The decision was not unanimous.
Speaking for a seven-person majority, Justice Henry Brown delivered the opinion of the court.
This case turns upon the constitutionality of an act of the general
assembly of the state of Louisiana, passed in 1890, providing for
separate railway carriages for the white and colored races. . . .
The constitutionality of this act is attacked upon the ground that it
conflicts both with the 13th amendment of the Constitution,
abolishing slavery, and the 14th amendment, which prohibits
certain restrictive legislation on the part of the states.
1. That it does not conflict with the 13th amendment, which
abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for
crime, is too clear for argument. . . .
Indeed, we do not understand that the 13th amendment is strenuously relied upon by the plaintiff. . . .
2. . . .The object of the [14th] amendment was undoubtedly to
enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in
the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish
distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished
from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms
unsatisfactory to either. Laws permitting, and even requiring, their
separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do
not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and
have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the
competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police
power. . . .
So far, then, as a conflict with the 14th amendment is
concerned, the case reduces itself to the question whether the statute
of Louisiana is a reasonable regulation, and with respect to this there
must necessarily be a large discretion on the part of the legislature.
In determining the question of reasonableness, it is at liberty to act
with reference to the established usages, customs, and traditions of the
people, and with a view to the promotion of their comfort, and the
preservation of the public peace and good order. Gauged by this
standard, we cannot say that a law which authorizes or even requires the
separation of the two races in public conveyances is unreasonable, or
more obnoxious to the 14th amendment than the Acts of Congress
requiring separate schools for colored children in the District of
Columbia, the constitutionality of which does not seem to have been
questioned, or the corresponding acts of state legislatures.
We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to
consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races
stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it
is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the
colored race chooses to put that construction upon it. . . . The
argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by
legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except
by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this
proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality,
it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of
each other's merits and a voluntary consent of individuals. . . .
Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish
distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so
can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present
situation. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal one
cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be
inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States
cannot put them upon the same plane.
Questions to Consider
What do the justices state is the object of the 14th Amendment?
The Plessy decision distinguishes between political and social equality. Discuss this distinction. Can one exist without the other?
What racial and cultural assumptions are inherent in the
statement that "legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts
or abolish distinctions based upon physical differences?"
The decision states that legislation cannot overcome social prejudice. Can it reinforce social prejudice? How?
How do you respond to the court's contention that if any
inferiority is evident, it is only because colored people "choose" to
interpret the act in that manner. Do you believe colored people had a
choice whether or not to feel or not to feel inferior in light of such
According to Justice Brown's opinion, social equality must be the result of what three factors?
After the court dismissed the 13th Amendment violation
argument, it reduced the question before the court to whether or not
Louisiana's legislation is reasonable. What is the "reasonable" standard
and how did the court apply it in this case?