Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and it's good to have you with us. Just hours after the Supreme court handed down its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health, overruling the nearly 50-year precedent set by Roe v. Wade, Missouri became the first state in the nation to ban all abortions. Here's Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt.
Eric Schmitt: I am humbled to be a part of this and the first attorney general in the country to effectively end abortion.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, there is an irony that Missouri so eagerly participated in the reversal of the right to choose abortion. The state is the site of the Supreme Court's most infamous decision declaring that a group of people did not have foundational rights, Dred Scott v. Sandford. In 1857, the Supreme Court decided the case of Dred Scott, a Black man born into slavery in Virginia and living in Missouri.
After living for several years in free territory, Scott and his wife Harriet petitioned the Missouri courts for freedom, arguing they deserve the rights of American citizens. The Scott's petition was rooted in the terms of the Missouri Compromise, a deal struck in Congress in 1820 that limited the expansion of slavery in new states. The court's opinion in Dred Scott declared that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional and it affirmed in the words of Chief Justice Roger Taney.
Chief Justice Roger Taney: A Black man has no rights which the white man was bound to respect.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Even after the bloody civil war and the 13th Amendment ended American slavery, this language that a Black man has no rights which the white man was bound to respect that language reverberated across the American landscape. Jim Crow, segregated school, disenfranchisement, red lines, more than 4,000 lives taken by lynchings.
The long shadow of 1857 Dred Scott appeared as recently as a 2004 presidential debate when George W. Bush assured Americans he would not appoint justices who supported the Scott decision.
George W. Bush: The Dred Scott Case which is where judges, years ago, said that the constitution allowed slavery because of personal property rights. That's personal opinion. That's not what the constitution says.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why was President Bush bringing up Dred Scott in 2004? You see, for decades, the movement to end abortion rights had drawn parallels between the decisions in Dred Scott and in Roe v. Wade, describing embryos and fetuses as analogous to enslaved people, stripped of their rights and due process.
Indeed, the late Justice Scalia made the same comparison in his dissent in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the decision which upheld Roe. Since last week's decision by the court to reverse Roe v. Wade, many progressives have revived this Dred Scott conversation, but this time arguing that future generations will look back on Dobbs with the same disgust that is now reserved for Taney's 1857 opinion, but still, there is something missing in the scramble to situate this decision in the context of the one that declared a Black man has no rights which the white man was bound to respect
Dr. Deborah Gray White: Because African American women had no rights that anyone, including Black men, were bound to respect.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That is--
Dr. Deborah Gray White: Dr. Deborah Gray White. I am board of governors, distinguished professor of History and Women and Gender Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor Gray White has authored numerous books, including a foundational text that shaped the field of American history. Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. Her work calls us to revisit American history by beginning with a standpoint provided by the experiences of Black women. I sat down with Professor Gray White to discuss how Black women's experiences of reproductive coercion, racism, and labor exploitation shed light on this moment.
Dr. Deborah Gray White: I remember watching The Handmaid's Tale with my daughters and listening to people say and reading the commentary that this is dystopian. I said, no, no, this is not dystopian. This is American history because, of course, we have women who have absolutely no autonomy and even women who have a little bit of control over what they can do and they can't, but what they can do and even what they can think most of the women are under the heavy hand of a patriarchy and a government that does not recognize their personal integrity.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's interesting for me to hear you evoke Handmaid's Tale because there was a lot of like pop culture critique about the ways that Handmaid's was either handling or mishandling representations of race. I got to say, I kept thinking, "Wait a minute, isn't this whole thing just about slavery?" I'd always read it as an allegory for the experience of slavery.
Dr. Deborah Gray White: Exactly. I could watch episode after episode. I'm like, "But this is history. This is American history. This isn't some future that if women aren't careful, they will have to deal with." No, this happened. I actually think that now with the Dobbs case, and particularly with Thomas' concurrent opinion, when you think about what he's saying, and let's just put this on the table, it's paradoxical, it's ironic, but it's even more tragic. It's so tragic that an African American would interpret the 14th Amendment, which was meant to expand rights and to protect. You have an equal protection clause. You have a due process clause. You have a clause that makes African American citizens, all of which were to protect Black people against white supremacy and against being re-enslaved.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In his concurrent opinion in Dobbs, Justice Clarence Thomas writes, "Because the due process clause does not secure any substantive rights, it does not secure a right to abortion." He goes on to argue that the practice of relying on precedent has elevated, "demonstrably erroneous decisions over the text of the constitution." See, the text of the constitution and the laws of states and even of the federal government, for most of American history, these statutes offered little refuge for Black women.
Dr. Deborah Gray White: First of all, they could not be taught to read and write under penalty of law. They could be raped. They had no control over their bodies. Not only can you rape a Black woman with impunity, but if she gets pregnant, it is an economic boon for her slave master. Because she's perceived as property, a master can do anything with her body that he pleases.
That means and this is, again, this is a nation of laws, right? By law, a master cannot rape his slave woman because she is his property and because she is his property, the only thing that he can do is trespass upon her. You can't convict a slave owner for trespassing on his property. A Black woman and a Black man could not control when and where, and under what conditions they would have a child, so there is no legal marriage.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You see, not only was this legal, it was essentially constitutional.
Dr. Deborah Gray White: If you really understand African American history, you say, "Wait a minute, they did this once. They were quite clear about doing this, and they did it when they declared that this was a country that was a nation of laws, and made sure they justified this in the courts. They put it in the constitution without even calling it slavery."
Melissa Harris-Perry: The court's decision to overturn Roe rest not only in the majority's strict textual interpretation but also in its reading of American history. Justice Samuel Alito writes, "The court examines whether the right to obtain an abortion is rooted in the nation's history and tradition and whether it is an essential component of ordered liberty." History and tradition.
You see, it's worth noting that reproductive coercion was not just incidental in American history, it was its cornerstone, providing the inter-generational channel bondage of free labor that undergirds American wealth.
Dr. Deborah Gray White: A system of enslavement that is dependent on African Americans' reproduction, meaning that the increase of the slave population is dependent on Black women's wombs. When we're talking about women being compelled to have sex, and compelled to have children, we're certainly talking about, and particularly when it was in the economic interests of slave owners because a slave child was profitable at birth, a slave infant was worth something monetarily.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor Deborah Gray White reminded me that this history is neither distant nor irrelevant. It holds lessons not only for those of us descended from these enslaved Black women, but it suggests possibilities for all American women.
Dr. Deborah Gray White: The minute you say, well, you don't need to know about slavery and you're just bringing up the past and you're bringing up something divisive and you're bringing up something that's going to make people feel bad, and particularly my children feel bad. As long as all women do not understand what went before, they have no idea of just how close they are, one step out of being perceived as property even if we don't use that term.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Among the most powerful aspects of the way that you write history is that you remind us that even under the most crushing circumstances, we did make family, that we did know our own humanity, that we knew something about our genius and our skill and our capacity, and those things weren't lost. They were nurtured in these crushing systems. Tell me what the women you study teach us about how to resist and how to be human in systems that want to crush us.
Dr. Deborah Gray White: Then I'm telling you about 400 years of surviving. I will give you a very succinct crash course on how to survive white supremacists, slavery, et cetera. Number one, we make community. That does not mean that we all got along because that is still the case today. We don't all get along but one thing we knew how to do was how to survive and how to use our community to survive, and when owners and when the system and when the law said, "Okay, you can't marry," we found still a way to unite and become family and to make family, and when they sold away our children, we adopted children. We became fictive kin.
After enslavement, we organized and we organized. There is no welfare system to speak of until the 1930s and FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but, nevertheless, who organized the kindergartens in our community, who organized the schools in our community, who organized the libraries in our community? That meant we had to stretch, that meant we had to get over our color differences. It meant that we had to get through our class differences. We have just found a way to not only organize but to bring others along with us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Make community, organize, bring others along. Here ends the lesson from Professor Deborah Gray White, Distinguished Professor of History and Women and Gender Studies at Rutgers University.
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