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YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS | How has racism impacted legal rights?

As a legal scholar and amateur historian, I am keenly interested in the role policies in general — and laws in particular — have played in shaping our society.
Attorney David Betras

The ongoing hysteria surrounding critical race theory (CRT) illustrates what can happen when pundits and polemicists distort reality for political gain. 

Fortunately, Bloomberg just published an article that should be required reading for anyone interested in having a rational discussion about the issue. The piece includes a succinct definition of CRT: 

“CRT proposes that any analysis of American society must take into account its history of racism and the role race has played in shaping attitudes and institutions ...  Critical race theory often overlaps with discussions of systemic racism — the ways [that] policies, procedures and institutions work to perpetuate racial inequity even in the absence of personal racial animus.”

As a legal scholar and amateur historian, I am keenly interested in the role policies in general — and laws in particular — have played in shaping our society. It is safe to assume that most Americans know slavery existed. But there are those who downplay its impact on the America of today because it ended when the 13th amendment was ratified 156 years ago followed closely by approval of the 14th and 15th amendments which guaranteed civil and voting rights to persons "born or naturalized in the United States," including former slaves.

Along with ignoring that guaranteeing rights is a far cry from ensuring that people have the ability to exercise them, those who dismiss the ongoing effect of institutional and legally sanctioned racism are willfully blind to the fact that discrimination was legal in the United States from 1877 when the first “Jim Crow” laws were enacted until the Civil and Voting Rights Acts were passed in the mid-1960s. 

The Jim Crow statutes. implemented in the South in the wake of Reconstruction, required the separation of whites and people of color on all forms of public transportation, schools, cemeteries, parks, theaters, hotels, restaurants, prisons, drinking fountains and swimming pools. The Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy v Ferguson, which created the “separate-but-equal” doctrine, ensured that America’s form of apartheid would flourish for 70 more years.

And not just in the South. Redlining and reverse redlining by private parties and the federal government led to housing and other forms of discrimination in the North well into the 1970s.

All of which means there are tens of millions of people in the U.S. today who were alive when “Whites Only” and “Colored” were the law of the land. I know. I am one of them.

That is why I am perplexed by those who choose to deny the impact of racism on our nation or think it is OK to keep kids in the dark about our history. 

Apparently, the critics of CRT do not want those who have long benefited from the fruit of labor provided by others from learning exactly how and by whom that fruit was grown. I happen to believe that unless we all learn and take to heart the valuable lessons provided by our past, these words from the Declaration of Independence will continue to ring hollow for too many of us: 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

—  Attorney David Betras, a senior partner at Betras, Kopp & Harshman LLC., directs the firm’s non-litigation activities and practices criminal defense law in both the state and federal courts. He has practiced law for 35 years. Have a legal question you'd like answered here? Send it to

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