Today in 1954: The Supreme Court rules that “race” doesn’t only mean “black” and “white”

May 3, 2013

Today in Legal History

Two weeks ago marked the 19 year anniversary of J.E.B. v. Alabama ex rel. T. B., a Supreme Court ruling that prohibited the state from striking jurors solely based on their sex.

The 1994 ruling was an extension of a 1986 decision, Batson v. Kentucky, with a similar holding: that the state may not strike jurors based solely on their race.

Both of these decisions relied upon the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, finding that the state’s systematic removal of jurors of the same race or sex as the individual against whom the state had taken action unconstitutionally deprived him of equal protection of the law.

Although it may be apparent that, unlike “sex,” there aren’t only two classes of “race,” such an assumption wasn’t so obvious once upon a time.  In fact, the Supreme Court had to explicitly establish this principle against arguments to the contrary.

This occurred 59 years ago today, on May 3, 1954, with the Supreme Court’s Hernandez v. Texas decision.

Hernandez, like J.E.B. and Batson, is a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection case that also deals with the state’s handling of jury selection.

Unlike the two newer cases, though, Hernandez deals not with the decisions of individual attorneys acting on behalf of the state in an individual case, but rather, of system-wide policies.

The facts of Hernandez will more fully illustrate what I mean:

Pete Hernandez was indicted for murder by a grand jury in Jackson County, Texas.  He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Prior to the trial, Hernandez moved to quash the indictment and the jury panel, alleging that “persons of Mexican descent were systematically excluded from service as jury commissioners, grand jurors, and petit jurors, although there were such persons fully qualified to serve residing in Jackson County.”

Hernandez claimed that this exclusion denied him equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Hernandez’s motion was denied, and, after several appeals, the Supreme Court heard the case.

Supporting Hernandez’s claim of systematic exclusion was the fact that, despite the fact that “14% of the population of Jackson County were persons with Mexican or Latin American surnames,” there was “no record of any person with a Mexican or Latin American name having served on a jury commission, grand jury or petit jury in Jackson County’” within the previous 25 years.

In response, the State of Texas didn’t try to argue that there was no equal protection violation through this exclusion.  The notion that excluding all members of one’s race from jury service is a violation of the Equal Protection clause was established by 1879’s Strauder v. West Virginia.

Rather, Texas argued that there was no equal protection violation because the term “race” in the Constitution only contemplated two races: black and white.

Hernandez, according to Texas, was considered “white,” and since his grand jury was composed entirely of whites, there was no constitutional violation.

The Supreme Court was incredulous, pointing out several facts that directly disputed Texas’ contention that “Mexican” was considered “white.”

First, “Until very recent times,” children of Mexican descent were required to attend a segregated school.

Next, the Court noted that “at least one restaurant in town prominently displayed a sign announcing ‘No Mexicans Served.’”

Finally, and perhaps most damning to Texas’ argument, in the courthouse where Hernandez received his indictment, there were two bathrooms, one unmarked and the other marked “Colored Men” and “Hombres Aquí” (“Men Here”).

In short, the community’s treatment of individuals of Mexican descent was far more similar to the treatment of blacks than whites.  As such, there is little credibility to the argument that “Mexican” was regarded as “white.”

Consequently, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Hernandez, finding that the Constitution’s use of “race” is not strictly limited to two classes (black and white).

Although such a conclusion may seem obvious today, this apparently wasn’t the case in 1954, since every court ruled against Hernandez but the Supreme Court itself.

But thanks to the Supreme Court decision, “equal protection” isn’t a right only for those classified as “black” or “white.”