Thursday, March 1, 2012

Republican Racism Example #31: Dred Scott and the Birthers

Thanks, Gordon Warren Epperly, for confirming what we knew all along.

Little is more annoying in Obama-era political discourse than when a Birther – someone who thinks that the president is an African illegal alien -- denies that they can’t accept the Chief Executive’s heavily-documented American citizenship because he’s black.  Such a person is either sadly self-deluded or baldly dishonest.   (See my earlier post, “Republican Racism Example #30: That Whole Stupid ‘Birther’ Thing”)  Finally one Alaska Birther, Mr. Epperly, has the courage of his convictions and has conclusively demonstrated the white supremacist ideas animating Birtherism.  Epperly, a resident of the state capital of Juneau, has filed a lawsuit claiming that Obama is not a “natural born citizen” of the United States, a requirement for U.S. presidents, because he is “Negro” or “mulatto.” 

The complaint reads as follows:

“As stated above, for an Individual to be a candidate for the office of president of the United States, the candidate must meet the qualifications set forth in the United States Constitution and one of those qualifications is that the Candidate shall be a "natural born citizen" of the United States. As Barack Hussein Obama II is of the "mulatto" race, his status of citizenship is founded upon the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Before the [purported] ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, the race of "Negro" or "mulatto" had no standing to be citizens of the United States under the United States Constitution."  (For more, see

The specious reasoning behind this lawsuit rests upon the infamous 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford decision.  Scott, a Missouri slave, sued for his freedom arguing that he was emancipated the moment his master took him to Wisconsin and Illinois, where slavery was illegal.   In what is widely regarded as the worst decision ever rendered by the United States Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roger Taney, himself a Southern slaveowner, wrote for the majority that as a black man Scott had no right to bring a case before the court.   Blacks could never be citizens, Taney wrote, because:

“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. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it.”  (For more on the Dred Scott case, see and

Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, author of the infamous Dred Scott decision. 

Neither blacks nor “mulattos” – people of black and white heritage --  can be citizens according to the logic of the Dred Scott decision.  But of course that’s not the final word on the subject.  The Scott v. Sanford case was rendered moot by the ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments during the Reconstruction Era just after the Civil War.  These amendments were specifically written to invalidate the so-called “Black Codes” enacted in the former Confederacy to return African Americans to a state of slavery in all but name.  The 14th Amendment, ratified in July 1868, is clear that African Americans (and “mulattos”) are citizens of the United States and the states in which they reside.  It reads:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Dred Scott had no rights that a white man was bound to respect, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote.  Some modern Tea Partiers believe the same thing about President Obama. (Photo from 

Certain that white Southern planters would seek a way around the language of this amendment in order to strip freedmen of political rights, the Congress and the states, further clarified the citizenship status of Americans with African heritage with the 15th Amendment.  This Amendment specifically forbids the states and the U.S. government from denying natural born or naturalized citizens the right to vote based on racial heritage.  The amendment, ratified in February 1870, states:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Far right groups like the Neo-Confederate League of the South and the Ku Klux Klan have long attacked the legitimacy of the 14th Amendment, claiming it was not ratified legally because Southern states were required to pass it in order to rejoin the Union.  Epperly’s case is based partly on this logic. However, as the Southern Poverty Law Center notes:

“The United States Supreme Court long ago said that courts were not to enter the political arena to second-guess the process by which amendments were ratified. ‘[T]he question of the efficacy of ratifications by state legislatures ... should be regarded as a political question pertaining to the political departments, with the ultimate authority in the Congress in the exercise of its control over the promulgation of the adoption of the amendment.’ Coleman v. Miller, 307 U.S. 433, 450 (1939).
‘The nonjusticiability of a political question is primarily a function of the separation of powers,’ a cornerstone of our entire system of government. Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 210 (1962).”  (See
Ironically, given that it was the Republican Party of the Reconstruction Era that engineered the ratification of the 14th Amendment, many modern Republicans have recently called for repealing the 14th Amendment in order to deny “birth citizenship” to the children of undocumented workers.  The SPLC notes that many Republicans pushing for repeal have a history of conspiratorial thinking and ideological extremism:

Charles Key, an Oklahoma legislator, has claimed the federal government had advance knowledge of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and engaged in a ‘cover-up.’ He managed to get a grand jury convened in 1999 to investigate the allegation, only to denounce the grand jury when it found nothing to support his theory.

 Matt Shea, a Washington legislator, appeared on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones' radio show and expressed concerns about supposed concentration camps operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Sally Kern, an Oklahoma legislator, told a newspaper that she opposed high-resolution driver's license photos because she believed they were a sign of the end times. She apparently feared a coming one-world government could use the photos.

Danny Verdin, a South Carolina state senator, has compared the fight against undocumented immigrants to the Confederacy's struggle against the Union. In 2000, he was one of the main speakers at the ‘Heritage Celebration’ held in Columbia, S.C., to defend the Confederate battle flag. He reportedly helped to organize the rally, and he shared the podium with several neo-Confederate and white supremacist leaders."  (For more, see

Both Epperly’s lawsuit and the anti-14th Amendment crusade pursued by “mainstream” Republicans legislators like Key, et al, share an assumption: that the United States is a nation of, by, and for white people.  Black and brown people, they seem to believe, are undesirable as citizens.  Epperly’s lawsuit has no chance of success, but the 14th Amendment can only be preserved with due diligence.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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