Darwinism, Racism & Justice


     The Social Darwinism infiltrated the Justice system of its heyday. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man in 1871. These two books along with other books on scientific racism reached the shelves of many prominent judges and lawmakers. The influence of Darwinism is evident on the Fuller Court, which refers to the Supreme Court of the United States from 1888 to 1910. In 1905, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., criticized this court for reading Social Darwinism into the Constitution. In 1909, legal scholar Roscoe Pound criticized it for practicing a mechanistic formalism based on biological determinism.  

    The most consequential decision of Fuller Court was Plessy versus Ferguson in 1896. It upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities, giving rise to infamous ‘separate but equal’. Justice Henry Billings Brown (1836 – 1913) who wrote the majority opinion stated,  “If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane”. He believed that racial distinctions given to us through ‘natural selection’ must be maintained. Editor Melvin Urofsky explains the worldview which dominated Brown’s thinking when he sat on the Supreme Court. 

“Although Brown brought important skills to the Supreme Court, what most informed his approach to judging was his background and the dominant intellectual assumptions of his era. Brown viewed the world from a white, male, upper-middle-class perspective which embraced social Darwinism. Social Darwinism held that certain groups had achieved social and economic prominence because, through “natural selection,” they had proven to be the most “fit” in the society.”

 Natural selection produced natural inequality and government should not dictate the course of humanity led by the forces of nature. Justice Brown was inspired by the ideology of Social Darwinism to justify segregation. Editor Clark Rountree states, 

“Chief Justice Henry Brown, writing for an eight to one majority, based his ruling in Plessy on two popular sociological beliefs – social Darwinism and white supremacy. “If one race be inferior to the other socially,” wrote Brown, “the constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.” Government could not overcome natural inequality. “If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits, and voluntary consent of individuals.” The state was powerless against the forces of nature, which had made blacks inferior.”

  The State should not fight against the forces of nature which produced racial inequality in the first place. Then comes  Justice John Marshall Harlan (1833 – 1911), the lone dissenter from the Court’s decision. He wrote that the U.S.Constitution “is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens”. Harlan was a fundamentalist Christian who believed in Creationism – that God created one couple, Adam and Eve in the beginning and all human beings were their children. He believed in the Bible to the extent he taught a Sunday school class from 1896 until his death in 1911.


On the Wild Side

By Martin Gardner

The United States Supreme Court: The Pursuit of Justice

By Christopher L. Tomlins

The Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary

edited by Melvin Urofsky

Brown V. Board of Education at Fifty: A Rhetorical Retrospective

edited by Clarke Rountree