Enslaved by Words: Legalities & Limitations of 'Post-Racial' Language

49 Pages Posted: 23 May 2012 Last revised: 28 Feb 2014

See all articles by SpearIt


University of Pittsburgh - School of Law

Date Written: May 26, 2012


This Article examines racial language in the law to show how discrimination is perpetuated in politically correct speech. It argues that names and labels authorized by law maintain racist trappings that fueled the projects of colonialism and slavery; it also puts to rest the notion of “post racial” since such a state is impossible due to the systemic nature of prejudice, where racism is structural. Indeed, laws and legal institutions have a profound influence on the way Americans conceive and speak of one another, and at minimum, may be seen as providing society with a legal base of racial vocabulary. Although the law is not the originator of terminology that supports structural distinction, legitimating of these terms helps lay cornerstones for the foundation. This analysis draws on federal and state constitutions and statutes and the U.S. Census to determine why words like “Indian,” “colored” and other seemingly innocuous terms like “black” and “white” are inherently oppressive. Despite their politically correct appeal, these terms create false binaries, reinforce racial hierarchies like the “one drop rule,” or somehow denigrate their referent. Although the census ritual has been going on for centuries, determining the principles that guide their system is a daunting task. The logic is puzzling, yet the negative effects of language are clear; racial language is never “only words,” but conceptual building blocks that support racial projects of the present.

Keywords: Race, Language, Structural Racism, Naming, Taxonomy

Suggested Citation

SpearIt, Enslaved by Words: Legalities & Limitations of 'Post-Racial' Language (May 26, 2012). 2011 Michigan State Law Review 705, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2064055

SpearIt (Contact Author)

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law ( email )

3900 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
United States

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