From 1840 to 1960 the profoundest claim of Americans who fought the institution of segregation was that the government had no business sorting citizens by the color of their skin. During these years the moral and political attractiveness of the antidiscrimination principle made it the ultimate legal objective of the American civil rights movement. Yet, in the contemporary debate over the politics and constitutional law of race, the vital theme of antidiscrimination has been largely suppressed. Thus a strong line of argument laying down one theoretical basis for the constitutional protection of civil rights has been lost.
Andrew Kull provides us with the previously unwritten history of the color-blind idea. From the arguments of Wendell Phillips and the Garrisonian abolitionists, through the framing of the Fourteenth Amendment and Justice Harlan's famous dissent in Plessy, civil rights advocates have consistently attempted to locate the antidiscrimination principle in the Constitution. The real alternative, embraced by the Supreme Court in 1896, was a constitutional guarantee of reasonable classification. The government, it said, had the power to classify persons by race so long as it acted reasonably; the judiciary would decide what was reasonable.
In our own time, in Brown v. Board of Education and the decisions that followed, the Court nearly avowed the rule of color blindness that civil rights lawyers continued to assert; instead, it veered off for political and tactical reasons, deciding racial cases without stating constitutional principle. The impoverishment of the antidiscrimination theme in the Court's decision prefigured the affirmative action shift in the civil rights agenda. The social upheaval of the 1960s put the color-blind Constitution out of reach for a quartercentury or more; but for the hard choices still to be made in racial policy, the colorblind tradition of civil rights retains both historical and practical significance.
An important contribution to scholarship and to public discussion of the direction of this nation's legal policies regarding race.
Kull has written a brilliant and challenging history of an idea: the theory that the Constitution prohibits the law from ever taking account of race. With exquisite insight, Kull traces this idea from its earliest expression in abolitionist constitutional thought to its displacement today by the competing idea of compensatory racial justice.
Andrew Kull is a scholar, not an advocate. His lawyerly book is thus not a legal brief but a meticulously crafted history of an unfinished argument. What happened to the color-blind ideal? Kull asks. We now have a beautifully constructed answer. No other work explores so brilliantly the series of constitutional cases in which the courts assumed the power to weigh the costs and benefits of race-based policies—from Jim Crow laws to school busing and beyond. [This]…is an indispensable work.
[Kull] tells a story... through excellent legal analysis and commentary on legislation, legal arguments, briefs and judicial opinions dating back to the dawn of the Republic in the eighteenth century.
Andrew Kull has provided the most compelling book yet written on the enduring colorblind principle. The basic claim is powerful and direct; the Constitution of the United States forbids racial discrimination at any level of government against any citizen, period. The colorblind principle is one of universal appeal. For every citizen who recoils from government’s endless uses of race to divide, allocate, and dictate their rights or the rights of others by race, this book will provide powerful support for their views. I hope it will be widely read.
- 314 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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