Removing the vestiges of Taney-think

January 29, 2000|By Gregory Kane

Between the coughs that almost hacked my body to pieces, I squeezed in some reading. Pieces by two of my favorite writers caught my eye.

Sun columnist Michael Olesker did something on Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, of Dred Scott decision infamy. Sun columnist Dan Rodricks did a follow-up article on racial profiling by police, highlighting the case of Baltimore state delegate Talmadge Branch, who was stopped last summer while driving near city police headquarters. The two columns are coincidentally connected.

Taney, in writing his Dred Scott opinion, asserted that blacks were not citizens, that the Constitution was not meant for blacks, who "had no rights white men were bound to respect."

Olesker pointed out the sheer awfulness of what Taney wrote. Along similar lines, former Sun columnist Wiley Hall wrote almost annually that any statue of Taney within state limits should be torn down. Both were too hard on the man. Taney was probably one of the most honest white man in American history. What he wrote was just theory. It was hundreds of thousands of other white Americans, year after year, month after month, day after day and hour after hour, who put into practice Taney's theory of blacks as personae non gratae.

Taney-think infected the body politic, leading to such things as Jim Crow, black exclusion from labor unions and professional sports, and segregation in the armed forces. It might even -- and here's how the Olesker and Rodricks columns connect -- have played a role in how law enforcement officers policed African-Americans.

Let's get down to brass tacks. For years, the function of police officers was to control, repress and suppress society's undesirables. Because of Taney-think and its effects, both insidious and invidious, blacks were almost always considered undesirable. For years, police treated blacks exactly as Taney indicated they should.

Any doubters need only go back to 1964, when Baltimore police went door-to-door in black neighborhoods conducting warrantless searches for James and Earl Veney, two cop-killers who happened to be black. Juanita Jackson Mitchell of the city's NAACP had to haul Baltimore police into federal court, where a judge issued an order for them to behave. Taney-think had reared its head: the Fourth Amendment, the marauding cops probably figured, didn't apply to black folks. If you're black, over 40 and live in Baltimore, you probably have tales to tell about Baltimore police. And most of them probably aren't good.

My dad in his younger days in the early 1950s considered himself something of a dandy. When the weekend rolled around, he would put on his finest threads, comb his carefully conked hair and hit the bars. One night, cops raided one of the drinking establishments. One of them took off my father's hat and gazed at his conk.

"It's pretty, ain't it?" my dad asked. The question was rhetorical, but the cop answered by whacking him across the head with a nightstick.

Later, when my brother and I were mere teens, we visited our pop, who in a slightly inebriated state advised us to avoid run-ins with the law. The cops would beat us, he told us, in places not visible. Suddenly, he leaped from his chair.

"They hit you right here!" he yelled, punching my brother in the privates. My first reaction -- that we should have beaten the living crap out of our dad right then and there -- is the subject for another column. My second reaction was to note that older-generation black Baltimoreans had little good to say about Baltimore police.

Relations between Baltimore's blacks and the police department have improved over the years. (The force has become more integrated -- it's now 36 percent black.) Lord knows, the relations had nowhere to go but up. But is there lingering Taney-think -- perhaps at a subconscious level -- that may play a role in racial profiling? Racist attitudes didn't disappear just because Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In Rodricks' column, several officers denied that racial profiling exists. They attempted to justify an officer stopping Branch, saying his youthful look and expensive car with state delegates tags was "unusual." As I recall, Clarence Mitchell III became a state senator in the early 1960s while in his early 20s. Young black state delegates are hardly unusual in Baltimore.

Officers defending Branch's stop should remind themselves that the cop in question is part of a department that everyone -- including their own union -- agrees practiced a gross disparity in disciplining black officers. If they don't treat black cops fairly, aren't we justified in assuming they don't treat black civilians any better?

The issue today isn't so much racial profiling but how to remove the last vestiges of Taney-think from society.

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