Race and Ethnicity
Race In U.s. Legal History
In the United States as in other countries, recent immigrants are always suspected of the latest crime waves. In the early twentieth century white ethnic immigrants from Italy and Ireland were the focus of concern including Irish, Italian, and Polish youth gangs. As more Hispanics migrated from Mexico, the emphasis shifted to people of color in the 1930s and 1940s. Then with the rise of the Civil Rights movement, fears shifted toward black Americans in the 1950s and beyond. Throughout this time white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, often referred to as WASPs, dominated the criminal justice system and determined targets for crime fighting.
Race has also always been central to American laws. Prior to the Civil War most blacks were slaves. In legal terms they were considered property, not humans. Slaves could not bring lawsuits, marry, vote, enter into business contracts, or testify in court except against another slave. Immediately following the Civil War, between 1865 and 1866, Southern states quickly adopted Black Codes to limit the rights of the newly freed slaves.
The Black Codes were followed by Jim Crow laws in the early twentieth century strictly enforcing public racial segregation (keeping the races separate in public places). By the late twentieth century numerous laws and court rulings had guaranteed the rights of minorities to equal access of opportunities, equal protection under the law, and due process (given fair treatment) in criminal justice systems.