New York Law School

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Unfulfilled Promises: An Analysis of Why the Thirteenth Amendment Has Been Underutilized and What We Can Do About It

Given its extraordinary breadth and ambition, someone who knew nothing about the Thirteenth Amendment beyond its text would expect it to have played a much larger role in this country’s struggle for racial justice than it has. It is baffling that the amendment’s protection against the public and private “badges and incidents” of slavery has had almost no bearing on most of the civil rights movement’s hallmark legal and legislative victories and defeats. Indeed, there is even reason to think that those who actually drafted the Thirteenth Amendment expected their labor to have had a much more profound legacy than it has. While heralding the formal and constitutional end to the institution of slavery is no small feat, the Thirteenth Amendment has been prevented from truly addressing the “badges and incidents” of slavery since very near to its ratification. Still, in light of this nation’s lingering racial caste system and…

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