Frederick Douglass: a multi-racial trailblazer

Last year President Trump made statements that left the impression he believed that abolitionist Frederick Douglass was still alive. In some respects, he still is. This month marks the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ birth, and his racial justice work continues to be relevant today. In fact, after President Trump was informed that Douglass died in 1895, the president signed into law the Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Commission Act to organize events to honor the bicentennial anniversary of Douglass’s birth.

While slave records mark Douglass’ birth month as February — he was born in a plantation on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Talbot County — his status as a slave meant he had no information about the exact day he was born. As an adult he chose Feb. 14th for himself as a birth date. He was also never told who his father was, but circumstances lead him to conclude that it was his white slave owner.

Despite his mixed-race heritage and likely connection to his owner, Douglass was separated from his mother at an early age and exposed to physical abuse from his owners.

After escaping to freedom, Douglass established himself as a luminary of the abolitionist movement with his eloquent speeches regarding the savagery of slavery and its blight on our Constitution. His reputation as a compelling orator and writer garnered him a pivotal role in both lobbying for the inclusion of much needed black Union soldiers in the Civil War and then recruiting them once Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. After the Civil War, Douglass continued to write and speak out on matters of racial justice. His contributions to the nation were officially recognized with various government appointments.

Yet when Douglass married a white woman (fellow abolitionist and feminist Helen Pitts) after his first wife died, his interracial marriage created great controversy. It was immaterial that Douglass had white ancestry himself. Douglass’s mixed-race status did not alter his experience of racial discrimination. This is still true for mixed-race persons today.

In the 200 years since Douglass’ birth, we have has seen the growth of interracial marriages and mixed-race “multiracial” and “biracial” identity. In fact, the Census Bureau projects that the self-identified multiracial population will triple by 2060.

Nevertheless, my own exhaustive review of discrimination cases in a variety of contexts — including the workplace, educational settings, housing rentals, access to public accommodations, jury service and the criminal justice system — has shown that racially-mixed persons continue to experience discrimination today.

The cases frequently describe acts of discrimination accompanied by pointed, derogatory comments about non-whiteness — and blackness in particular.

One boy’s middle school experiences as a self-identified biracial student of African and Caucasian descent highlight one of my most instructive case studies. In 2011, the boy transferred from a city school in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a middle school in a town 40 miles away.

He was targeted for ongoing racial harassment from students, with comments such as “go back to the ghetto where you came from,” “[black people are] never ... as good as white people at anything,” and “blacks are thieves and criminals.” The school teachers also inappropriately verbalized their racialized opinions to the boy and his classmates, along with regularly marking his correct answers as incorrect on school work.

Other cases also show that white relatives of mixed-race victims cannot shield them from discrimination. For instance, when a white mother sought to rent an apartment in Fort Smith, Ark., she was welcomed as a tenant until the landlord discovered she had a biracial child. In response, the landlord refused to accept her rental deposit and tender the apartment key and stated she did not want a “black child” living there.

These stories, and many others I have collected, underscore that what Douglass stated in 1881, is still true today: "Though slavery was abolished, the wrongs of my people were not ended. Though they were not slaves, they were not quite free.”

Unfortunately, the growth of a multiracial-identified population does not portend the end of racism but rather a broader landscape for imposing difference. We need Frederick Douglass’s guidance today more than ever. May he long live.

Tanya Katerí Hernández (thernandez@law.fordham.edu) is a professor at Fordham University School of Law and the author of the forthcoming book from NYU Press, “Multiracials and Civil Rights: Mixed-Race Stories of Discrimination.”

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