In an ideal world, laws are meant to uphold justice. However, as evidenced by a history spanning slavery and Jim Crow laws, the United States has shown that legislation can reinforce racial inequality.
To further examine the relationship between U.S. laws and racism in the legislative system, Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean of Boston University’s School of Law, organized a new speaker series in October entitled “Race, Law and Inequality.”
The second installment, “Detecting Police and Prosecutorial Discrimination: Some Theoretical and Methodological Thoughts,” took place Thursday, and featured Yale Law School professor Issa Kohler-Hausmann.
Jonathan Feingold, associate law professor at BU, moderated the discussion. He said it is important to learn the relationship between law and race, because U.S. laws have historically supported white supremacy and racial hierarchy in American society.
“If we want to understand the world as it exists now, we have to center topics like race,” Feingold said in an interview. “We’re doing what we need to do to remedy a legacy of legalized white supremacy in the United States that, although in many ways is in the past, is also in many ways in the present.”
Addressing the systemic oppression upheld within American law, Feingold said, is the “first step” toward dismantling legalized discrimination.
BU law professor Jasmine Gonzales Rose, also the associate director of policy at BU’s Center for Antiracist Research, said the legal system can foster racial subordination.
Gonzales Rose said the U.S. began its abuse of the law by taking lands from Indigenous peoples. Then, the law continued to be used as a weapon of force with the institution of slavery, Gonzales Rose said, and later with Jim Crow laws.
“Throughout history, there has been a project of racial ordering in the United States,” Gonzales Rose said. “There was a system where, particularly, white individuals were in power, and to stay in power, they needed to use the law to achieve this.”
While the speaker series is one piece of a broader project by BU Law to look inward at its efforts to remedy the legacy of racism in today’s legislative system, Feingold said, initiating conversations about racial law is a positive start.
“Gender, sexual orientation, religion, [are] at the center of our conversations, particularly in the law school because of the way that the law has constantly been a tool for subordination,” Feingold said. “We need to look clear-eyed at the ways in which law has, and continues to be, mobilized.”
Although systemically racist systems have existed for quite some time, Gonzales Rose said, legal protections and revisions are slow in spite of the momentum brought forward by social justice movements.
“Racism in the United States is less about racial bias or prejudice, and more about maintaining white superiority,” Gonzales Rose said. “That’s why it’s been slow to change. Change has been incremental, and change has often been one step forward and two steps back.”
Feingold said dismantling racism in U.S. laws means recognizing which laws were aimed at marginalizing minorities, as well as acknowledging which laws take race into account to alleviate disparities as opposed to deepening them.
“The law, at least on the books, fails to do that in many respects,” Feingold said. “That would be a first step, for the law to distinguish between a ‘Not Welcome’ sign and a welcome mat that says ‘All are welcome here.’”