Friday, November 23, 2012
Prof. Juan Perea (Loyola Chicago and visiting Lee Chair at John Marshall) argues in his excellent piece Race and Constitutional Law Casebooks: Recognizing the Proslavery Constitution that con law profs, unlike historians, do a bad job with slavery. In particular, he says that law profs do a bad job even recognizing the pro-slavery origins of our Constitution, much less teaching them. He says that this neglect and dishonesty about so central a part of our Constitution prevents us all from critically examining how the pro-slavery nature of our Constitution influences contemporary doctrine and debates. And, importantly, he tells us what we can do about it.
Perea's piece, published in the Michigan Law Review, starts as a book review of George William Van Cleve's A Slaveholders' Union: Slavery, Politics, and the Constitution in the Early American Republic. But Perea moves quickly into an examination of how--or even whether--contemporary constitutional law instruction addresses anything at all about slavery--the issue that Van Cleve shows played a defining role in our constitutional beginnings. Perea surveys some of the top casebooks and concludes that they barely touch the issue. Even when they do, they pay only scant attention to it, apparently assuming either that it wasn't really that important to the framing and ratification, or that that the Reconstruction Amendments solved the problem. This lack of attention to so critical an issue is particularly vexing in a field that otherwise takes history and tradition so seriously.
Perea argues that the pro-slavery Constitution is reflected in structural racism, Court-crafted doctrine (perhaps most especially the Court's demand for proof of intent to show an equal protection violation, although there are dozens of doctrinal examples), the intentional use of race-neutral language in the law to produce a racially targeted harm, and the consistent sacrifice of black equality rights for the sake of political union. We may teach these things, and we may even teach them critically. But we mostly don't teach them as what they are: outgrowths of a pro-slavery foundational document.
Perea has some ideas about what to do about this. In short: say more. Casebooks should devote more attention to the pro-slavery Constitution, and to tie it to contemporary doctrine. Teachers should say more--much more--about it and teach it as part of our history, tradition, and doctrine. Until the casebooks catch up, Perea offers some suggestions and resources for integrating slavery into their classes.
The easiest way may just be this: Assign our students Perea's article.