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Justice Deferred

Justice Deferred

Race and the Supreme Court

Orville Vernon Burton, Armand Derfner

ISBN 9780674975644

Publication date: 05/31/2021

In the first comprehensive accounting of the US Supreme Court’s race-related jurisprudence, a distinguished historian and renowned civil rights lawyer scrutinize a legacy too often blighted by racial injustice.

The Supreme Court is usually seen as protector of our liberties: it ended segregation, was a guarantor of fair trials, and safeguarded free speech and the vote. But this narrative derives mostly from a short period, from the 1930s to the early 1970s. Before then, the Court spent a century largely ignoring or suppressing basic rights, while the fifty years since 1970 have witnessed a mostly accelerating retreat from racial justice.

From the Cherokee Trail of Tears to Brown v. Board of Education to the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act, historian Orville Vernon Burton and civil rights lawyer Armand Derfner shine a powerful light on the Court’s race record—a legacy at times uplifting, but more often distressing and sometimes disgraceful. For nearly a century, the Court ensured that the nineteenth-century Reconstruction Amendments would not truly free and enfranchise African Americans. And the twenty-first century has seen a steady erosion of commitments to enforcing hard-won rights.

Justice Deferred is the first book that comprehensively charts the Court’s race jurisprudence. Addressing nearly two hundred cases involving America’s racial minorities, the authors probe the parties involved, the justices’ reasoning, and the impact of individual rulings. We learn of heroes such as Thurgood Marshall; villains, including Roger Taney; and enigmas like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Hugo Black. Much of the fragility of civil rights in America is due to the Supreme Court, but as this sweeping history also reminds us, the justices still have the power to make good on the country’s promise of equal rights for all.


  • Show[s] with heartbreaking clarity how the Supreme Court has typically been more a foe than a friend to the pursuit of racial equality…[An] impressive work…Burton and Derfner’s discussion of recent Supreme Court jurisprudence offers high levels of insight, and they provide reliable guidance on controversies involving affirmative action, capital punishment, regulation of police, and other vexing subjects.

    —Randall Kennedy, The Nation


  • Orville Vernon Burton is a prizewinning author of many books, including The Age of Lincoln. He is Judge Matthew J. Perry Chair of History at Clemson University and Emeritus University Scholar at the University of Illinois. Inducted into the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collegium of Scholars, he is also a recipient of the Southern Historical Association’s John Hope Franklin Lifetime Achievement Award.
  • Armand Derfner has been a civil rights lawyer for nearly sixty years as well as a scholar and teacher of constitutional law. He has helped shape the Voting Rights Act in numerous Supreme Court arguments and worked on desegregating state university systems and state legislatures across the South.

Book Details

  • 464 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press