“…they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect…”

“They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice, Supreme Court, March 1857


As we enter 2015 with renewed sentiment, I cannot help but think of the last few months of 2014 as “Black Lives Matter” protests continued and the country wrestled with the question of racism. On December 13, 2014, I participated in the march against Police Brutality in Washington, DC.  In the midst of the protest and the various calls for justice, I could not help but hear the oft repeated sentence from the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case that blacks have no rights that whites are bound to respect. As an historian specializing in the nineteenth century, I can’t help but wonder what the implications of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s statement are in our world today, especially in the case of brutal police violence.[1]

The Dred Scott v. Sanford ruling took place in March 1857, three years prior to the secession of South Carolina from the Union; before the attack on Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War; and years before the ratification of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution. Within the context of the times, African Americans were considered inferior and chattel rather than human beings. The Supreme Court established its justification through its interpretation that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and state legislation governing slavery served as legal and historical precedent. Taney endorsed this idea by stating: “It is obvious that they [blacks] were not even in the minds of the framers of the Constitution when they were conferring special rights and privileges upon the citizens of a State in every other part of the Union.” The exclusion of Blacks from the Constitution meant their exclusion from citizenship. The effects of this logic were that blacks were denied equal protection under the law, ability to move about, vote, and run for any of the country’s political offices.

Today, unlike in the nineteenth century, blacks are considered citizens.  The thirteenth fourteenth and fifteenth amendments abolished slavery, provided Blacks with citizenship, and granted suffrage. Those fundamental elements that Taney stated determined citizenship were eliminated. Yet there was something else in the Taney decision that lingers within American society.

The Supreme Court’s rejection of Dred Scott’s claim to freedom was not based on legal precedent alone, but also the deeply held belief of Black inferiority.[2] The belief in their inferiority and the superiority of whites was a long held justification of oppression and brutal practices against Blacks. Even constitutional amendments could not eradicate the sentiment. It was not just a concept of citizenship at question in the Taney decision; it was racism pure and simple.

Taney’s statement was a brief glimpse into the undergirding philosophy of racism in America. Today as we look at the situation of Eric Garner, and the response of NYPD officers to Mayor de Blasio at the funerals of the fallen officers in Brooklyn, I cannot help but think that perhaps, Taney’s statement still rings true for many. It serves as a justification for their actions. That there is nothing about a Black person that justifies respect and if respect is granted, it is out of the benevolence of the white individual, not a right.   Unfortunately, people in positions of power, especially in law enforcement, seem to echo this view. The hope is in the support of thousands from across the country and across the world who endorse the “Black Live Matter” campaign, and in doing so reject the oppressive, racist patriarchy. There may not be a Pollyanna moment in the future in regards to racism and law enforcement, but the greater global support of equal rights for all people could lead to the rejection of a legal opinion of racism articulated over 150 years ago.



[1] Dred Scott was a slave who sued his master for his freedom, after he was moved across state lines from slave states to free states. The decision would end up being heard by the Supreme Court and would be considered one of the landmark cases in the nation’s history. Blair L.M. Kelley draws parallels to the Dred Scott decision and the Ferguson protests at TheRoot.com. http://www.theroot.com/articles/history/2014/08/michael_brown_was_one_of_we_the_people_too.html?wpisrc=newstories

[2] For perspective on the whites’ historical perception of Blacks, see George Fredrickson, Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817 – 1914, (Wesleyan: Hanover, 1987).

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Noelle Trent

Noelle Trent is the Director of Interpretation, Collections & Education at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. She holds a doctorate in American history for Howard University, and is currently expanding her dissertation Frederick Douglass and the Making of American Exceptionalism into a book. Follow her on Twitter @NoelleTrentPhD.