Felix Frankfurter, Charles Hamilton Houston and the 'N-Word': A Case Study in the Evolution of Judicial Attitudes Toward Race
Posted: 28 Oct 1998
The article concerns the U.S. Supreme Court's first consideration of the diminished capacity doctrine, in a 1944 case in which an African-American janitor killed a white, female librarian at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. - for no apparent reason other than that she called him a "nigger." The article relies on previously unpublished material from Felix Frankfurter's papers to trace the changes in Frankfurter's attitudes concerning racial discrimination between 1946 and 1954. The article argues that, based on this newly discovered material, Frankfurter's attitudes toward the social effects of racial discrimination were far more radical in 1946 than they were in 1953, when Brown v. Board of Education reached the Court. It explores how the defendant's counsel, the civil rights lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston, crafted then novel arguments to encourage these attitudes, and employed new developments in psychology to demonstrate the reality of racial discrimination in the criminal context, as he had done in labor, education and housing. Finally, it draws a parallel between the efforts of Frankfurter and Houston to develop a juristic rhetoric of race in the pre-desegregation period and the work of the pioneering African-American psychiatrist Ernest Y. Williams, the defendant's expert in the case, who had the same project in the area of mental health. It compares the efforts, and difficulties, both Williams and Houston faced in crafting terms of discourse which would permit them -- within the confines of their respective disciplines -- to identify the effects of state-sponsored discrimination.
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