Abolishing Racist Policing With the Thirteenth Amendment

This Essay was also published in the UCLA Law Review’s online publication, Discourse.


Policing in America has always been about controlling the Black body. Indeed, modern policing was birthed and nurtured by white supremacy; its roots are found in slavery. Policing today continues to protect and serve the racial hierarchy blessed by the Constitution itself. But a string of U.S. Supreme Court rulings involving the Thirteenth Amendment offers Congress a tool with which to target institutions that have preserved social, political, and official norms associated with slavery. In those cases, the Supreme Court held that Congress has broad enforcement authority under the Thirteenth Amendment to eliminate such “badges and incidents” of slavery. It is time to call modern policing what it is: a badge and incident of slavery that Congress should abolish under the Thirteenth Amendment. This is important for two principal reasons. First, there is power in naming the institution of policing as such. We must advance truth and reconciliation around race in America to facilitate  healing, which requires us to address systemic and institutional failures, rather than merely the acts of individuals. Second, the Thirteenth Amendment empowers Congress to take bold action to transform policing and promote racial justice. To that end, this Essay describes how modern policing perpetuates structures of slavery within the context of badges and incidents of slavery. It explores Congress’s powers under the Thirteenth Amendment and proposes several legislative measures Congress should enact to effectively abolish the current institution of policing while reimagining public safety.

About the Author

Assistant Professor of Law, Washington and Lee University School of Law.