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Stephen L. Carter Examines Effects of Law on Race

By William L. Wang, Contributing Writer

Yale Law professor Stephen L. Carter examined on Wednesday the invisible consequences of law on African-Americans in the second of three lectures of the W.E.B. DuBois Lecture Series on “Blackness and the Legal Imagination.”

Carter discussed the intent versus the impact of laws, using voter identification laws as one example. He noted that even though voter disenfranchisement is often associated with the South, states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut have some of the largest discrepancies between white and black voter turnouts.

“There is missed opportunity in part because of the inability of a lot of people to see racism at home, in their own states,” Carter said.

Carter challenged the audience to try a complex word problem from a Louisiana literacy test designed to stop African Americans from voting. He then focused on cases, such as hiring practices, where the effect of race becomes far less clear.

“The problem is that regardless of one’s occupation, there is often an assumption about the implicit role of blackness and we rarely test to see if the assumption is wrong,” he said. “My point is not that anything that affects blacks negatively shouldn’t be allowed, but rather we should recognize and articulate when that is so.”

Carter argued that more conversations about race are needed in policymaking.

“We are often missing serious conversations about the effects of law,” Carter said. “I would like to see more conversations about these things and people recognizing the salience of race beyond those topics we code as racial.”

Hilda M. Jordan '19 said she gained new insights on how all laws can have unseen consequences.

“I walked away thinking about all the effects of law and the moral responsibilities of lawmakers when thinking about policy,” she said.

Introductory remarks were delivered by the Harvard Law professor Mark V. Tushnet ’67, who worked alongside Carter as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Adding a personal touch, Tushnet also stated that his own daughter was inspired to pursue law after taking a course taught by Carter.

Created in 1981 with funding from the Ford Foundation, the W.E.B. DuBois Lecture Series recognizes individuals “who have contributed to a better understanding of African American life, history, and culture.” Past honorees include Condolezza Rice, Michael Eric Dyson, and Cornel West.

The third and last lecture of the series, titled “The Visible Future,” will be held Thursday afternoon at the Barker Center.

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