cover image In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process 1: The Colonial Period

In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process 1: The Colonial Period

A. Leon Higgenbotham, A. Leon Higginbotham. Oxford University Press, USA, $99 (544pp) ISBN 978-0-19-502387-9

Retired federal judge Higginbotham is one of the nation's most distinguished commentators on law and race. In 1978, he published his impressive In the Matter of Color, the first volume of a series charting racial progress and regress over the past three centuries. Now, Oxford is touting this as the ""magisterial follow-up."" But, though the period covered follows (loosely) that of the earlier volume, it hardly seems like the expected sequel. Perhaps because it is adapted from Higginbotham's law review articles, this book is uneven. Still, Higginbotham's conceptualization of the ""Ten Precepts of American Slavery Jurisprudence"" is an incisive tool for analyzing notorious cases that still echo through American law. Of these assumptions and premises that facilitated slavery, the most enduring is that of inferiority, which, says the author, persists, even as the laws regarding other precepts--such as the rights of African Americans to marry, to be educated, etc.--have evolved. He goes on to describe cases that limited the freedom glimpsed after the Civil War, culminating in the notorious Plessy v. Ferguson ""separate but equal"" decision. Shying away from the last five decades of Supreme Court decisions, the author offers a chapter on the Charles Evans Hughes court (1930-1941), which made tentative steps toward justice. The decision to end with reprints of Higginbotham's 1995 open letter to Newt Gingrich and two 1996 commentaries from the Boston Globe only emphasize the jury-rigged nature of the book. (Nov.)