It is not necessary for Eagles to be Crows. We are poor… but we are free.

-Sitting Bull, Hunkpapa Lakota

In a land where the eagle is a symbol of freedom, the crow parallels as the symbol of oppression. The law is all too often seen as a universal moral criteria. However, the vast diversity of society means that law cannot encompass a representation of ubiquitous equality. The American legal system has continually succeeded in systematically instilling racial bias and making “equal justice” an unattainable concept. Segregation and the Jim Crow Laws implementing legal discriminatory actions in the southern US came to an end in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Alexander 2012: 38). However, underlying racist attitudes still plague the legal and justice system today. African Americans in the United States of America continue to struggle against a legal system that has historically been used to formalise inequality and continually disregards their legal disadvantages.

The United States of America has used and continues to use the law as a means to create a foundation of systematic discrimination that disadvantages African Americans. First through slavery and then a struggle of informal and formal inequality through Jim Crow laws and segregation (Banks; 2013; 66). The practice of slavery in America was dominant through the 17th and 18th centuries (; 2009). From its conception, the practice of slavery diminished the existence of the African American person by labelling them the property of their ‘masters’ (Banks; 2013; 66). Not only did this undermine their humanity but also took aways their rights as legal persons and could not be protected by the law. This would not be changed until the bloody four year long Civil War from 1861-65 (; 2009).

The American Civil War ended with a victory for formal equality, and in late 1965 the 13th Amendment would be adopted officially abolishing slavery. The years to come would bring more formal equality for the former slaves as they received the rights of citizenship and the “equal protection” of the Constitution in the 14th Amendment and the right to vote in the 15th, but the provisions of Constitution were often ignored or violated (; 2009). This would only be the beginning of unequal treatment of African Americans under the law as legal persons.

Despite these “legal statements of freedom” (Banks; 2013; 66) the newly freed slaves remained subject to the patterns of discrimination condoned by slavery. Though they had been freed as slaves they faced a new kind of oppression; Jim Crow. Banks details, that these laws were able to maintain the model of racial prejudice created by slavery “in legal, social and economic forums” (2013; 66). This included the denial of African Americans to work, attend school and vote. Additionally, the doctrine of “separate but equal” (Banks; 2013; 66) was applied to keep the races separate. This practice would soon be commonly known as segregation.

While Jim Crow laws successfully enforced formal inequality under the law, great evidence of informal inequality under the law was also evident. Banks argues that within fifty years more than 3 000 African Americans were victims of violent murders, commonly known as lynching, however those responsible for the crimes were seldom convicted (2013; 66). As a result of nearly two centuries of racist ideology dominating the justice system, all too often courts would rule against African American plaintiff. These actions would go on to set a precedent for how African American cases would be treated for the years to come.

Evidently, the history of the unequal treatment of African American’s before the law is both long and increasingly devious in its legal constructions. To argue that the historic oppression of African American’s is no longer relevant in the modern day would be ignorant.  It is important to realise that the very foundations of the law has always undermined the rights of African Americans and the effects of this history remain evident not only in the justice and legal systems but in society.



Alexander, M., & er, C. W. (2012). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press, The.

Banks, C. (2013) Criminal Justice Ethics: Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications. (2009). Slavery in America – Black History. Retrieved from