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  • Dr. Shantella Y. Sherman

Measuring Up - Quick Read #1


[Dred Scott (pictured above) sued for his emancipation and was denied based on his classification as a subhuman species by the U.S. Supreme Court./ Photo courtesy of LOC]


Comparative racial research -- measuring and comparing the bodies, minds, and temperaments of people based on their skin color -- grew out of centuries-old sciences including phrenology (the study of the shape and size of the cranium as an indication of character and mental abilities), intelligence quotients (I.Q) tests, and Bertillon identification (measurements made of criminal and defective classes to identify and segregate them). Such measurements embraced a belief in the "born criminal" and "bad seeds" -- both eugenic terms that mean criminality, immorality, and poverty are in the DNA and because they are genetic, you only need to "look" at a person to determine their character. These measurements would inform housing, education, medical and legal communities, not least of which included the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1857, one of the first legal rulings to cement public sentiment on non-whites in America AND specifically, Blacks [both free and enslaved] was the Dred Scott v. Sanford case. A portion of its conclusion read:


“All Negroes, are subhuman because they are of an inferior order and accordingly, are ‘altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations …[Negroes] have no rights which the white man is bound to respect.”


— Chief Judge Roger Taney, U.S.

Supreme Court concluded in the Dred Scott Case (Dred Scott v. Sanford) where an enslaved man petitioned the court to be freed after his enslavers moved to a free state, 1857



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