The Atlantic

The Nation’s First Civil-Rights Law Needs to Be Fixed

Section 1981 has been on the books for more than 150 years. But its promise has never been fulfilled.
Source: Brady-Handy photograph collection / Library of Congress / AP

As America reckons with its history of racial injustice, systemic inequalities, and white supremacy, perhaps more profoundly today than at any time since Reconstruction, Congress should take a look at the nation’s oldest federal civil-rights law. That law, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, could easily be made into a much more powerful tool against structural racism.

The key first section of the law (known today as was a watershed in 1866. It legislated, for the first time, that citizenship belongs to persons “of every race and color” and that all citizens “shall have” the “same” right “to make and enforce contracts” and to “the full and equal benefit of all laws ... as is enjoyed by white citizens.” In the words of the , this egalitarian expansion “represented a remarkable innovation”: Up to the point of the law’s enactment, “the concept of ‘whiteness’ existed

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