Dred Scott, an African American man, attempted to sue in court for his freedom from slavery. The case was dismissed on procedural grounds because a majority of the Supreme Court held that “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves,” whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen and therefore did not have standing to sue in federal court. This case further clarified the limited rights of noncitizens in U.S. courts. The Dred Scott decision was later was nullified by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, enacted after the end of the Civil War.
Dred Scott. Oil on canvas by Louis Schultze, 1888. Missouri Historical Society Museum Collections.
4. A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a “citizen” within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.
5. When the Constitution was adopted, they were not regarded in any of the States as members of the community which constituted the State, and were not numbered among its “people or citizen.” Consequently, the special rights and immunities guarantied to citizens do not apply to them. And not being “citizens” within the meaning of the Constitution, they are not entitled to sue in that character in a court of the United States, and the Circuit Court has not jurisdiction in such a suit.
6. The only two clauses in the Constitution which point to this race, treat them as persons whom it was morally lawful to deal in as articles of property and to hold as slaves . . . .
3. Every citizen has a right to take with him into the Territory any article of property which the Constitution of the United States recognises as property.
4. The Constitution of the United States recognises slaves as property, and pledges the Federal Government to protect it. And Congress cannot exercise any more authority over property of that description than it may constitutionally exercise over property of any other kind.
5. The act of Congress, therefore, prohibiting a citizen of the United States from taking with him his slaves when he removes to the Territory in question to reside, is an exercise of authority over private property which is not warranted by the Constitution–and the removal of the plaintiff, by his owner, to that Territory, gave him no title to freedom.
“… the Court’s vision of equality under the Constitution is linked to its formalist vision of race. Indeed, this vision helps to explain the doctrinal shift in Equal Protection. Concretely, the Court’s construction of colorblind race accompanies and animates the colorblind view of the Constitution. This is a “way of seeing” race and racial (in)equality that is new and yet not new; it is rather a variation on a theme. While modem decisions of the Court have repudiated Judge Taney’s vision in Dred Scott of a natural, racial hierarchy, Taney’s reading of racial “type” from the “objective” fact of blood, skin and physical features is very much alive in the current equal protection jurisprudence. Today, the notion of a racial type or the idea of race as blood is not articulated especially to support racial hierarchy. Instead, the conception of race as blood is redeployed in furtherance of the argument that race is “a neutral and apolitical term without social content.”‘ Through the claim that race is only blood or skin color, and in its essence biologic, the Court’s new majority treats race like height or other physical attributes – a fact without moral or social meaning and hence, without legal significance. This is the linchpin of the argument that the Constitution compels colorblindness and that all race consciousness or even racial recognition is another form of racism and racial subordination. Colorblindness is said to be the true meaning of equality and lays claim to historical pedigree and original, “pure” meaning.”
Excerpt from: Cheryl I. Harris. 2001. Equal Treatment and the Reproduction of Inequality. Fordham Law Review, 69(5).