Justice Roger Taney, the truth of institutional racism and the GOP’s willful blindness

That a bust of Taney, architect of the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision, has no rightful place in the Capitol is beyond reasonable debate. The wonder is that 120 House Republicans voted otherwise.

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A bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, on display in the Old Supreme Court Chamber of the U.S. Capitol

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If you’re looking for the patron saint of institutional racism in the United States, Roger B. Taney is your man.

That a bust of Chief Justice Taney in the U.S. Capitol should be removed, as the House voted last week to do, is beyond reasonable debate. It is the lowest hanging fruit in our nation’s efforts to reckon more honestly with its past.

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The only wonder is that 120 House Republicans voted against the measure. The question is not what’s to be done about Taney, but what’s to be done about them. And what’s to be done about the Republicans in the Senate who are sure to vote against the measure, too.

They have declared where they stand: Against any reconsideration of our nation’s past that might annoy their most racist supporters in the next Republican primary. And in favor of — the perfect metaphor — continued whitewashing.

Chicago knows institutional racism

If you live in Chicago and know the worst of our city’s own history, you can only marvel at such willful blindness.

To argue that institutional racism is a fiction — or that removing the bust of somebody like Taney is an “erasing” of history — looks like a farce to those of us who grew up and live in a city where whole neighborhoods once were red-lined by mortgage companies so Black folks couldn’t live there, where mobile classrooms called “Willis wagons” were installed to keep Black children from having to be bused to white schools, and where an expressway, the Dan Ryan, was strategically located to create a wall between Black and white neighborhoods.

Listen, we know. There’s also a lot of over-the-top “wokeness” going around. There are calls for corrective actions, such as taking down statues of Abe Lincoln, that ignore historical context and go too far. There is plenty of room all around, that is to say, for a more nuanced debate about our nation’s history and how its failings play out to this day.

But Justice Taney? To oppose the removal of his bust from a place of honor in the Capitol, on any grounds, is to declare you really don’t give a damn about truth, racial healing and reconciliation.

Taney was the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision, often called the worst legal decision in the Supreme Court’s history. The court held in 1857 that Scott, as a Black man, was not an American citizen and therefore had no right to sue. The court also ruled that legislation restricting slavery in certain territories was unconstitutional.

Taney reviled in his own time

To those who argue that Taney was simply a man of his times and should not be judged by the standards of today, we would point out that he was reviled by many in his own day. Even this business of the bust is nothing new.

When a senator from Illinois in 1865, shortly after Taney’s death, proposed that a bust of the chief justice be put on display in the Capitol, he was mocked.

A senator from New Hampshire said Taney was nothing but a “traitor” who sought to place the nation “forever by judicial authority under the iron rule of the slave-masters.”

A senator from Massachusetts warned that “the name of Taney is to be hooted down the page of history. Judgment is beginning now.”

It would not be until 1874 that Congress passed a bill to honor Taney with a bust, creating a new monument to white supremacy just as Reconstruction was being dismantled in the South and Jim Crow was kicking in.

Removing the bust of Taney now is not about “erasing history.” It’s about getting history right.

A willful blindness

A willful blindness to the obvious, largely on the part of those who have made a cult of Donald Trump and those who fear that cult, threatens to destroy our country.

It has people believing, or pretending to believe, that the 2020 election was “stolen” from Trump, that former Vice President Mike Pence had the authority to hand the election to Trump, that COVID-19 vaccines are a threat to freedom, and that left-wing activists were behind the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

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It has people believing that the threat of global warming is not real, that Dr. Anthony Fauci conspired to cover up the actual origins of the coronavirus, that wind turbines cause cancer, and that Biden is senile and Vice President Kamala Harris is secretly pulling the strings.

And it has people believing a brush-stroked children’s version of our nation’s complicated history, one in which the Founding Fathers were beyond reproach, slavery was unfortunate but its legacy dead and gone, and racism is largely a matter of individual prejudices, not something woven into laws and institutions.

As a person, Taney was a racist. As a jurist, he was a chief architect of institutional racism. His bust should be removed.

That there is a willful blindness to this obvious fact, as to so many others, should distress us all.

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