Plessy v. Ferguson: Race and Inequality in Jim Crow America. By Williamjames Hull Hoffer. (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2012. Pp. ix, 219. $34.95.)
Version of Record online: 4 MAR 2014
© 2014 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 76, Issue 1, pages 122–123, Spring 2014
How to Cite
Schmidt, C. W. (2014), Plessy v. Ferguson: Race and Inequality in Jim Crow America. By Williamjames Hull Hoffer. (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2012. Pp. ix, 219. $34.95.). Historian, 76: 122–123. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12030_20
- Issue online: 4 MAR 2014
- Version of Record online: 4 MAR 2014
This new book on Plessy v. Ferguson has a number of admirable qualities. In about two hundred pages, it covers a remarkable amount of ground. Williamjames Hull Hoffer offers a thorough account of the legal challenge to Louisiana's 1890 railroad segregation law, from its inception as a carefully prepared test case in New Orleans through the several levels of appeals that led, in 1896, to the infamous US Supreme Court decision. Writing for the court, Justice Henry Billings Brown reasoned that state-mandated racial segregation did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Alone among the justices in contesting this conclusion was Justice John Marshall Harlan, whose dissent famously proclaimed, “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”
This book is much more than just a litigation history, however. Hoffer also provides an extensive and richly detailed consideration of the historical context surrounding the case, describing both national-level developments and the distinctive local experience in New Orleans. He also looks beyond 1896 to consider Plessy's impact on law and American life generally. His final chapter, entitled “Plessy's World,” traces the story through the fall of Plessy's “separate but equal” doctrine in Brown v. Board of Education . An epilogue presses the story forward still further, touching on the ways in which, according to Hoffer, Plessy is “alive and well” still today.
Those who like their history presented with the author's judgments in the foreground will appreciate Hoffer's approach. All historians are necessarily critics, of course, but Hoffer tends toward the more assertive end of the spectrum, rarely letting a historical actor pass from the stage without letting the reader know what he thinks of the choices that person made. As this is a history of the way law was used as a tool of racial oppression, these assessments are predictably harsh. And as Hoffer's baseline for racially enlightened behavior was an idealized vision of “a world of fluid racial identities where belonging or not belonging was a choice of the individual,” practically every figure he encounters—Plessy's lawyers, Harlan, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Justice Clarence Thomas—is chastised for relying upon “race as a category” (183, 181). Hoffer's account simmers throughout with the author's anger, frustration, and disappointment at the unfolding tragedy of Jim Crow in America. This is a deeply felt work of scholarship.
This book aspires to a middle ground between academic monograph and popular history. A readable but substantive work of historical synthesis, it locates this ground reasonably well. Yet this achievement does raise the question of the book's audience. It can be rather dense going for a general audience. Yet it lacks the basic attributes of an academic work—no overreaching thesis, no footnotes, little effort to situate the book among other scholarship, and only intermittent and frustratingly vague engagement with historiographical debates—thus limiting its utility for scholars. Nonetheless, this book overflows with valuable material and challenging insights, both for the general reader and the scholar.