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Thursday, February 22, 2024

February 22, 2024: Prejudicial Non-Favorites: Harlan’s Exclusions

[For this year’s annual non-favorites series, I wanted to highlight moments when important and in many ways impressive Americans gave in to white supremacist prejudices, modeling the worst of our national community in the process. Got grievances of your own to air, about anything and everything? Share ‘em for a therapeutic crowd-sourced post, please!]

On a historical and a contemporary lesson from an iconic Justice’s prejudices.

In this post on the United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898) Supreme Court decision, I highlighted Justice John Marshall Harlan’s ugly and apparently lifelong exclusionary racisms (both in and beyond his work on the Court) toward Chinese Americans. As I’ve done often in this week’s series (I guess when your blog is past 4100 posts over 13.5 years you often have thought already about the things you’re continuing to think about!), I’d ask you to check out that post for the key quotes and details about Harlan’s ideology to which I’m responding here, and then come on back for a couple further thoughts.

Welcome back! Two years ago, historian Peter S. Canellos published a new biography of Harlan, The Great Dissenter: The Story of John Marshall Harlan, America’s Judicial Hero (2022). I haven’t read Canellos’ book yet, so I don’t want to assume anything about any aspect of it, but that hyperlinked official Simon & Schuster description calls Harlan “the nation’s prime defender of the rights of Black people, immigrant laborers, and people in distant lands occupied by the US.” In many ways, especially in his frequent Supreme Court dissents that are apparently Canellos’ principal subject, Harlan did indeed play that role. But the historical lesson here is that white supremacy is a multi-tentacled thing, and I mean that not only about the great legal mind who also had such a racist blindspot toward Chinese Americans (including, as I noted in my above post, in his most famous such dissent), but also about the implicit exclusion of Chinese Americans from Simon & Schuster’s phrase “the nation’s prime defender.” Not for that part of our national community, he wasn’t.

About a month ago, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was caught on camera telling a group of protesters advocating for a ceasefire in Gaza that they should “go back to China.” While there were and are some specific and complicated contexts for Pelosi’s comments related to the funding sources for this prominent protest movement, the bottom line is that a national political leader—and one who during her career in the House represented San Francisco at that—using the phrase “Go back to China” in any context is a very, very bad look, one that echoes much of the worst of anti-Chinese American prejudices and exclusions (including Harlan’s). As we’ve seen time and again in recent years, most especially in the responses to Covid, such anti-Chinese American attitudes and narratives are very much still with us, and indeed seem shared across much of the political spectrum in striking ways (compared to how fully Trump and the MAGA movement exemplify certain other longstanding prejudices in our current moment, that is). One more reason why Justice Harlan’s racisms are not only a non-favorite moment, but one from which we can and must learn a great deal.

Last non-favorite tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other non-favorites (of any and all types) you’d share?

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