek to bring us back to that time. Their fire and fury—both cultural and legal—still try to burn out equality in the name of nativism and racial superiority. This is the era in which we live.

Trump, the Meme of Voter Fraud, and the Risk to American Democracy

To claim that our elections are rigged by saying without proof that rightful votes are illegitimate is to harken back to the racist, sexist vicious voter narrative.

Despite losing the popular election by somewhere around two million votes, Donald Trump nonetheless won the Electoral College. He is the President-Elect. Yet, in a tweet storm yesterday that was the opposite of being presidential, Trump claimed that if one deducts the votes of millions who voted illegally, he did not lose the popular vote. He even went on to announce real voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire, and California (with no evidence).

What Trump has done repeatedly is to use the meme of voter fraud to impugn elections and voters in this country. His rhetoric is Internet trolling at its best, but the consequence may be to once again distort policy, endanger political minorities, and imperil democracy.

In an article called The Meme of Voter Fraud, I define a meme is an idea or narrative that replicates and evolves without regard for its truthfulness. A meme appeals and spreads because it empowers the believer. It takes on the appearance of truth but it doesn’t need to be true to replicate. And as it fits the worldview of those who become invested in it, it galvanizes extreme responses in line with the meme—not the truth—and that runs the risk of leading people to endanger rights.

Like many before him, Trump’s tweet storm relies on the fallacious belief that elections remain under threat because of a mass (invisible, unproven) conspiracy of unworthy voters. Some scholars and policy makers have argued for over a decade (one example here) that this threat is real and present (despite the absence of evidence) to justify stricter regulations for voting. This claim has supported strict voter identification laws, the curtailment of early voting, and proof of citizenship laws.

During the campaign Trump used the meme of voter fraud to suggest his supporters should engage in voter intimidation, violence, and subversion of the rule of law. Recall that Trump claimed that fraud by millions of wrongful voters would thwart his candidacy. Both he and now Vice President-elect Mike Pence called for their supporters to monitor polls and challenge voters they suspect. And in that final debate, apparently because of his belief that the election was going to be rigged, Trump said he would keep us in suspense about whether he would accept the result of this election. His claim of yesterday closed the loop on this campaign-long narrative.

To claim a conspiracy of massive voter fraud, especially after one actually won the election, is preposterous. One famous recent study shows that credible in-person voter impersonation has happened only 31 times out of one billion votes cast this century. And professional election scholars agree that a vast voter fraud conspiracy to overthrow a national election a myth.

Trump’s narrative is in apparent response to the recount efforts spearheaded by the Green Party and their candidate Jill Stein. The Green Party is initiating recounts in key battleground states because of claims made by some experts of discrepancies between the electronic vote count and the paper vote count. And while some point out that any such recount would be pointless, others argue that thousands of Trump votes were padded, though neither the Clinton campaign nor the White House have claimed that there has been evidence of mass voter-caused voter fraud.

But Trump’s voter fraud argument does something far more dangerous than trigger a (likely needless) recount. It seeks to rig our thinking about democracy. Because a meme persuades through appeal and not logic, makes facts completely irrelevant when the story is too good. This doesn’t matter much with cat videos, but Mr. Trump’s rigged election meme are dangerous because they detach us from facts as our basis for making real-world decisions.

To believe that millions of certain voters are illegitimate simply because someone says so is to trade in an ideology of exclusion. America did this for the majority of its history with the effect of excluding women, African Americans, and naturalized immigrants in favor of property-holding white men. Court decisions, constitutional amendments, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 democratized voting and made clear that just because of one’s identity, one was not a fraudulent voter.

To make that rigged election claim today is harken back to this racist, sexist vicious voter narrative. We saw this in Trump’s claims for voter vigilantes, in his claim of ready defiance to the election results, and now in his lie that he’s more of a winner than he actually is.

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If history teaches us anything, it is that his rhetoric will serve as excuse to vilify the people he deems his enemies and the institutions designed to serve all the people. This rhetoric will continue to paint a target on his political opponents generally (since apparently all the alleged illegitimate votes were cast by his opponents). The rhetoric will reinforce the racist, sexist ideology of exclusion, thus compounding the doubt minority voters and other who have suffered historical disenfranchisement suffer.

His claim of voter fraud in the millions also suggests that election structures that validate and tabulate our elections have no legitimacy. This suggests that thousands of election officers across this country either were duped or were in on the scheme. And this rhetoric demeans the already-imperiled Voting Rights Act and other laws that make our elections democratic. Why support the VRA and other inclusivity promoting measures if they allegedly lead to polluted election results?

These are the consequences of this baseless rhetoric.

To make specious allegations of fraud undermines the legitimacy of our political institutions and, ironically, the legitimacy of Trump’s own election. It tears down the political system purely to pursue apparent pettiness. And like any meme, this rigged election rhetoric seeks detaches us from facts and enables those who wish to resort to racialized and gendered violence to exclude the “vicious voter.” This is not—and should not be—the American way.

Election Law Open Class November 9, 2016: Post-Election Discussion

The following video is from my Election Law and Policy class meeting on November 9, 2016. I opened the class to an extended question and answer session to address the aftermath of the presidential election. It was open to the community at the West Virginia University College of Law and to my social media networks. To date, it has received nearly 1,000 views.

The discussion covered topics including the pros and cons of the Electoral College, the challenges the political system continues to face after this election, and the possibilities and limits of the rule of law in the Trump era. Probably the highlight of this discussion is the discussion between two of my students – a white male and a African American female – about her feelings of racial threat in this “era of Trump” and his view that the rule of law will be sufficient to protect her and other minorities.

The discussion is provocative, informative, and a useful tool for reflecting on the election.  And to the extent you found this discussion useful, please let me know, and let me know whether you’d like more live chats and/or podcasts facilitated by me to have more conversations in this new political era.