Government’s Racist Speech

This summer I finally got around to Eric Foner’s excellent Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, which painstakingly details not only the myriad lost opportunities to address slavery’s continuing legacy in the form of race discrimination following the Civil War, but also the emerging conflicts over the appropriate division of power between federal and state governments that have yet to be fully resolved today.

Because one of my current projects deals with the equal protection implications—if any – of government speech, I was especially struck by Professor Foner’s description of President Andrew Johnson’s 1867 annual message to Congress as “probably the most blatantly racist pronouncement ever to appear in an official state paper of an American President.” In that message, Foner quotes Johnson as characterizing blacks as possessing less “capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.”

Looking beyond Presidential speech to government speech more generally, surely there are challengers for the title of most racist government speech ever.  Indeed, Foner himself later identifies a competitor: a report by a Reconstruction-era Florida state commission that “praised slavery as a ‘benign’ institution deficient only in its inadequate regulation of black sexual behavior.”   Any other nominations?

To narrow the universe of eligible “government speech,” note that I’m thinking only of speech (as opposed to the government’s exercise of its coercive power —  e.g., de jure segregation) by those empowered to speak for a governmental branch or other government body — such as an agency’s report, a legislature’s resolution, or an executive’s proclamation — rather than racist speech by an individual legislator or official expressing only his or her own personal views.

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