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In the epilogue to In the Master of Color, his first volume on race and the American legal process, eminent jurist A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. promised that future volumes would trace the painful process through which the law shifted from the role of brutal oppressor, to silent accomplice to injustice, to being the supposed ally of blacks.
Eighteen years later, Judge Higginbotham, now public service professor of jurisprudence at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, fulfills a portion of that promise in Shades of Freedom: Racial Politics and Presumptions of the American Legal Process. The book restates some of the laws and judicial decisions of the colonial period that affected African Americans. Higginbotham also extends his thesis to highlight and explain the precept of “racial inferiority.”
The precept of inferiority legitimized slavery and justified segregation, he contends, and to this day, he writes, “the premise of black inferiority and white superiority remains an essential element of the `American identity,’ mesmerized as we still are by race and color.”
The author rigorously traces the precept of inferiority from its inception at the nation’s beginning, right down to the 1960s when the precept guided almost every effort “to deny or hinder African Americans’ equal access to the ballot box.” Higginbotham is most eloquent when he uses court cases to make his point, such as when he delves into the intricacies of Plessy v. Ferguson.
Higginbotham confesses that completing this second volume took much longer than he had contemplated, and was reminded by one of hi c colleagues that if he maintained a similar pace for the remaining volumes, he would be 140 years old when the last volume was finished. And even at that age, we can expect Higginbotham to be no less as insightful and thorough as he was when he completed Shades of Freedom.
Shades of Freedom: Racial Politics and Presumptions of the American Legal Process by A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., Oxford University Press; $30