- How Race is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses
In 1896, the United States Supreme Court heard the famous case of Plessy v. Ferguson. Homer Plessy, a light-skinned African American from Louisiana, who was, according to a contemporary newspaper, "as white as the average white Southerner," had been assigned to a Jim Crow railroad car by a white conductor. Two prominent African American jurists of the time, Albion Tourgee and James C. Walker, wrote the brief on behalf of Plessy. They challenged the constitutionality of Louisiana's 1890 statute that authorized "separate but equal" accommodations for black and white passengers on its railway system. Tourgee and Walker's brief raised the central issue of the state's authority to discriminate on the basis of race, especially given the ambiguity of the visual evidence. In a 7 to 1 ruling, the Supreme Court sidestepped the question of how race was identified, and upheld the Louisiana law on the grounds that laws segregating the races did not "necessarily imply the inferiority of either race." Thus, the highest court in the United States "allowed for the establishment of a modern system of segregation that necessarily conceded that sight alone was not always sufficient to establish racial identity" (75).
The Plessy vs. Ferguson case, which illustrates the illogic of maintaining a stringent racial divide, did not challenge the certitudes of Southern segregationists. The reason for this, according to Mark Smith, is that by the late nineteenth century whites had come to rely increasingly on a rich heritage of "sensory stereotypes" about blacks, myths that perpetuated racism and allowed white southerners to disregard obvious truths. Smith's provocative book explores a two-hundred year history of racial superstition in the United States, focusing on the types of sensory myths that were invented by whites to maintain racial distinctions in the South. Such stereotypes emerged during the era of slavery, when whites claimed to be able to determine race on the basis of smell, sight, hearing, taste, and touch. According to Smith, "for antebellum southern slavery to work, racial categories had to be kept in line, which meant that the way blacks smelled, sounded, and sensed generally could not be too similar to the way that whites, especially poor whites, smelled, sounded, and sensed generally" (25). In the postbellum South, especially with the onset of segregation, the perpetuation of these stereotypes regarding black distinctiveness and inferiority became even more important to southern whites. The reason for this, according to Smith, is [End Page 439] "because race had to be authenticated on a daily basis between strangers in a modernizing, geographically fluid South" (7).
Most of Smith's book focuses on the era of segregation when, he claims, feeling rather than thinking perpetuated the racial order. He examines not only the perpetuation of racial stereotypes by whites during the first half of the twentieth century, but also the ways in which blacks contested them. One particularly salient practice in this regard was "passing." Smith regards the practice of blacks "passing" as whites as a form of subversion, by exposing "the loopiness of beliefs in absolute racial difference" and serving as "a powerful critique of the segregationist order" (104). Smith's overall analysis of the ideological underpinnings of segregation is convincing and original. Of course the phenomenon of segregation itself, which arose in the context of rapid economic and political change in the late nineteenth century South, constitutes a historical complexity that Smith's cultural analysis can only partially explain.1
In his final chapter, Smith examines the gut-wrenching national reaction to the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. As Smith points out, the Brown decision could not overturn deep-seated attitudes about race, especially when those attitudes had been shaped by instinct and raw feeling rather than the intellect. On the other hand, Smith views Brown v. Board of Education as a defining moment in the history of American race relations, "not least because it was...