2021 ACS National Convention Opening Remarks

Russ Feingold, ACS President:

Welcome to the American Constitution Society’s 2021 National Convention. Thank you for joining us for what we hope will be our last “virtual” convention.

Before we launch into our programming, Zinelle October, our executive vice president, and I want to take this opportunity to introduce a new initiative that ACS is undertaking.

ACS is celebrating its 20th anniversary. We’ve dedicated this year to focusing on the law and race, including the founding failures of our Constitution. We’ve used ACS’s anniversary to kickstart this work, but today we are announcing a much longer-term commitment.

We’ve seen a mix of policies and commitments issued by the federal government, states, and corporations over the past year with the stated goal of addressing racial oppression, but we need a much more concerted reckoning with our country’s history and more coordinated and transformative change if we are to dismantle white supremacy.

This work is part of a broad, global reckoning with the history of slavery and colonialism. France, for instance, is taking steps to more intentionally address its history of colonialism in Algeria. Germany is acknowledging for the first time its history of genocide in Namibia.

Any country that is committed to democratic values and principles must reckon with its history, particularly countries with a history of slavery and colonialism. As the democracy with the first written constitution, it is imperative that we acknowledge and address the founding failures of that document and of our country.

We are starting to see concerted efforts to tell the truth about and reckon with our country’s history, including the recent focus on the Tulsa Race Massacre. This truth telling is a prerequisite for identifying the policies and structures that need to be changed to ensure that history does not repeat. In the United States in particular, this work must include a concerted reckoning with our laws and legal system.

Racial inequality is rooted in the legal infrastructure of this country, from the drafting of our first laws to the very design of our government. To fully answer the movement for racial justice requires a mechanism and framework that can drive comprehensive transformation of our legal systems and institutions.

In this pursuit, Zinelle and I are honored to announce the American Constitution Society’s support for a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commission in the United States.

The ideas for truth, racial healing, and transformation do not belong to ACS.

  • We are following the leadership of Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Senator Cory Booker in calling for such a Commission, and
  • leaders like Dr. Gail Christopher and Dr. Paul Zeitz, who helped give rise to the truth, racial healing, and transformation movement, and
  • to the many activists, organizers, and people of color who have relentlessly called upon this country to recognize and undertake the seismic changes needed to chart a just and equitable future for all.
  • ACS will also lift up the work being done around reparations, including with the leadership of Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.

Our goal for ACS is to support the initiatives and leadership of these individuals and organizations who have been advancing truth, racial healing, and transformation for years.

It is important for the legal community to be active participants in this work. Across the globe, legal experts, and particularly progressive legal organizations, have played critical roles in truth and reconciliation commissions, recognizing how intertwined they are with the law.

ACS will focus specifically on how our laws and legal systems have been used to sustain and legitimize racial oppression and on supporting transformative legal change.

As Congressman Hank Johnson told me, we must “extract slavery from the soil” of this country, and this means dismantling the legal infrastructure born out of slavery and the subsequent attempts to reinvent it through Jim Crow, red lining, voter suppression, the tax code, labor laws, and the litany of other areas where laws were enacted to sustain racial hierarchy.

Our existing apparatuses are not sufficient for the task at hand. We cannot litigate away white supremacy or rely on institutions that themselves are intended to sustain it, including the Supreme Court.

We need a national commission, with the independence, time, and resources necessary, to fully catalogue the web of laws that must be transformed if we are to dismantle the legal infrastructure of white supremacy.

Similarly, unlike a court or Congress, a commission can and must be designed to maximize meaningful and authentic participation from the communities who have suffered the greatest harms. This includes centering their experiences in reimagining the law in this country.

While we are calling for a Commission, our work need not wait until one is established, nor will this work be complete when a Commission concludes. Truth, racial healing, and transformation must be ongoing, as the size of the challenges we are grappling with defy any “one and done” initiative.

ACS’s work on this front has already started with our analysis of the “founding failures” of the Constitution, but we are looking to do much more. To discuss this, I’m honored to turn to our Executive Vice President Zinelle October.

Zinelle October, ACS Executive Vice President:

Thank you, Russ. And welcome everyone to our 2021 National Convention.

As Professor Ruqaiijah Yearby said at one of our recent events on the founding failures of our Constitution, “racism harms us all, we need to work together to work past it. It’s not just about the laws and policies, it’s about truth and reconciliation. It’s about repairing the trauma from it, and moving forward together for a better society. We have seen through COVID and environmental harms that we all are going to be harmed if we don’t act.”

This work – truth, racial healing, and transformation - involves all of us. We want to invite our student and lawyer chapters, and all ACS members to join in reckoning with our laws and institutions, and in reimagining a legal system that is grounded in racial equality and justice.

Our Constitution was not written for people of color, and it has rarely been interpreted otherwise. The Supreme Court has always been majority white and majority male. For the longest time, it was uniformly both, influencing binding precedents upon this country.

Similarly, the vast majority of our laws were drafted without the input of people of color or with their equality as a goal. This remains true with voter suppression continuing to undermine the voices and political influence of people of color.

The racial wealth gap today is built upon decades of housing, labor, and tax laws designed to deny wealth to people of color, from redlining neighborhoods to tax laws that disproportionately penalize Black marriage.

Redlining, housing segregation, and other zoning laws have contributed to environmental racism and the disproportionate impact of climate change, pollution, and industrial waste on communities of color. This carries over to health care and health outcome inequalities, which were exacerbated by the pandemic.

The original entries in our criminal code were laws meticulously crafted to ensnare people of color, replacing the chains of slavery with prison bars. Supreme Court precedent has contributed to police violence by empowering and protecting law enforcement in conducting traffic stops and carrying out the so-called War on Drugs.
As a country, we must develop a full and accurate historical record of these laws and legal systems that need to be dismantled, rewritten, and reimagined to achieve racial equity and prosperity in this country.

This work involves all of us because the impact of unfair laws and institutions harms all of us. The progressive legal community has an opportunity to help drive this work.

This includes at the state and local levels. There are already a number of local initiatives underway across the country, reckoning with state and local laws and histories. To our ACS chapters, we will be looking to you to bring the progressive legal community to the table where it isn’t there already.

Moving forward, ACS will be publishing scholarship, engaging with partners, and hosting conversations like the one we’ll hear in a moment. We are encouraging our network of lawyers, judges, legislators, scholars, and advocates across the country to participate. We are committed to this work over the long term and look forward to working with all of you to help achieve it.
I want to thank our sponsors without whom this virtual convention would not be possible, our board for their tremendous leadership over this past year, our chapter leaders across the country who represent the best of ACS on the ground, and our staff who have been working tirelessly to organize such compelling panels and networking opportunities.

We are excited for the week of programming ahead of us. I hope you will join us for the important conversations we’ve planned, such as how we can defend our democracy against increasing concentrations of wealth and power, and how we should respond to a judiciary stacked by the last administration with judges hostile to our view of the law.

Since Russ and I visited the border in McAllen, TX, recently, we’re particularly excited to hear from DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. We also are very much look forward to hearing from Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, among other fantastic speakers. And don’t miss our Members of Color Mixer and Speed Networking!

I am now pleased to pass the “mic” to my colleague, Lindsay Langholz, a Director of Policy & Program at ACS, who will get us started by introducing our first panel.