US Embassy Cultural Outreach Officer at LJMU
13 February 2012
Karen Huntress, US Embassy Cultural Outreach Officer, visited the School of Humanities and Social Science to deliver a fascinating lecture about race and justice in America.
Karen used past and present examples of legal cases to show how race and justice issues have evolved since the Dred Scott trial in 1856. During this case Scott unsuccessfully sued the State for his right to be a free man and not a slave when his master died. The Supreme Court ruled that a black man who had been a slave could not be a free man, saying he could not claim citizenship as he was property, not a person. The case is largely considered to be the key incident that led to the civil war.
Karen also discussed the Homer Plessy case in 1896 where a man considered to be black (he had one black grandparent but was white in appearance) was arrested for being on a white train. Plessy claimed that this was in violation of the US constitution which states all men are equal but the Supreme Court ruled he was guilty of breaking segregation law - separate but equal, they ruled, was just.
It was not until nearly 60 years later, Karen said, that she could find an example where she could be proud of the American justice system in relation to racial issues. In Brown v the Board of Topeka in 1954 the Supreme Court made a landmark decision that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students was unconstitutional. The decision overturned the Homer Plessy case. Handed down on May 17, 1954, the Warren Court's unanimous (9–0) decision stated that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." This ruling paved the way for integration and the civil rights movement.
Karen, as former Assistant Attorney General for New Hampshire, then went on to outline some of her own experiences of cases concerning race, with particular reference to death penalty cases. Her overall view is that the US justice system is now fair, with the race of the accused and jury no longer being an issue. She did, however, acknowledge that there is a disproportionate number of black people in prison in terms of the population of America and stated that there is still a long way to go to resolve socio-economic problems.