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On Charlottesville

by Dayna Bowen Matthew
105 Va. L. Rev. 269 (2019)
Article

This year marked the first anniversary of the white supremacist rally that terrorized Charlottesville, Virginia, and the 150th anniversary of the vote to ratify the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The confluence of these two commemorations offers an opportunity to draw lessons from the national resurgence of racism and nationalism that has erupted in Charlottesville and throughout the country, in light of the 14th Amendment’s still unfulfilled promise of equality. Section 1 of the 14th Amendment forbids any State to “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” in America. Known as the “Reconstruction Amendment,” it granted citizenship to enslaved Americans and “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States.” It further forbid states from lawfully discriminating against “any person within its jurisdiction.” Yet, by 1883, the United States Supreme Court had reversed congressional efforts to ensure that states would uphold equal rights for African Americans, and instead acquiesced to the segregationist interpretation that argued that constitutional equality did not mean social equality. In The Civil Rights Cases, the Supreme Court interpreted the 14th Amendment to allow racial segregation and discrimination by private actors. Then in 1896, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of state laws that enforced racial segregation in public spaces, by declaring the Constitution of the United States powerless to put the “inferior” colored race on the same social plane as the white race. Thus, the Supreme Court gave legal grounding to gross inequities of the Jim Crow era and restored constitutional protection to the dehumanization of blacks. Indeed, the conviction that blacks are less than or a lesser form of human is the animating assumption that underlies and unites explicitly and implicitly racist American laws. Specifically, dehumanization undergirds explicit and implicit segregation. 

Using Charlottesville as a case study, this Article explores the theory, mechanisms, and impact of legally constructed residential segregation—the crown jewel of systemic dehumanization, both historically and contemporarily—that isolates black and white Americans from one another, withholding from the former the rights, resources, and relationships that make equality possible in America, notwithstanding the plain language and intent of the 14th Amendment. By way of introduction, the Article begins with a summary of terminology important to the theory and argument presented here. None of these terms are new to the equality discourse, but they have reappeared amid the chaos and resurgence of racism that Charlottesville now epitomizes. Therefore, rather than trust the variety of meanings that may have emerged, I will first define the terms dehumanization, white supremacy, white nationalism, racism, segregation, and racial bias before setting forth the substance of my case against current misinterpretations of the 14th Amendment.

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