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19th Century decisions affect race today

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Cheryl HarrisApril 18, 2011 -- The Dred Scott slavery case and subsequent 14th Amendment to the Constitution were contrasts in “exclusion and enforced belonging” with implications seen in racial issues today, a leading authority on civil rights and critical race theory told Law Center students Thursday.

Professor Cheryl Harris of the UCLA School of Law discussed her paper, “Enforced Belonging: Dred Scott, Citizenship and the Limits of Inclusion,” in Professor Lonny Hoffman’s colloquium. She suggested the students were a sounding board for her “work in progress” and encouraged, and received, numerous questions and comments from the audience.

Dred Scott, she said, was the “famously wrong” case of 1857 in which the U.S. Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney found that blacks, whether enslaved or free, were never intended to be considered as citizens under the Constitution.  Blacks were precluded from the rights of citizenship while being incorporated into the nation’s body politic, Harris stated. They were “denationalized,” with no nation and no state, just considered blacks and just slaves, she maintained. Taney contrasted blacks with Indians who were also non-citizens, but seen as “foreigners,” and recognized in certain respects because they were members of an identifiable tribal nation.  That distinction exists today, she said.

The 14th Amendment was meant to rectify the wrongs of the Dred Scott decision, granting citizenship to all native born or naturalized people. But, it brought with it a sense of “forced belonging,” Harris said. Blacks clearly were interested in inclusion into American society, many fought on the Union side during the Civil War, but there also was a desire for a certain amount of autonomy.  Separation, she said, had a lot of support. This “bi-vocal” sentiment was seen in an autonomous settlement founded by Tunis Campbell in islands off the coast of Georgia.  But the idea of his “separation for strength” community was to give blacks the opportunity to develop life skills for eventual integration into the white world. The experiment eventually fell apart, but Harris said, “Within this same person you have the desire for equality and the desire for autonomy.”

Issues that arose in the mid-1800s were seen through the decades, she said, in the form of segregation, discrimination, school integration, voting rights and others.  The question of race and exactly what it means remains today, she said.

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