Plessy v. Fergusen (1896)

- In New Orleans Homer Plessy sought to test the Supreme Court’s ruling in Civil Rights Cases of 1883 which tolerated segregation on public conveyances. Plessy boarded a train and sat in the whites-only car, claiming that segregation denies 14th Amendment privileges, immunities and equal protection under the law.

- Henry Billings Brown’s opinion: "Separate but Equal"

o The 14th Amendment enforces equality of the 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 inequality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.”
o “Laws requiring [racial] separation… do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other….”
o Segregation laws rest within the competency of the state legislature’s police powers.

- Brown’s documentation of his argument:

o “The most common instance of this [state sponsored separation of the races] 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 the states where the political rights of the colored race have been longest and most earnestly enforced.”
o Key to Brown’s logic: Was the railway segregation law a justifiable exercise of the state’s police powers? He argues, “yes” as long as the law is reasonable and promotes the public good.
o He cites Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886) (see Margold Report)
§ California attempted to close down laundries in wooden buildings (hence Chinese). In that case, plain racial bias is expressed: a public authority denies equal justice. Therefore, the 14th Amendment can be invoked.
§ Laws applied to racial minorities “with an evil eye and an unequal hand” violated the Constitution
§ Whereas, Plessy acts within the established custom of society to promote the comfort of all and to secure public order.

o Finally, Brown rejected the argument that segregation stamps the Negro with the badge of inferiority. He argued if that is so, it is only because the Negro chooses to put that construction on a just law.
o Racially separate facilities, so long as they are equal, could be legally ordained by the state; segregation was not discrimination.

- Justice Harlan’s dissent: 

o Under the guise of offering equal accommodations for whites and blacks, the state compels blacks to keep to themselves. 
o The state now legally possesses the power to regulate civil rights upon the basis of race and to place in a condition of legal inferiority a large body of citizens.
o “The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in the country. And so it is in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in power… But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country a superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among us citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.”