Blog

3 Resources for Understanding Race & Our American Legal System

Dr. Gerardo Marti – July 6, 2021

In this series, Race, Religion, Politics – What We’re Not Supposed to Talk About, Dr. Marti shares scholarly resources that are helping to expand his understanding.

Recently, I began to think much more about the relationship of race and our American legal system. Given that most of us grow up thinking of “the law” as objective and neutral, it can be shocking to discover how the legal system has been used to justify racialized presumptions. I learned to readjust my own thinking. 

Once I began to understand that our American law has a history that developed over time, and that the developments of our legal systems are entwined with structures of oppression, I quickly discovered that all of this was not news to legal scholars themselves. A host of writings have explored the history of race and law. It just meant I had to take time to find the books most accessible to me and read them for myself.

Here are three books that provide introductory, yet fairly comprehensive, history of the relationship between race and law in the United States. Although none of them are short, nor are they light reading, they are clearly written and cover much of the most important aspects of the racialization of our legal systems, dating from before the founding of the United States to our present moment. One book is from the recent past, another just published, and a third will be published soon.

1. CLASSIC

The American Indian in Western Legal Thought The Discourses of Conquest Robert A. Williams, Jr., Oxford University Press

In this classic book published in 1990, Robert A. Williams (E. Thomas Sullivan Professor of Law at the University of Arizona) provides a sweeping foundational understanding of the legal discourses that “legalized” the enslavement of people and takeover of land in America. The book is well worth a careful read.

2. JUST PUBLISHED

Justice Deferred – Race and the Supreme Court
Orville Vernon Burton & Armand Derfner, Harvard University Press

This newly published book by Orville Vernon Burton (Judge Matthew J. Perry Jr. Distinguished Professor of History at Clemson University) and Armand Derfner (a longtime civil rights lawyer) is the first book that comprehensively covers the Supreme Court’s race jurisprudence, from the colonial era to the present day. This thick book gives us an excellent assessment of the court’s mixed record on civil rights.

3. COMING SOON

White Men’s Law – The Roots of Systemic Racism Peter Irons, Oxford University Press

Eagerly awaited, this soon-to-be-released book by Peter Irons (Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of California, San Diego) promises to be a creative and thought-provoking examination of systemic racism and the legal systems that built it. It uses a variety of new sources, with the ambition of better grasping American racial violence and persistent segregation.


Gerardo Martí, PhD, one of Brownicity’s advisors, is Professor of Sociology at Davidson College. Recognized for his outstanding scholarship, Dr. Martí is now President-Elect of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. His most recent book is American Blindspot: Race, Class, Religion, and the Trump Presidency (2020). Follow Dr. Gerardo Marti on twitter and find more of his work here.

Join our Learning Community to access Dr. Marti’s seminars American Blindspot Book Talk and American Legacies of Oppression.