White Men's Law: The Roots of Systemic Racism

Peter Irons

Oxford University Press, 2021

Agent: Sandra Dijkstra

A searing—and sobering—account of the legal and extra-legal means by which systemic white racism has kept Black Americans 'in their place' from slavery to police and vigilante killings of Black men and women, from 1619 to the present.

From the arrival of the first English settlers in America until now-a span of four centuries-a minority of white men have created, managed, and perpetuated their control of every major institution, public and private, in American society. And no group in America has suffered more from the harms imposed by white men's laws than African Americans, with punishment by law often replaced by extra-legal means. Over the centuries, thousands of victims have been murdered by lynching, white mobs, and appalling massacres.

In White Men's Law, the eminent scholar Peter Irons makes a powerful and persuasive case that African Americans have always been held back by systemic racism in all major institutions that can hold power over them. Based on a wide range of sources, from the painful words of former slaves to test scores that reveal how our education system has failed Black children, this searing and sobering account of legal and extra-legal violence against African Americans peels away the fictions and myths expressed by white racists. The centerpiece of Irons' account is a 1935 lynching in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The episode produced a photograph of a blonde white girl of about seven looking at the hanging, bullet-riddled body of Rubin Stacy, who was accused of assaulting a white woman. After analyzing this gruesome murder and the visual evidence left behind, Irons poses a foundational question: What historical forces preceded and followed this lynching to spark resistance to Jim Crow segregation,
especially in schools that had crippled Black children with inferior education? The answers are rooted in the systemic racism-especially in the institutions of law and education—that African Americans, and growing numbers of white allies, are demanding be dismantled in tangible ways.

A thought-provoking look at systemic racism and the legal systems that built it, White Men's Law is an essential contribution to this painful but necessary debate.


"The book Irons' has written is brilliant analysis of just how deep and pervasive our history of racial inequality remains." — William H. Chafe, Journal of Southern History

"Mesmerizing and electrifying. Like all of Peter Irons' prodigious work, White Men's Law is anchored in scrupulous research and painstaking historical perspective. But this new work is achingly poignant. It is the story of our nation told through law and legal struggle Every sentence calls out for truth and justice." —Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD-8), Member, House Judiciary Committee, Lead Impeachment Manager in the second impeachment of Donald Trump

"Over a lifetime of scholarship Peter Irons has repeatedly revealed disturbing realities lurking behind comforting mythologies about the American legal system. He does so again bracingly in White Men's Law, an impassioned intervention keenly attuned to the peril facing American democracy." —Randall Kennedy, Michael R. Klein Professor of Law, Harvard University

"In this work, Peter Irons offers an insightful, comprehensive, illuminating and accessible account of the history of race and racism in our nation from the origins of slavery to the present. White Men's Law brilliantly explores original sources in order to confront the reader with the deeply unsettling realities of racial discrimination and racial hatred throughout American history. This is a work that every person who wants to understand how we got to where we are today should read." —Geoffrey R. Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Professor of Law, The University of Chicago

"Professor Peter Irons has written a stunning book on the history of race in the United States that simultaneously is sobering and inspiring. He shows how deeply embedded white supremacy is in American society and its laws. But he also describes how people have fought back and made a difference. At a time when society is trying to confront racial injustices, this beautifully written book is a must read." —Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor of Law, University of California, Berkeley School of Law

"White Men's Law convincingly documents the origins and persistence of systemic racism and the role of law and lawyers in creating and maintaining that system. It validates the premises of Critical Race Theory and shows the need for teaching, writing, and organizing against white racism." —Richard Delgado, John J. Sparkman Chair of Law, University of Alabama

"Written by a pathbreaking and prolific legal scholar, Peter Irons' White Men's Law is a majestic account of the nexus between race and law in America from the first settlement in 1607 to George Floyd and beyond. White Men's Law is not merely a must read for anyone interested in American history, but perfect for the general reader as well." —Michael Stephen Hindus, Lecturer in History and American Studies, Columbia University

"Among the author's strengths are his skillful use of primary sources, which ground his own commentary in each chapter, and his lucid explanations of the complex dynamics of landmark court cases. The author's expansive view of American legal history makes it possible for Irons to make striking connections between the discriminatory practices of different eras . . . A well-organized, revealing outline of the 'reign of White Men's Law' in America and a forceful call for ongoing reform." Kirkus Reviews