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Seeking racial justice in court: On trial is also our fundamental principle of equality before the law

At about 2:00 in the afternoon on April 11, a white police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright, a Black man, after what seems to have been a routine traffic stop turned up an arrest warrant. The following day, on April 12, the Brooklyn Center police chief told reporters that the arresting officer intended to fire her Taser at Wright, but instead fired her gun.

Wright’s death took place about ten miles from where Derek Chauvin is on trial for killing George Floyd in Minneapolis last May. Then a police officer, Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds while bystanders implored him to stop. Chauvin, a white officer, was arresting Floyd, a Black man, on suspicion of using a counterfeit bill.

In the three weeks of Chauvin’s trial, the former officer’s defenders have noted that there was fentanyl in Floyd’s blood, and suggested he expired not because of the knee on his neck but because he abused opioids. After Wright’s death, those defending the police officer who shot him argued that Wright had brought the deadly outcome on himself by resisting arrest.

But here is the thing: Mr. Floyd and Mr. Wright are not on trial. Whether they abused drugs, or passed bad bills, or did something that warranted arrest, or did all of those things or none of them simply does not matter. They are not on trial.

What is on trial is the fundamental American principle of equality before the law. Our law enforcement officers are supposed to use the force of the state to deliver suspected lawbreakers to our criminal justice system. And yet, in both of these cases — and so many others in which a Black person has died at the hands of police — the officers apparently killed suspected offenders instead of delivering them to the legal system guaranteed under our Constitution. Individual police officers appear to have taken the law into their own hands and become judge, jury, and executioner.

Either Floyd and Wright had the right to due legal process, or police officers could condemn them to death without the due process of the law. If the former, it is imperative to defend the principle of equality before the law against those who would undermine that principle. If the latter, Floyd and Wright are not equal to white Americans, and we need to revisit exactly what sort of government we have.

On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter – the United States fort located in Charleston Harbor, launching a Civil War that would take more than 600,000 lives and cost the United States more than $5 billion. The leaders of the Confederate States of America believed that the government of the United States of America had a fatal flaw: it declared that all men were created equal.

The men who framed the Constitution had made the terrible error of believing in equality, Georgia’s Alexander Stephens, the newly-elected vice president of the Confederacy, told a crowd on March 21, 1861. Northerners, he said, stupidly clung to the outdated idea that “the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man.”

In contrast to the United States government,” Stephens said, “the Confederate government rested on the “great truth” that “the negro is not equal to the white man; that… subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Stephens told listeners that the Confederate government “is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Abraham Lincoln rejected this radical attempt to destroy the principles of the Declaration of Independence. He understood that it was not just Black rights at stake, but also democracy. Arguments like that of Stephens, that some men were better than others, “are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world,” Lincoln said. “You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden…. Turn in whatever way you will—whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent….”

Lincoln warned that “it does not stop with the negro. I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop. If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man?” He told an audience in Chicago, Illinois, that Americans must stand with the Declaration of Independence or, he said, “If that declaration is not the truth, let us get the Statute book, in which we find it and tear it out!”

“NO! NO!” his audience cried. And when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, they took up arms to defend their government.

Almost four years to the day after the firing on Fort Sumter, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia, marking the defeat of the Confederacy and its attempt to create a nation in which some people were better than others.

And yet, on January 6, 2021, insurrectionists brandished the Confederate battle flag in the U.S. Capitol.

Cеdrіc Hоhnstаdt

Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics

About The Author

Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson is Professor of History at Boston College and an expert on American political and economic history. She writes extensively on history and current affairs, and is the author of the widely-read Letters from an American, a nightly chronicle of American politics. Her latest book is Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America.