Does the Dred Scott Case Still Have Relevancy?
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
And this weekend, Harvard University hosts a symposium on the Dred Scott case. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer will join dozens of other legal experts. Joining us now to talk about the legacy of Dred Scott is Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, who's organizing the event. Also with us, Melissa Harris Lacewell. She's an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton.
Welcome back to both of you.
Professor MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL (Politics and African-American Studies, Princeton University): Thanks for having us.
Professor CHARLES OGLETREE (Law, Harvard University): Farai, it's always a pleasure being with you.
CHIDEYA: Absolutely. Well, Charles, what exactly did the Supreme Court say 150 years ago?
Prof. OGLETREE: It said two things. The most devastating was that Dred Scott, who was a free slave and brought his lawsuit to Supreme Court - Chief Justice Roger Taney said that Dred Scott, being a descendant of Africa, had no rights at all which whites were bound to respect. He was not a person, and he could not bring this case for freedom before the Supreme Court. And that has become the most regretted and despised decision ever by the Supreme Court when it comes to issues of race injustice.
CHIDEYA: You have an op-ed in The Boston Globe today, and you talk about an ebb and flow of equality, and not just a march straight on towards it. Tell us what you mean by that and how it applies to this case.
Prof. OGLETREE: Well, it's very complicated. On the one hand, we celebrate the fact that so much has happened since the Dred Scott case. We did have a Civil War that led to the end of slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation. We did have the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, as Lynne Jackson, a descendant, mentioned. We've had the civil rights laws like the Civil Rights Act of '64, the Voting Rights Act of '65. We have people like Barack Obama running for president and Deval Patrick serving as an African-American governor in Massachusetts, Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state - a lot of progress. And yet, we see more poverty in the urban community. We see more dropouts in the educational system of African-American and Latino children. We see more police profiling. And so we see the fact that we've made some important progress, but we also are taking steps backward in terms of our whole community not being able to advance in a positive way.
CHIDEYA: Melissa, let me turn to you. A hundred and fifty years is a long time, and a lot of the debate around slavery today centers on whether or not it's still an important part of America's living history - not that it happened, but people say, oh, black folks need to stop complaining about slavery. What impact, really, does Dred Scott have on today's race relations?
Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I think part of it is to recognize that 150 years is actually not a particularly long time, and it's certainly not a very long time in terms of the institutions of American politics, economy and society. So I think that Professor Ogletree is absolutely correct that the devastating moment in Dred Scott is the twofold linking of humanity and citizenship, and then also the denial of both humanity and citizenship to African-Americans.
So it's not just that black men have no rights and African-Americans have no rights which white men are bound to respect, but also that our citizenship is tied to our humanity. So in other words, we now have a whole discourse of the way in which we think about rights not as human rights, but only as rights that, you know, accrue to us as citizens. And so that sets up sort of this way in which Americans can't think of themselves fully part of the, sort of, human global family that might have responsibilities beyond law.
CHIDEYA: And briefly, how does that apply, you think, to issues today of citizenship? Lots of debates about immigration and whether or not we should change some of our citizenship law, some people even advocating that people born in the U.S. should not automatically be citizens.
Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Right. And this is, I think - just my point is that as we, for example, engage in international warfare, we have to understand that the rights of human beings extend beyond simply the rights of citizenship. As we engage in questions of immigrants, even those who may be here, quote, "illegally," that this Dred Scott decision helps us to remember that the law itself is not necessarily moral and ethical and right. It is simply the law, and therefore is deeply limited in its capacity to speak to the full question of human ethics and human rights.
CHIDEYA: Charles, what are you hoping to accomplish with this symposium?
Prof. OGLETREE: Everything. First, to let the world know what happened in 1857 and how important it is in 2007. The second thing is that the great news is that we actually will be issuing on Thursday, April 5th, a report on citizenship and announcing that the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, which I direct, will be doing a year-long study on citizenship with a massive conference in the spring of 2008. And the third thing, we will have over 200 elementary and high school teachers here at Harvard on Friday and Saturday, April 6th and 7th, and we will be training them to teach citizenship and race as a public and private school curriculum around the country.
Those are the outcomes, and all this is available on our Web site, charleshamiltonhouston.org. This will be a Web cast on Friday and Saturday, and it will be available on C-Span for later showing next week.
CHIDEYA: Melissa, one of the things that we've covered here on NEWS & NOTES is precisely the question of what gets taught in America's history books. And a lot of times, you get, Lincoln freed the slaves and then, you know, there was some riots in the inner city and now we're all happy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. OGLETREE: Whoa. That's a bad class.
Prof. OGLETREE: It all happened.
CHIDEYA: Yeah, it does happen. But if you were to describe to - you have, you know, a family. If you were to describe to your child what this was about in very simple language, what would you say?
Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, we talk about this, actually, pretty regularly, having just come out of Black History Month. And, you know, she's only five, but the language I use is that in our world, there are good things and bad things that are happening. And it's our responsibility to always struggle against the bad things, but to do it in a way that is right. So in other words, it's not okay when something bad happens to just fight and to be nasty.
And so we talk about how African-Americans have regularly, over the course of American history, demonstrated, actually, the highest level of respect for citizenship and American ideals, while simultaneously being shut out of those very capacities to enjoy them. And yet at the same time, although the struggle has been continuous, although it has been often unnamed individuals, people whose names we can't now call and celebrate 150 years later, is tended to actually be the very height of the things that we most respect about the American promise.
CHIDEYA: All right, well, that's a great place to leave it. And unfortunately, we are out of time. We've been speaking with Charles Ogletree, professor of law at Harvard's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, convener of this symposium, and Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University. Thank you both.
Prof. OGLETREE: Thank you, Farai.
Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thanks.
CHIDEYA: And just ahead, why the presidential race isn't just about black or white, but green. And we read your yeas and nays in letters.
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