Luther Adams: Claiming the South as Home: African Americans and Southern Identity

Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930-1970, by Luther Adams We welcome a guest post today from Luther Adams, author of Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930-1970. In the wake of World War II, when roughly half the black population left the South seeking greater opportunity and freedom in the North and West, the same desire often anchored African Americans to the South. Adams offers a powerful reinterpretation of the modern civil rights movement and of the transformations in black urban life within the contexts of migration, work, and urban renewal. While acknowledging the destructive downside of emerging post-industrialism for African Americans in the Jim Crow South, Adams concludes that persistent patterns of economic and racial inequality did not rob black people of their capacity to act in their own interests.

In the following post, Adams considers how African Americans have claimed the South as Home—on their own terms.


As I sat down to write about Louisville, Kentucky, I thought of Tennessee. Not the place, but the song. In 1992 Arrested Development recorded “Tennessee,” a prayer to the Lord for guidance. God said, “go back from whence you came.” Tennessee. Home.

Arrested Development’s song meditates on the power of returning to the place from “whence you came.” As home the South is a site of oppression and the place where African American people and culture was born. Through repetition “Tennessee” insists the South is home and that being rooted in history and the earth where your ancestors lived, worked, and died can heal black people suffering from life in urban ghettos. For African Americans, defining the South as home demands an acknowledgement of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing racial violence. It demands the value of black lives and families be recognized. Go home, the MC Speech implores, to “walk the roads my forefathers walked/ climb the trees where my forefathers hung from.” Home, the place of “my family tree, my family name.”

In “Tennessee,” Arrested Development left us a jam that added to a rich body of black political thought conceptualizing and acknowledging the South as Home. More than a hundred years before, in 1864, a black church leader from Port Royal, South Carolina, crystallized African Americans’ connection to the South, saying, “[T]his very land is rich with the sweat of we face and the blood of we back. We born here, we parents’ grave here; this here our home.” The phrasing “we face,” “we back,” “we born,” and “our home,” expresses a collective basis of identification among African Americans in Port Royal. Well aware of the wealth generated by their labor and blood, African Americans looked to the past, their shared experiences in slavery, and understanding of themselves as a people to shape their sense of the Home.

Similarly, in her incisive Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Davis points to the role of collective memory in African Americans’ view of the South as Home. The South was not only a place of oppression but for Davis, “Home is evocatively and metaphorically represented as the South, conceptualized as the territorial location of historical sites of resistance to white supremacy.”

Home is not just about the past but also the present and future. Continue reading ‘Luther Adams: Claiming the South as Home: African Americans and Southern Identity’ »

Excerpt: Talkin’ Tar Heel, by Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser

Talkin' Tar Heel: How Our Voices Tell the Story of North CarolinaDrawing on over two decades of research and 3,000 recorded interviews from every corner of the state, Talkin’ Tar Heel: How Our Voices Tell the Story of North Carolina introduces readers to the unique regional, social, and ethnic dialects of North Carolina, as well as its major languages, including American Indian languages and Spanish. Considering how we speak as a reflection of our past and present, Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser show how languages and dialects are a fascinating way to understand our state’s rich and diverse cultural heritage. The book is enhanced by maps and illustrations and augmented by more than 100 audio and video recordings, which can be found online at

In the following excerpt from the book (pp. 74-76), Wolfram and Reaser explore how urbanization affects dialect and cultural identity among North Carolinians. (Note: The print edition of the book contains QR codes that link to related media at We’ve embedded hyperlinks in the body of the text below.)

Some of the regional differences in North Carolina can be quite striking, but we don’t have to travel very far to hear distinctive dialects. Lots of differences can be explained by appealing to a couple of distinctions: rural and urban and young and old. To hear the contrast, residents of metropolitan centers like Charlotte, Raleigh, or Greensboro only need to go to a farmers market where an older farmer is selling fresh produce from his family farm, putting your snaps, taters, and butter beans in a poke for you to carry home. Or go to a local country barbecue pit and learn about the intricacies of eastern and western style ‘cue. Rural folks are known for maintaining more traditional ways of southern speaking to complement a range of other lifestyle differences, and city folks may shift their ways of speaking and acting to sound more cosmopolitan.

A worker in the Bank of America Corporate Center in Charlotte who asks you to “mash the button” for the elevator or to “he’p him tote the computer right yonder” would get a quizzical look or a patronizing chuckle for “talking country” in the towering edifice representing the second-largest financial center in the United States. But those who react in condescension may not realize that this way of speaking was the dialect norm in the city just a couple of generations ago—and probably in the residential home that once stood on this site. As one elderly Charlotte resident, born in 1919, recalled: “I remember when Discovery Place was just a little neighborhood store.”[1] Discovery Place, of course, is the modern science and technology museum built in the uptown area of Charlotte in the 1980s.

The label country in “they speak country” is more than a synonym for rural. It embeds a set of personal and social traits that index assumptions about a lack of cultural sophistication, a limited education, and a rustic lifestyle. A recent study of students from the North Carolina mountains attending a southern urban university found that they had diverse reactions to “country speech” ranging from mild amusement to anger about the linguistic profile of an imagined country persona and nonstandard southern speech.[2] When combined with the noun bumpkin, as in “We don’t want to sound like country bumpkins,” it takes on a highly pejorative connotation.
Continue reading ‘Excerpt: Talkin’ Tar Heel, by Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser’ »

  1. [1] Quote from Neal Hutcheson, producer, Voices of North Carolina (Raleigh: North Carolina Language and Life Project, 2005).
  2. [2] See Stephany B. Dunstan, “The Influence of Speaking a Dialect of Appalachian English on the College Experience” (Ph.D. diss., North Carolina State University, 2013). Also see Lauren Hall-Lew and Nola Stephens, “County Talk,” Journal of English Linguistics 40, no. 1 (2012): 1–25.

Sarah S. Elkind: Air Pollution and Prosperity

Elkind, How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy cover imageWe welcome a guest post today from Sarah S. Elkind, author of How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy: Business, Power, and the Environment in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. In the book, Elkind focuses on five Los Angeles environmental policy debates between 1920 and 1950, investigating how practices in American municipal government gave business groups political legitimacy at the local level as well as unanticipated influence over federal politics. In this guest post, Elkind considers air pollution in mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles and twenty-first-century China.


I was recently interviewed for a series of radio essays called “We Used to Be China,” on China’s air pollution, by Sarah Gardner at American Public Radio’s Marketplace. These stories got me thinking about China’s air pollution problem, and about Marketplace‘s premise. Did we, the United States, used to be China? In what ways?

China’s appalling air pollution has been in heavy rotation in American news this spring and summer as an adjunct to stories of China’s economic growth, and because air pollution in Beijing and other Chinese cities has become so unimaginably bad. China, of course, is not the only country struggling with smog. The World Health Organization reported in May 2014 that air quality in most cities has declined since 2011. WHO attributes the deterioration of air quality in “middle income countries” like China and India to increased use of motor vehicles and electricity from coal-fired power plants.[1] Prosperity in these countries breeds pollution.

In Los Angeles, air pollution was also caused by industrial production, automobiles, and affluence. After the Clean Air Act of 1970, air quality in Los Angeles steadily improved, until the boom of the 1990s; so many Angelenos purchased low-mileage sport utility vehicles in that prosperous era that air quality declined. In the 1940s, Los Angeles’s first smog crisis was caused by a wartime surge in industrial production, oil refining, and automobile use. Perhaps more significantly, the connection between pollution and prosperity has been linked in Americans’ minds for a hundred years. The Right uses this connection to weaken all sorts of regulations, including those which would improve public health and environmental quality by reducing emissions from coal-fired power plant and cars.

Does that make the mid-twentieth-century United States like today’s China? In some ways, absolutely. Continue reading ‘Sarah S. Elkind: Air Pollution and Prosperity’ »

  1. [1] See World Health Organization, “Air Quality Deteriorating in Many of the World’s Cities,” news release, 7 May 2014,

Excerpt: The Indicted South, by Angie Maxwell

The Indicted South: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of WhitenessBy the 1920s, the sectional reconciliation that had seemed achievable after Reconstruction was foundering, and the South was increasingly perceived and portrayed as impoverished, uneducated, and backward. In The Indicted South: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of Whiteness Angie Maxwell examines and connects three key twentieth-century moments in which the South was exposed to intense public criticism, identifying in white southerners’ responses a pattern of defensiveness that shaped the region’s political and cultural conservatism. Maxwell exposes the way the perception of regional inferiority confronted all types of southerners, focusing on the 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, and the birth of the anti-evolution movement; the publication of I’ll Take My Stand and the turn to New Criticism by the Southern Agrarians; and Virginia’s campaign of Massive Resistance and Interposition in response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Tracing the effects of media scrutiny and the ridicule that characterized national discourse in each of these cases, Maxwell reveals the reactionary responses that linked modern southern whiteness with anti-elitism, states’ rights, fundamentalism, and majoritarianism

In the following excerpt (pp. 54–58), Maxwell discusses the origin of the Scopes Trial in the Butler Act, which prevented the teaching of evolution in public schools.


The War between the States . . . Again

In the years preceding the Scopes Trial, the anti-evolution message was proclaimed incessantly throughout Tennessee, which appeared prominently on the speaking schedule for Dr. William Bell Riley, president of the World Christian Fundamentals Association, in 1923. Summoned by several prominent Tennessee attorneys, William Jennings Bryan also delivered a historic address in Nashville, “Is the Bible True?” The sermon proved so stirring that it inspired the sponsors to disseminate thousands of printed copies throughout the state; an additional 500 pamphlets were provided to members of the Tennessee statehouse upon its 1925 opening session. The result was the Butler Bill, House Bill 185, sponsored by John Washington Butler and introduced on January 21, 1925. Initially, the bill was recommended for rejection by the house committee to which it was assigned. But local evangelical ministers held powerful sway in the state of Tennessee.[1] Despite vocal opposition, from university academics to editorials in the Nashville Banner, warning about the threat the bill posed to free speech, one particular line of argument proved effective. Rev. A. B. Barrett of the Fayetteville Church of Christ “charged that many college students were returning home atheists and agnostics because of the teachings of Darwinism.”[2] The Tennessee preacher, whether knowingly or not, touched on one of the greatest anxieties of God-fearing parents of the 1920s.

The very foundations of the anti-evolutionist argument had long been focused on the fear that children would lose their religious faith if they were exposed to Darwin’s theories, and the movement proudly proclaimed that its primary intention was to save American youth from self-destruction. Many of Bryan’s early speeches heralding the literalist interpretation of the Bible and denouncing Darwinism were offered as reactions to books such as The Belief in God and Immortality: A Psychological and Anthropological and Statistical Study by James Henry Leuba, published in 1916. Leuba’s research concluded that during their experience with higher education, particularly throughout the four years of college, many students lost interest in their religious faith.[3] The Butler Act was, in fact, sponsored by a father whose children began questioning the church of their upbringing after their high school science classes presented the theory of evolution. Anti-evolutionists played on this fear of southern Christian parents—the fear that examining the origins of man would lead to a more far-reaching rejection of the Bible and a subsequent embrace of modernity. And, of course, embracing modernity could affect not only one’s religious commitment but also the racial contract upon which the Jim Crow system relied.
Continue reading ‘Excerpt: The Indicted South, by Angie Maxwell’ »

  1. [1] Israel, Before Scopes, 145–46.
  2. [2] Bailey, “Enactment of Tennessee’s Anti-Evolution Law,” 477.
  3. [3] Coletta, Political Puritan, 200.

UNC Press Scholarly Monographs Now Live on Oxford’s UPSO Platform

UNC Press

The University of North Carolina Press is pleased to announce the launch of North Carolina Scholarship Online on Oxford University Press’s University Press Scholarship Online (UPSO) platform to take advantage of a fully enabled XML environment with cutting-edge search and discovery functionality. UNC Press books are now live on the UPSO platform.

“The University of North Carolina Press is honored and excited to be a part of the University Press Scholarship Online platform,” said John Sherer, Director of The University of North Carolina Press. “Part of our 10-decade long tradition has been to disseminate the work of our authors as broadly as possible and this new partnership will achieve that in a dynamic new way.”

Responding to increased demand for online scholarly content, UPSO streamlines the research process by making disparately published monographs easily accessible, highly discoverable, and fully cross-searchable via one online platform. Research that previously would have required users to jump between a variety of books and disconnected websites can now be concentrated through a single search engine.

UPSO’s mission is to create an individually-branded home for monographs from each participating university press just as it has done for Oxford Scholarship Online while allowing highly intuitive tools to deep search across all the content in the program. As such, UPSO will be the premier online research tool—for scholars, teachers, graduate and undergraduate students—and an essential resource for all academic libraries.

Benefits of UPSO for academics, libraries, and partner presses:

  • Provides the highest quality scholarly content across 28 subject areas
  • Includes a vast and growing number of titles (14,000+ to date), all with abstracts and keywords at both the book and chapter level for each title
  • All UPSO content is available in XML, which provides deep tagging and better search results. Content can also be saved and downloaded to PDF
  • Content is fully cross-referenced and cross-searchable, with clickable citations from bibliographies and footnotes, including OpenURL and DOI-linking support
  • Allows users to streamline research through a single online platform
  • Can be easily integrated into library systems and updated frequently with new content
  • Offers full customer support services as well as flexibility and choice in purchasing models
  • Fully mobile optimized for use on smartphones and tablets
  • Increases discoverability and usage of university press scholarly materials

“The University of North Carolina Press is an exemplar of scholarly publishing, a perfect representative of the best American university presses have to offer,” said Niko Pfund, President of Oxford University Press USA. “UPSO’s holdings will be much enhanced by UNC’s top-quality scholarship, defined as it is by rigorous peer review and attentive editing.”


Excerpt: New Netherland Connections, by Susanah Shaw Romney

New Netherland Connections:  Intimate Networks and Atlantic Ties in Seventeenth-Century AmericaSusanah Shaw Romney locates the foundations of the early modern Dutch empire in interpersonal transactions among women and men. As West India Company ships began sailing westward in the early seventeenth century, soldiers, sailors, and settlers drew on kin and social relationships to function within an Atlantic economy and the nascent colony of New Netherland. In the greater Hudson Valley, Dutch newcomers, Native American residents, and enslaved Africans wove a series of intimate networks that reached from the West India Company slave house on Manhattan, to the Haudenosaunee longhouses along the Mohawk River, to the inns and alleys of maritime Amsterdam.

Using vivid stories culled from Dutch-language archives, New Netherland Connections: Intimate Networks and Atlantic Ties in Seventeenth-Century America brings to the fore the essential role of women in forming and securing these relationships, and she reveals how a dense web of these intimate networks created imperial structures from the ground up. These structures were equally dependent on male and female labor and rested on small- and large-scale economic exchanges between people from all backgrounds. This work pioneers a new understanding of the development of early modern empire as arising out of personal ties.

New Netherland Connections was awarded the 2013 Jamestown Prize from the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the Annual Hendricks Award for 2013 from the New Netherland Institute.

In the following excerpt (pp. 41-43), Romney discusses how Dutch travelers across the Atlantic often depended on women relatives for management of their financial interests back in the Netherlands.


Eventually, soldiers, sailors, and travelers left the houses and inns of maritime Amsterdam behind and took their place on board ships headed to New Netherland and elsewhere. With the chartering of the [West India Company (WIC)] in 1621, the number of Atlantic-bound ships rose, and increasing numbers of Amsterdammers followed in Marritgen Wouters’s footsteps, waving goodbye to family, spouses, and friends sailing out across the Zuider Zee. As those ships began taking settlers to North America in 1623, more and more travelers needed someone to help them manage their newly transatlantic finances. They turned to their kin, immediate connections, and family. Ties within and between maritime families enabled people to negotiate the small-scale, informal, and grey economies that flourished in these years. Once the WIC changed its regulations to allow wider access to the beaver-skin trade in 1638, travelers used these same intimate networks to enter the transatlantic fur trade. Growing migration by middling families and the creation of a burgher population in New Netherland in the 1640s and 1650s caused an even wider range of travelers and Amsterdammers to become caught up in trading networks involving an ever greater variety of goods. Complex webs and financial instruments show that these networks developed into a functional Atlantic economy that ran in tandem with the economy of formal companies and larger interests. The structure of this new Atlantic economy paralleled that of the local early modern economy, from the participation of women to the reliance on face-to-face, personal systems of credit and trust. Thus, the intimate networks of travelers and Amsterdammers allowed for the development of a diffuse, participatory commercial economy that diversified the trade system beyond the large-scale merchant houses and equally helped establish the Dutch Atlantic empire.

When Amsterdammers and travelers waved goodbye to one another, the financial ties between them did not suddenly end; people continued to manage their personal and financial lives together. The wealthiest travelers left behind families and kin, houses and partnerships, accounts and credits due. The poorest left crushing debts and needy family members. People had to find someone they could trust to represent them honestly and further family interests in their absence. Travelers most often turned to the very family members, kin, and intimate connections who waved goodbye from shore. Relatives and in-laws, parents and spouses, friends and neighbors were among those whom travelers counted on most. For instance, Wouter Jansz, a sailor going to “the Virginias” in the service of the WIC in 1627, asked his two uncles to oversee the inheritance due him from the estate of his wife’s late grandmother. Both his financial capital and his financial representatives were drawn from among his close relatives.[1]
Continue reading ‘Excerpt: New Netherland Connections, by Susanah Shaw Romney’ »

  1. [1] Empowerment, May 7, 1627, Not. Arch. 721, 158, Not. P. Carelsz, SA.

Raúl Necochea López: Therapeutic Abortion Finally Regulated in Peru after Being Legal (Kinda) for 90 Years

A History of Family Planning in Twentieth-Century Peru, by Raul Necochea LopezWe welcome a guest post today from Raúl Necochea López, author of A History of Family Planning in Twentieth-Century Peru. Adding to the burgeoning study of medicine and science in Latin America, this important book offers a comprehensive historical perspective on the highly contentious issues of sexual and reproductive health in an important Andean nation. Necochea López approaches family planning as a historical phenomenon layered with medical, social, economic, and moral implications. At stake in this complex mix were new notions of individual autonomy, the future of gender relations, and national prosperity.

In the following post, Necochea López reports on Peru’s recently established guidelines that finally bring the country’s laws regarding therapeutic abortion out of a 90-year legal limbo.


I was in Santiago recently, attending a workshop on the history of family planning in Latin America, with colleagues from Chile and Argentina, myself representing Peru. One of my tasks was to discuss how therapeutic abortion came to matter to physicians in my country in the 1920s. After all, it had been this generation of physicians who witnessed the legalization of therapeutic abortion in 1924. Article 163 of the Penal Code defined therapeutic abortions as those demanded by women and performed by clinicians, in consultation with a committee of their peers, “if there is no other way to save a mother’s life or avoid a permanent and severe lesion in her.” However, Peruvian authorities at the time did not answer crucial questions to make the law applicable, such as which lesions counted as permanent and severe, or what interventions should be used to cause an abortion, or how far into a pregnancy an abortion could be provoked. As a result, the law remained in a legal limbo that made it difficult to enforce, while endangering women’s lives and vexing medical professionals.

By some fascinating coincidence, this all changed on the very day of my talk in Santiago, on June 27, 2014, with the publication of Peru’s Ministry of Health’s new guideline, which standardizes the procedures to be used should the need for an abortion arise for pregnancies under 22 weeks. (You can read the text of the guideline here.) Continue reading ‘Raúl Necochea López: Therapeutic Abortion Finally Regulated in Peru after Being Legal (Kinda) for 90 Years’ »

Excerpt: Choosing the Jesus Way, by Angela Tarango

Angela Tarango’s Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indiginous PrincipleChoosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle uncovers the history and religious experiences of the first American Indian converts to Pentecostalism. Focusing on the Assemblies of God denomination, the story begins in 1918, when white missionaries fanned out from the South and Midwest to convert Native Americans in the West and other parts of the country. Drawing on new approaches to the global history of Pentecostalism, Tarango shows how converted indigenous leaders eventually transformed a standard Pentecostal theology of missions in ways that reflected their own religious struggles and advanced their sovereignty within the denomination.

In the following excerpt (pp. 50-52), Tarango tells the story of Charlie Lee, an American Indian convert to Christianity who became a missionary and practiced Pentecostalism without losing his sense of identity as a Navajo.


Charlie Lee grew up herding sheep in the shadow of the Shiprock on the Navajo reservation in the Four Corners region of northwestern New Mexico. From a young age, Lee was a spiritual seeker—he wanted to know the meaning of life and, as a Navajo, turned to his elders for answers. According to Lee, “My wise old grandfather tried to draw from the resources of his own years of experience to bring some measure of satisfaction to my inquisitive mind, but still the searching went on.”[1] His grandfather and grandmother taught him about the Navajo gods and traditional beliefs, but it was not enough. At a government boarding school, Lee discovered that he was a talented artist. His talent attracted notice, and school officials sent him to the Santa Fe Indian School, a boarding school that specialized in the arts. His paintings, traditional renderings of Navajo life and animals, began selling remarkably well. By the time Lee graduated, he had exhibited his paintings at the Indian Ceremonial in Gallup, New Mexico, the State Art Museum in Santa Fe, the Philbrook Art Museum in Tulsa, the Heard Museum in Phoenix, and the de Young Art Memorial in San Francisco. He had also won two first prizes at the 1946 New Mexico State Fair, one for animal figures and one in the home life category.[2] Dealers all over the Southwest bought his paintings, and the Smithsonian Institution purchased one as an example of modern Navajo art.[3] Fame and fortune had unexpectedly smiled on the young Lee.

Lee realized that he was extraordinarily fortunate because his artistic ability had given him a viable way to make a living. Yet he was still seeking answers and felt a call to serve his people. Boarding school had introduced him to mainline Protestant Christianity. To him this was simply the “white man’s God,” an impersonal and detached deity who could not give him the answers he needed. The summer after graduation from high school, he visited an Apache friend at the San Carlos reservation in Arizona, where he encountered [Assemblies of God (AG)] missionaries and Pentecostal-style worship. Lee reported, “For the first time in my life I saw a group of Indians worshiping God with enthusiasm and sincerity. They not only testified to the saving grace of God, salvation through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, but also emphasized the infilling of the Holy Spirit.”[4] Upon attending several services, Lee experienced a conversion that he explained as “a personal confrontation with a Being, not a religious process of being initiated into an organization. It was a confrontation with an individual personality—Jesus Christ.”[5]

When Lee converted, he moved beyond making a commitment to Jesus. Continue reading ‘Excerpt: Choosing the Jesus Way, by Angela Tarango’ »

  1. [1] Charlie Lee, “Charlie Lee’s Testimony,” Pentecostal Evangel, 17 August 1952, 10.
  2. [2] Turning Point with David Manse, The Charlie Lee Story, 1976, Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center, Springfield, Mo., 4.
  3. [3] Ibid.
  4. [4] Lee, “Charlie Lee’s Testimony,” 10.
  5. [5] Manse, The Charlie Lee Story, 8.

Job Opening: Book Designer/Production Assistant/Associate at UNC Press

Book designer/Production Assistant/Associate at UNC Press

This is an entry- to mid-level position that includes but is not limited to the following: Designing book covers and dustjackets and designing or applying already existing templates to interior book designs. This is a small department that covers the production of both books and journals. Other duties include, but are not limited to: conversion of existing jackets to paperback covers, cast-off of manuscripts, distribution of proofs, evaluation of art, and assistance with other jobs as necessary.

Job requirements: Excellent knowledge of Indesign (version 5.5 or later) and Photoshop. Strong sense of good typographic design. Working knowledge of Illustrator.

Desired: at least 2 years of design experience and an ability to write composition specs. Knowledge of xml or epub creation a plus.

This is a permanent full-time position at the University of North Carolina Press. Benefits include paid vacation, paid holidays, sick leave, and health insurance. We are part of the NC Retirement system.

Compensation based on experience. Please send resume, salary requirements, design samples, and references to:

Heidi Perov

Marc Stein: Sotomayor v. Roberts: Race, Affirmative Action, and Impatience

Sexual Injustice: Supreme Court Decisions from Griswold to Roe, by Marc SteinWe welcome a guest post today from Marc Stein, author of Sexual Injustice: Supreme Court Decisions from Griswold to Roe. In the book, Stein focuses on six major Supreme Court cases, examining the more liberal rulings on birth control, abortion, interracial marriage, and obscenity in GriswoldFanny HillLovingEisenstadt, and Roe alongside a profoundly conservative ruling on homosexuality in Boutilier during the 1960s and 1970s.

In today’s post, Stein explores the recent opinions of Justices Roberts and Sotomayor regarding racial discrimination and affirmative action.


The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, which upheld the state of Michigan’s ban on race- and sex-based affirmative action in public employment, public education, and public contracting (except when required to maintain eligibility for federal funds), featured an unusually fierce exchange of words between Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Chief Justice John Roberts. Responding to an earlier affirmative action decision in which Roberts had declared, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Sotomayor wrote that this was “a sentiment out of touch with reality.” She added, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.” Roberts replied in Schuette, “People can disagree in good faith on this issue, but it . . . does more harm than good to question the openness and candor of those on either side of the debate.” Sotomayor apparently felt so strongly about the case that for the first time she read one of her opinions from the bench, an option that the justices rarely exercise.

Roberts’ earlier phrasing was deceptively simple, but it can usefully be deconstructed by suggesting that the chief justice really meant that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race against people of color is to stop discriminating on the basis of race against white people.” For Roberts, discrimination is discrimination, and as a constitutional, legal, and policy matter, discrimination on the basis of race against white people is equivalent to discrimination on the basis of race against people of color. For Sotomayor, this belies “the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination” against people of color.

When I teach students about the history of constitutional law, I usually focus on the substantive legal arguments in Supreme Court decisions, but sometimes I encourage my students to focus on the tone, the emotion, the affect. I try to show my students that this can help us understand what is really going on in these decisions and it can help us consider the underlying issues and the political stakes. In thinking about how I might teach my students about the exchange between Roberts and Sotomayor in Schuette in the future, I find myself revisiting a Supreme Court case from the late nineteenth century, one that also featured more than just legal reasoning. The case, United States v. Stanley (1883), is well known to constitutional law experts.

Eight years earlier, in 1875, the U.S. Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act, which guaranteed that all persons within the United States, regardless of race or color, “shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement.” Several individuals, including Mr. Stanley, were indicted under the Civil Rights Act on charges of denying African Americans equal access to inns, hotels, theaters, and railroad cars. The legal reasoning of the Supreme Court’s decision, which struck down the relevant sections of the Civil Rights Act as unconstitutional, focused on the fact that Congress did not have the power to interfere with individual and private forms of racial discrimination; the recently ratified Fourteenth Amendment, according to the Court, prohibited racial discrimination by the states, but not racial discrimination by private businesses and individuals.

When I teach Stanley, I work with my students to understand the legal reasoning used by the Supreme Court in this case, but I also encourage them to think about the tone. Continue reading ‘Marc Stein: Sotomayor v. Roberts: Race, Affirmative Action, and Impatience’ »