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Virginia Law Review

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This Essay was first published online at 108 Va. L. Rev. Online 239 (2022).

Facially neutral doctrines create racially disparate outcomes. Increasingly, legal academia and mainstream commentators recognize that this is by design. The rise of this colorblind racism in Supreme Court jurisprudence parallels the rise of the War on Drugs as a political response to the Civil Rights Movement. But, to date, no member of the Supreme Court has acknowledged the reality of this majestic inequality of the law. Instead, the Court itself has been complicit in upholding facially neutral doctrines when confronted with the racial disparities they create. It advances the systemic racism of colorblindness against any race-conscious remedial legislation, while denying marginalized people relief from unequally burdensome systems so long as those systems’ rationale is facially neutral. This obstinate colorblindness has become so pervasive in the framework of criminal jurisprudence that race is no longer merely the elephant in the room—it is the room itself.

This Essay presents the Court’s recent decision in Wooden v. United States as a case study of what the Court could achieve by saying the quiet part out loud and explaining the white supremacist motives underlying presumptively neutral doctrines. The Court can overturn its misguided doctrines without acknowledging their racial and colonial dimensions, but fixing the underlying rot in the system requires the Court to first acknowledge that the rot exists. Otherwise, new “neutral” doctrines and rationales will continue to crop up to take the place of those that were overturned. The decline of lenity and corresponding shifts in fundamental doctrines can only be fully reversed if the Court is willing to embrace the anticolonial and abolitionist consequences.



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