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Stephen L. Carter Argues Slavery’s Effects on the Law

By Alice Cheng, Contributing Writer

Yale Law School Professor Stephen L. Carter argued the relevance of slavery in the United States by addressing its impact on the law in the first installment of his W.E.B. Du Bois Lecture Series on Tuesday.

The lecture was the first of a three part installment called “Blackness and the Legal Imagination” hosted by the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

In his speech, titled “Thinking Property,” Carter explored the notion that slaves could simultaneously be treated as both property and as human beings—a paradox that Carter said is difficult to resolve.

According to Carter, laws regarding slavery were often decided arbitrarily, and slaves were left without many legal rights. In early common law, slaves largely lacked “legal personality,” which Carter defined as the ability to form contracts, own property, and act autonomously.

Carter said racial advocates often face criticism for continuing to argue the relevance of slavery during the discussion of contemporary race relations. However, according to Carter, the legacy of slavery has shaped the American political, social, and legal landscapes in significant ways.

“A lot of the things we see in the news today, a lot of the things that characterize an American...are things that have their origins not too much [with] slavery but rather in attitudes that developed in politics, and particularly in law, over a very long period beginning with the enforced arrival of enslaved Africans,” he said.

In her introduction of Carter, Harvard Law School Dean Martha L. Minow recalled her memories attending Yale Law School with Carter, after which the two would both go on to clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Minow compared Carter’s reflections on his experiences with affirmative action to Du Bois’s double consciousness of the Negro and American identities.

Many who attended the lecture felt Carter’s message was particularly relevant.

“As Professor Carter today mentioned, history repeats itself,” said Anthea Meng, a visiting fellow of the African and African-American Studies department. “Some of the problems still remain today, so I think there’s this kind of academic turn of interpreting history.”

Carter will continue the W.E.B. Du Bois series with his second lecture “The Invisible Race” on Wednesday and his third “The Visible Future” on Thursday in the Barker Center.

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