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Plessy as "Passing": Judicial Responses to Ambiguously Raced Bodies in Plessy v. Ferguson

Mark Golub
Law & Society Review
Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sep., 2005), pp. 563-600
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Law and Society Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3557606
Page Count: 38
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Plessy as
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Abstract

The Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) is infamous for its doctrine of "separate but equal," which gave constitutional legitimacy to Jim Crow segregation laws. What is less-known about the case is that the appellant Homer Plessy was, by all appearances, a white man. In the language of the Court, his "one-eighth African blood" was "not discernible in him." This article analyzes Plessy as a story of racial "passing." The existence of growing interracial populations in the nineteenth century created difficulties for legislation designed to enforce the separation of the races. Courts were increasingly called upon to determine the racial identity of particular individuals. Seen as a judicial response to racial ambiguity, Plessy demonstrates the law's role not only in the treatment of racial groups, but also in the construction and maintenance of racial categories.

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