The Mirror of Racial Tyranny in The Civil Rights Cases

On the 135th Anniversary of the Supreme Court’s opinion in The Civil Rights Cases, it is worth reflecting on how that opinion — which came after Reconstruction but before Jim Crow—reflects the tensions at play today concerning how constitutional law can, through unrelenting formalism and a preference towards denying the power of the history of slavery and the salience of race, contributes to enduring white supremacy.

This week marks the 135th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in The Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883). While to some this is a mere historical footnote, the decision is worth remembering because it reflects the tensions at play today concerning how constitutional law can, through unrelenting formalism and a preference towards denying the salience of race, contributes to enduring structural oppression. The reasoning in The Civil Rights Cases is an object study in how to maintain white supremacy—and a mirror to our society today.

The opinion overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875. It sought to protect recently freed African-American slaves from discrimination in the use of “inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement.” In striking down this nineteenth-century public accommodations law, thus allowing private businesses to deny services to African Americans because of their race, Justice Joseph P. Bradley, speaking for the 8-1 Supreme Court majority, made three arguments.

First, the Court held that the power to regulate individuals and corporations fell to the states, not the federal government. Second, to the extent Congress passed the Act under its Fourteenth Amendment authority, the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment was limited to regulating actions by states and not private actors (a doctrine that still holds today). Finally, the Court interpreted the Thirteenth Amendment, meant to remedy the badges and incidents of slavery, as only allowing Congress to abolish denials of legal rights extending from past slavery.

The Court’s underlying rationale is truly telling: accommodation of ex-slaves in present commerce is irrelevant to past slavery and the Thirteenth Amendment. African Americans complaining of such discrimination should seek state remedies or federal remedies to the extent Congress wishes to make them. This may be true as far as it goes, and by this time we already knew that the ex-Confederate states and their agents had not been aggressive in pursuing remedies for discrimination—the reason for the 1875 law. And we also know that after this act was struck down, Congress passed no other civil rights legislation for over eighty years.

Indeed, the Court denies the possibility that racism may be tied to the caste system that slavery created. Bradley claimed that to treat discrimination in public accommodations as related to bias arising from slavery is to take “the slavery argument” too far:

It would be running the slavery argument into the ground to make it apply to every act of discrimination which a person may see fit to make as to the guests he will entertain, or as to the people he will take into his coach or cab or car, or admit to his concert or theater, or deal within in other matters of intercourse or business.

This is the kind of slippery-slope argumentation that willingly denies the past of slavery and the (obvious) interconnections between white racism, racial caste, and its more immediate outcomes.

This was done despite the dissent of Justice John Marshall Harlan, who warned that without the intervention of Congress and a more fulsome interpretation of the Reconstruction Amendments, African American citizens will not be able to “take the rank of citizen” rather than subordinated class. One hundred thirty-five years later, and it is this same battle that we fight today. As Harlan put it—and it is worth reading his argument in detail:

The difficulty has been to compel a recognition of their [African American’s] legal right to take that rank [of citizen], and to secure the enjoyment of privileges belonging, under the law, to them as a component part of the people for whose welfare and happiness government is ordained. At every step in this direction the nation has been confronted with class tyranny, which a contemporary English historian says is, of all tyrannies, the most intolerable, ‘for it is ubiquitous in its operation, and weighs, perhaps, most heavily on those whose obscurity or distance would withdraw them from the notice of a single despot.’ Today it is the colored race which is denied, by corporations and individuals wielding public authority, rights fundamental in their freedom and citizenship. At some future time it may be some other race that will fall under the ban. If the constitutional amendments be enforced [as Harlan believed they were meant to be enforced—to end racial discrimination in civil rights based on race or previous servitude] . . . there cannot be, in this republic, any class of human beings in practical subjection to another class, with power in the later to dole out to the former just such privileges as they may choose to grant.

In other words, this class tyranny betrays the values of the Constitution by interfering with the goal of Reconstruction – equality of all citizens. Class tyranny in 1883 was the weapon of those who sought to oppress on the basis of race. Class tyranny intersects with racial tyranny and can target multiple groups over time. Such class tyranny in the service of white supremacy is itself antidemocratic and against the vision of the reconstructed Constitution. And the decision narrowing the power of the national government to stand against such tyranny under the guise of narrow formalism will allow such tyranny to flourish and reinvent itself.

What of these themes do we see in 2018?

We have seen the Roberts Court deny the possibility that the larger harms of voter suppression may be tied to the historical motivations and past racially discriminatory practices of state governments. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Court relies on the claim that “the South has changed” to justify nullifying Congress’s judgment that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act ought to be used to continue to supervise the recalcitrant ex-Confederate states in their voting practices.

We see the Court once again relying on manufactured formalism to justify hard lines between state authority and federal authority to supervise voting, immigration, education, and other racial (as well as gendered, class-based, and sexual preference-based) fault lines; and states have taken this opportunity to institute disenfranchising and discriminating practices in this space. We have seen commentators, legislatures, and judges argue that talking about race in and of itself is divisive, and that aspirations towards post-racialism should silence debate around race despite the racist actions that daily remind us about its enduring salience and power.

This post-racialism argument is the modern-day version of the “running the slavery argument into the ground.” The holders of these views (on the right and on the left) decontextualize discrimination, rely on admitted intent rather than see discriminatory actions in and through context, and rest comfortably within deep denial about how subornationist structures still dominate our society.

We can see these things in The Civil Rights Cases. It is a mirror to our 2018 society. This opinion reflects the structures and habits of mind bent towards continued white supremacy today.

(Cross-published at Race Law Prof Blog.)

Constitution Day Cross-Country Tour

I started my Constitution Day tour at my home institution, Marquette, on Monday. There I spoke to the ACS student chapter about constitutional values and the right to vote. Then I hopped on a plane and headed out to Penn State Law School for another discussion of constitutional values and their relationship to voter suppression. That was quite an adventure, as this tweet shows. The final leg of my tour takes me to the left coast and the University of Puget Sound. In fact, I am writing this post just before my flight to Tacoma. If you are in the Tacoma/Seattle area on Thursday at 5:00 pm, I hope you will join me.

Integrity, Equality, & the Fragility of the Right to Vote: A Constitution Day Lecture
University of Puget Sound
Thursday, Sept. 20 5:00 pm in the Rotunda

Constitution Day Lecture Poster2At the heart of the modern battles over the American right to vote is a tension between two constitutional values. On one side is the original Constitution and the autonomy it grants the states over the franchise. On the other are the Reconstruction Amendments and the modern demands for equality. With few textual caveats, the Constitution of 1789 gave states near-autonomy to shape the right to vote. Many states did so in a way that reflected an antebellum vision of citizenship rooted in popular (in its time) eighteenth-century notions of status, wealth, and identity—a definition that excluded many. This value of autonomy, and the social ordering underlying it, continues to influence the modern contours of voting rights despite the social transformations the United States has undergone. Yet these movements toward social transformation put the value of autonomy in tension with the value of equality, so that within a generation of the framing of the Constitution, the identity of the American citizen became a contested concept. This contest led to the post-Civil War amendment of the Constitution to include doctrines geared towards citizenry equality and the practice of federal intervention to insure enforcement of those doctrines. Thus, from a modern perspective, equality of citizens has become an important (and some may argue more important) a value as state autonomy. Yet this proposition remains a contested concept measured against the value of state autonomy. Thus, state autonomy (and its use to hold to the arguable residuary of an antebellum social order) and post-Reconstruction equality (and its use to form a new social order) continue to be at odds. This talk will offer perspectives on this competition of values within the right-to-vote context and describe how these tensions play out in the modern-day voter suppression debates.

On the Alabama Special Senate Election: Meme of Voter Fraud Edition

Late Wednesday night, the campaign to elect Judge Roy Moore to the vacant Alabama Senate seat sought to enjoin the Secretary of State for Alabama from certifying the result of the December 14, 2017 special election where Moore lost to Doug Jones. The basis: allegations of rampant voter fraud apparently among and related to African American voters that need to be investigated. Fortunately for us, an Alabama judge denied the motion to enjoin the certification and dismissed the complaint with prejudice.

It is easy to write this off as a last-ditch attempt of a disgraced candidate to stop the inevitable. But we should reflect on the larger context. Once again, the meme of voter fraud — the rampant supposition without proof that illegal voters (largely voters of color) are distorting our elections through voter impersonation — rears its head again as a direct weapon to suppress the votes for Jones. This use of the specter of voter fraud as weapon against the word of voters, particularly minority voters, is nothing new. And it’s the new normal in the post-Trump world.

As you know, Jones defeated Moore largely due to the significant turnout of the Black vote and anemic moderate Republican vote. The day after the election, I argued that this happened despite voter suppression laws seemingly designed to stymie the transformative power that a fully enabled and mobilized African-American vote would represent.

Yet, the day after the election the meme of voter fraud emerged. In this case, the meme apparently starts publicly here, when Bill Mitchell (@mitchellvii), who is, apparently, “a famously outspoken Trump supporter,” tweeted this:

Bill Mitchell's tweet alleging voter fraud in the Alabama Senate special election

And there’s the meme of voter fraud in one tweet — the explanation for the higher turnout that swung the election was not lack of enthusiasm for a candidate who allegedly sought sexual relations with teenage girls, or the Alabaman African-American turnout that rivaled 2012 or 2016 turnout (coupled with lagging moderate white conservative turnout). It was voter impersonation — Mississippian voters impersonating Alabaman voters. The comments to this tweet included accusations of election rigging by outsiders, a “mysterious convoy of black buses,” and something completely random about the War on Christmas.

On December 13, Twitter responded with sarcastic comments like this:

Asia Chloe Brown's tweet responding to Bill Mitchell

But with the December 27 complaint by the Moore campaign, the meme is once again elevated to a last-ditch adversarial tool with the apparent end to subvert the will of the people. Yet the campaign’s complaint basically makes the same argument uttered in the tweets and comments. (1) irregular high turnout by black voters raises suspicion of voter fraud; (2) rumors of voter impersonation voter fraud by outsider voters raise concern; (3) outside partisan involvement (what other people call “politics”) raises suspicion; and (4) statistical analyses by election fraud experts raise suspicion. Moreover, in a quite-odd paragraph 22 of the complaint, we also see the Moore campaign seeking vindication of the truthfulness of their candidate in relation to the allegations that he sought sexual relations with teenage girls:

Paragraph 2 of Roy Moore's complaint

This, somehow, bolsters Judge Moore’s credibility.

Clearly this is a last-ditch effort to forestall the conclusion reached by the Alabama Secretary of State, the Republican Party, President Trump, and, in at least this instance, an Alabama judge — that Jones beat Moore fair and square.

And yet, these allegations should be situated in the larger context of the evolution of the meme of voter fraud into a political weapon designed to distort elections, which started as long ago as 2000 in the hotly contested race between then-Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri and the late governor of Missouri, Mel Carnahan. In the face of a loss to a dead man, the Ashcroft camp argued that dead voters in Missouri tipped the balance. Nothing came of this as Ashcroft went on to be Attorney General and, through investigations by his Department of Justice, put in-person voter impersonation voter fraud on the map. And this leant credence to the movement for voter identification laws.

More famously and recently, President Trump argued via Twitter that the participation of “illegal voters” (read, illegal immigrants) were the reason why he lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes. A year later, President Trump has offered nothing in the way of proof to support this allegation. Also, in the election of 2016, Pat McCrory, who lost the governor’s office in North Carolina to then-Attorney General Roy Cooper, alleged a mass conspiracy of voter fraud denied him the election. Like Moore, McCrory filed objections and when those objections were denied, he sought a recount. The recount, and a subsequent audit by the North Carolina Board of Elections showed few irregularities, including several hundred miscast votes by former felons, some double voting, and one — ONE — vote out of the 4.5 million cast in the North Carolina 2016 gubernatorial race that could have been forestalled by voter identification laws. Voting errors are to be expected, and in North Carolina, those errors certainly did not amount to a grand conspiracy by the Democrats — what McCrory alleged — to steal the election.

Moore’s post-election litigation in the face of the door closing on his campaign fits this same pattern. And, true to form, a judge has declined to equate rumor and innuendo with proof — or even concern — sufficient to stop the mechanisms of democracy from working. The influence of political outsiders, the rumors of black votes being bussed in from Mississippi, and higher than expected African American turnout in predominantly African American counties (which, by the way, was at the same rate as for Clinton last year, as I noted earlier) does not equate to a mass conspiracy of voter fraud.

Alleging a mass conspiracy of voter fraud with nothing but rumor is a bad play. No major state or national election has been reversed because of the meme of voter fraud. Yet it persists because it is a political statement. It is a politics that exists around the idea that the meme is real, and therefore such subversion ought to be opposed. This kind of paranoia can motivate voters. And so, it becomes the equivalent of a party line.

On another level, this use of the meme of voter fraud to attempt to thwart an election is really another battle in the war over American identity. In Alabama, we saw the power of the black vote met with unbelievable conspiracy theories. To make such a claim of voter fraud without tangible proof is to engage in identity politics of the worse kind. It is to delegitimize the votes of citizens because of a set presumption against their citizens’ worthiness through complaining about their votes’ validity. This parrots our too tragic history of violence against minority voting by legislative means. 

But it is also the old tactics of voter suppression coming into their own in the era of Trump. This won’t be the last you will hear of the meme of voter fraud.

Transformations

While on sabbatical this spring, in addition to beginning my book project, I had the opportunity to work on two papers regarding race and voting in the outgrowth of the 2016 election. While these papers take different methodological approaches, they both address the problems of race in politics in the Era of Trump and how race come to shape political considerations in twenty-first century America.

We live in an era that aspires to put the Jim Crow legacy behind us, and yet racial discrimination continues to dominate our political, legal, and cultural conversations. Recognizing that legacy and thinking seriously about how to end it is the dominant theme of these two papers.

Our doctrines mandating antidiscrimination in the law of politics are designed to protect the minority from domination by a racial majority. While this concept is easy to state, the hard questions arise when politicians improperly consider race in politics, as they have in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder. Race consciousness is impossible to avoid in tasks like calibrating voting qualifications and drawing electoral districts, but courts are currently having to determine when the act of drawing the rules of voting is an act that places an impermissible disadvantage on a racial minority in order to maintain one’s political advantage. This problem lies at the heart of my paper, When Political Domination Becomes Racial Discrimination: NAACP v. McCrory and the Inextricable Problem of Race in Politics. Where doctrine has grappled with political racial domination, with the election of Donald Trump, American politics seems to have entered an era of the open re-emergence of white identity politics. But this centering of whiteness is nothing new, and its enduring power comes in part from the fact that its justifications and subordinations are often explained away. And thus, in the words of Sara Ahmed (who’s article prompted the CUNY Law Review’s publication of the collection in which my article appears) racial domination is explained away as “something else.” In Normalizing Domination, I bring this insight to bear in the law of politics.

Article Abstracts and Full-Text Links


South Carolina Law Review logoWhen Political Domination Becomes Racial Discrimination: NAACP v. McCrory and the Inextricable Problem of Race in Politics
, South Carolina Law Review Vol. 68 (2017).
In North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP v. McCrory, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down North Carolina’s 2013 omnibus voting law due to its discriminatory effect and the fact it was passed with an intent to abridge the ability of African Americans to vote. This decision represents a landmark victory for voting rights advocates against strict voter identification laws and other similar regulations that foster voter suppression. It also represents a remarkable and extraordinary use of the Arlington Heights doctrine to address the race or politics problem in election law. This Article examines the McCrory decision with an eye towards parsing out how the court arrived at this due care approach. It then confronts the uncertain future of McCrory considering the difficulties in distinguishing impermissible racial motives and permissible political motives, the uncertain judicial future of the post-Shelby County Voting Rights Act, and the academic literature disfavoring race-conscious remedies. The Article concludes optimistically by noting that whether McCrory represents a momentary victory in the larger attack against the Voting Rights Act or whether it stands as good law for the foreseeable future, the opinion offers a well-reasoned approach that accomplishes the ends of the Constitution and  the Voting Rights Act through offering a race-conscious intersectional approach grounded in the reality of voter suppression in North Carolina.

City University of New York Law Review logo
Normalizing Domination
, CUNY Law Review Vol. 20: Iss. 20 (2017).
In the 2016 election, a sufficient majority of white voters in key battleground states elected Donald Trump president. In voting for Trump, these voters, as part of the minority of voters that supported Trump, had to, through their vote, either embrace or ignore his racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic rhetoric. Though it is impossible to know which, their votes nonetheless served to “normalize domination”—that is, their act of legitimizing Trump’s rhetoric made the absurd or incendiary commonplace and acceptable. Even before the 2016 election, institutions and individuals have normalized of the ideology of white supremacy by camouflaging it with other normative values while at the same time allowing it to flourish and reinvent itself. It asserts an epistemology of failing to know racism–a key component of what scholars know as post-racialism – as a means of achieving colorblindness. The late great Derrick Bell recognized how the underlying structure of American politics is defined by domination that embraces white identity politics as central. Thus, the institutions that continue American democracy seek to organize the American political and legal structure to protect such domination. This short essay focuses on this problem through a brief examination of the American law of politics and argues for a new race consciousness can be used as a compass to understand the structure of political domination and thus subvert such domination to create an egalitarian society.