We the People: Race, Ethnicity and Citizenship in the United States 150 Years After Dred Scott v. Sandford

This report surveys the most current data available to assess the state of citizenship in the United States 150 years after the Supreme Court’s famous Dred Scott v. Sandford decision. In this 1857 case, the Court denied citizenship to blacks, even free blacks outside the South who had voted and fought in our wars.

The High Court in Dred Scott reasoned that, at the time of the writing of the U.S. Constitution, blacks had been considered “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…”

We have obviously come far since Dred Scott. In the comfort of our comparative progressiveness, we collectively see the decision for what it was: a travesty, a stain, perhaps even a sin. In the years that followed, our body politic and our courts expanded citizenship and thus rights and protections to African Americans, to women and other groups. But as this report suggests, the pattern of giving and taking away that Dred Scott exemplifies continues unabated today.

In this new report, released in conjunction with our major conference observing the 150th anniversary of Dred Scott, The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice asks not merely what has changed in a century and a half. Rather, we concern ourselves with persistent patterns of inequality and disenfranchisement, disproportionate effects of policy and practice, and the inclination toward exclusion that remain with us and in some part define our contemporary society.

We consider vital indicators in four broadly defined segments of our society: political participation, the courts and criminal justice, the workplace, and the public schools.

We find that for African-Americans, other people of color and for a significant portion of economically contributing foreign-born residents, the nature and quality of citizenship – or membership in our collective – is not on par with that enjoyed by white, U.S.-born Americans. The causes for this are exceedingly complex, derive from a mix of forces and are not completely understood. However, data clearly indicates that several recent government policies and practices and subjective assumptions about “deservedness” continue to drive persistent inequalities that dilute the full expression of citizenship and humanity for millions of people in American society.


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