When laws are written in a vague way, they run the risk of wrongly convicting innocent people. Jessica R. Pliley, Associate Professor of the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities at Texas State University, recently published an article in The Atlantic about the politics and consequences of just such a law.
Pliley’s article, “A Pardon Arrives 105 Years Too Late,” details President Trump’s decision to pardon boxing champion Jack Johnson for having been convicted in 1903 of violating the White Slave Traffic Act, also known as the Mann Act. The Mann Act made it illegal for a woman to engage in lewd or immoral interstate sexual actions. The law was supposed to reduce human trafficking. Instead, in this case, it provided a vague-enough platform to criminalize Johnson, who was a successful boxer and proud, unapologetic black celebrity during Jim Crow America. “It always was about punishing a shameless black man for crossing the color line in the bedroom,” writes Pliley.
Pliley sees this pardon as an opportunity for the country to reevaluate the fairness of this and other laws that dispense justice in unequal ways. “[T]he pardon opens an opportunity to consider the role that white supremacy has played in the criminal-justice system,” she writes. Since people of color make up a disproportionate amount of the U.S. incarcerated population, the article argues, a “sustained commitment to reforming America’s criminal-justice system” is necessary.
People who want a closer look at history and its consequences should read this and other works by Pliley. Her book, Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI, was published by Harvard University Press in the fall of 2014. She is also the Book Review Editor of the Journal of Women’s History. Find out more about Pliley’s work at jessicapliley.com.