Palmore v. Sidoti: The Troubling Effects of "Private Biases"

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A cloud of disembodied and disapproving eyes hovers behind three figures forming a family tableau at the center of Xavier Cortada’s painting about Palmore v. Sidoti (1984). Linda Sidoti Palmore, a white mother, holds onto her young daughter, Melanie, who in turn holds the hand of Charles Palmore, a black man, Linda’s new husband. As Cortada writes of the painting, part of a series about landmark Supreme Court cases that originated in his home state of Florida, those eyes “in a sea of Caucasian skin” —and the “profound racism” they reflected—tried to tip the balance in a custody battle. Melanie’s white father, Anthony Sidoti, disapproved of her mother’s interracial relationship and persuaded a trial court to transfer custody to him because of the “social stigmatization” Melanie would surely suffer, despite “strides” in race relations. The Supreme Court reversed, famously declaring that “private biases may be outside the reach of the law, but the law cannot, directly or indirectly, give them effect.” Cortada celebrates this seeming legal triumph by showing the interracial family striding forward despite the disapproving eyes. Despite Linda’s legal victory, however, she never regained custody of her child. And, as this chapter depicts, her marriage to Charles was troubled and brief. The judgmental eyes that Cortada depicts achieved the initial disruption of Linda’s family tableau he depicts. The blind eye the Supreme Court turned to her requests for the return of her daughter while she pursued her constitutional claim continued that disruption, and state court judges then aided her ex-husband’s legal maneuverings to keep Melanie. Drawing on news stories and legal filings in the case, this chapter chronicles the disturbing “effect” of prejudice and explains that the more typical family tableau was one of absence – with Melanie present only as a photograph at which Linda gazes.

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