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Rulings on majority and minority rights by the Supreme Court

The 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law. This principle was tested in key Supreme Court cases like Plessy vs. Ferguson, Brown vs. Board of Education, and Shaw vs. Reno. These cases show how interpretations of the amendment have evolved over time, impacting minority rights and segregation.

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Video transcript

- We've already talked about the 14th Amendment in previous videos, but just as a reminder, Section 1 of the 14th Amendment says, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, "and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, "are citizens of the United States "and of the State wherein they reside. "No State shall make or enforce any law "which shall abridge the privileges or immunities "of citizens of the United States; "nor shall any State deprive any person "of life, liberty, or property, "without the due process of law; "nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction "the equal protection of the laws." And this last clause, which I just underlined, the Equal Protection Clause, has been cited many times, not just in social justice movements but in many Supreme Court cases. And what we're going to do in this video is think about how rulings by the Supreme Court represent both continuity over time, but also change over time, especially relative to the protection of minority rights. One of the most significant test cases of the 14th Amendment happens almost 30 years after the amendment is ratified in 1896. This is a situation where the state of Louisiana passes a law that African American people have to sit in a separate railcar from white people. And so you have this gentleman here, Homer Plessy, a resident of New Orleans, who decides to test this law. He sits in a white only car, and he is 1/8 African American. And he gets arrested. This case eventually goes to the United States Supreme Court, and they rule that the Louisiana law requiring separate cars is not unconstitutional as long as the cars are judged to be equal. And this is where that term "separate but equal" comes from. And this is viewed as a fairly infamous ruling because it was the Supreme Court reinforcing this idea of segregation, even after the 14th Amendment had been passed almost 30 years prior. Now, we go almost 60 years in the future in order for segregation to be challenged in a very significant way. Then we get to the case of Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, in which the then Supreme Court rules that "No, segregation is not okay. "Separate is inherently unequal." And this right over here is a picture of a desegregated classroom around that time although this is not in Topeka, Kansas. But it shows how based on the passage of time, based on social norms, based on a change in the make-up of the Supreme Court, how they can make rulings that go one way or the other. Plessy versus Ferguson reaffirms segregation. It's perceived to curtail minority rights while Brown versus Board of Education goes the other way. Once again, taking a look at the 14th Amendment. Now, if we fast-forward to 1993, we have another really interesting test case, Shaw versus Reno. This is a situation where after the 1990 census North Carolina takes a look at its congressional districts and sends them to review by the federal Justice Department. The federal Justice Department decides that the first pass that North Carolina took at the districting only had one black majority congressional district. And they thought that there could be two black majority congressional districts. So, the state of North Carolina redistricted again, and they created this 12th district here, which you can see is kind of a strange shape. It's strung along over 160 miles in this very thin district. Now, this was taken to the Supreme Court by citizens of North Carolina saying that this districting was a severe case of gerrymandering, which we've talked about in other videos, and should be deemed unconstitutional. And the Supreme Court actually did rule in 1993 that redistricting purely on the basis of race, as was done in this situation, even though it was with the intent of having more minority representation in Congress, that this type of redistricting on the basis of race was unconstitutional. This Supreme Court also cited the Equal Protection Clause and also cited the 14th Amendment saying, "Look, once you start redistricting "based on racial lines, it creates a type "of racial separation, which is unconstitutional "by the 14th Amendment." So, these are really good cases to know. They show how the Supreme Court can rule differently depending on what time period we are in or depending on the circumstance. That often times when we think about equal protection, we think about protection of minority rights. But as we saw in the case of Shaw versus Reno, even when the intent of, in this case gerrymandering, is to give more minority representation, it was deemed unconstitutional because from the Supreme Court's point of view violated the 14th Amendment.