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Abstract

This Article reconsiders the familiar reading of Justice Harlan's dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson as standing for the principle of constitutional colorblindness by examining the significance of Harlan's use of the metaphor "caste" in the opinion. By overlooking Harlan's invocation of "caste," it argues that conservative proponents of anticlassification have reclaimed the opinion for "colorblindness," and buried a powerful statement of the antisubordination principle that is at the heart of our equality law. The Article begins by examining the emergence of a reading of the opinion as articulating a view of equality law based in anticlassification. The Article then returns to the nineteenth century to offer an alternative reading of the opinion. It argues that by time Harlan invoked the caste metaphor in Plessy, the caste metaphor was part of a longstanding tradition of reasoning about the moral stakes of status hierarchy and social subordination. It examines the emergence, in the nineteenth century, of the image of caste in abolitionist rhetoric and in debates over the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment during Reconstruction. The Article further challenges the conventional reading of Harlan's dissent, by considering the persistence of the caste metaphor in the context of Brown v. Board of Education and its aftermath.