Civil Rights And the Wartime Supreme Court

February 22, 2010

Author: Dawinder S. Sidhu

Source: Supreme Court of the United States Blog

The following essay was written for our Race and the Supreme Court event by Dawinder S. Sidhu, a founding director of the Discrimination and National Security Initiative at Harvard University.  Mr. Sidhu’s work focuses on discrimination against Muslim-Americans and those perceived to be Muslim, and he is coauthor of a book published in 2009 titled Civil Rights in Wartime.

At earlier, regrettable moments in this nation’s past, Blacks as a race were thought to be property or inferior beings.   The civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century offered an alternative view of race in America — the simple, undeniable truth that all men are equal and should be judged on the basis of who they are, rather than the race to which they belong.  In challenges to racial classifications involving African Americans, the Supreme Court made clear that the Constitution does not tolerate the wholesale stereotyping of individuals on account of their race.

While the Court has recognized the perniciousness of race serving as a proxy for blanket preconceptions of African Americans, in one context – national security – the Court has historically and presently considered racial proxies to be practically sensible and legally permissible instruments.  And it has done so notwithstanding that, in times of war, Japanese , Muslim , Arab , South Asian , and Sikh Americans have been stereotyped as a class and suffered considerable mistreatment, including profiling, pretextual arrest, harassment, stabbing, assault, and murder.  This anomaly in the Court’s evaluation of race is not only troubling by itself, but should also alarm anyone who believes in the moral vision of the leaders we honor this month.