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Constitutional Law | Law and Race | Legal History


The United States shares a number of basic traits with various British settler societies in the nonwhite world. These include longstanding histories in which colonists and their descendants divided legal, political, and economic rights between insiders and subordinated outsiders, be they expropriated indigenous groups or racial minorities. But Americans rarely think of themselves as part of an imperial family of settler polities and instead generally conceive of the country as quintessentially anti-imperial and inclusive. What explains this fact and what are its political consequences?

This Article offers an initial response, arguing that a significant reason is the symbolic power of the American Federal Constitution in sustaining a particular narrative of the country as free and equal from the founding. Although this creedal narrative has played a powerful and productive role in creating a more inclusive national community, it has also, paradoxically, made it more difficult for Americans to appreciate the country’s colonial underpinnings, and thus to address specific structural grievances. In developing these claims, this Article first explores how universalistic accounts of national identity and constitutional meaning began to take political hold with the country’s emergence onto the global stage following the Spanish-American War. It then analyzes the unacknowledged contemporary costs of creedal narratives by recovering a tradition of radical black critique, which viewed the dominant national identity as truncating dilemmas of race in part by de-emphasizing the need for material restitution and symbolic rupture.