GW Law Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew Interviews First Black ACLU President

Deborah N. Archer spoke about the transformative power of law and the ACLU’s renewed agenda for tackling racial injustice.

Deborah N. Archer, ACLU President
Professor Roger A. Fairfax Jr. offered introductory remarks before GW Law Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew interviewed Deborah N. Archer, who serves as the ACLU’s first Black president.
February 26, 2021

By Tatyana Hopkins

Law and policy have long been the foundation of systemic racism—from slavery to Jim Crow and other more nuanced forms of oppression—said Deborah N. Archer, president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“Legal exclusions have evolved, and they’ve proven to be extraordinarily durable, outliving both chattel slavery and Jim Crow, and continuing today,” she said.

However, Ms. Archer said while the law has been used to perpetuate inequality, it can also be a powerful tool to build a foundation toward equality.

“We as lawyers have to look at the various ways that the law is perpetuating and driving inequality,” she said. “Then, we need to take our legal tools and go over to the next step and tear down that inequality…and then after we’ve done that, we have to use our legal tools as well to build a new structure that is going to lead us to equity and equality.”

Ms. Archer, who serves as the ACLU’s first Black president in the organization’s 101-year history, spoke Wednesday with GW Law Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew, the first woman to lead the law school, as part of a virtual event celebrating Black History Month. Following introductory remarks from Roger A. Fairfax, Jr., GW Law’s Patricia Roberts Harris Research Professor of Law and founding director of the Criminal Law and Policy Initiative, Ms. Archer discussed her vision for the ACLU and the nation.

Noting that the ACLU has worked since its inception in 1920 toward its mission to “defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States,” Ms. Archer announced the nonprofit organization’s renewed vision for fighting racial injustice.

According to Ms. Archer, the organization will launch a systemic equality agenda that will prioritize targeting political and economic inequality as well as address discrimination. To achieve its goals, the comprehensive racial justice agenda calls for campaigns aimed at the Biden-Harris administration and Congress, advocacy, legal challenges to harmful practices and resource allocation.


“When people hear that, and in part because I'm a Black woman helping to lead this incredibly storied organization, they think the ACLU is dropping everything, and they're now just going to do racial justice work because there's a Black woman leading it,” Ms. Archer said.

However, she said, ACLU is not turning away from any of its other core causes such as free speech, immigration and criminal justice reform. Instead, she said the organization’s deepening of its racial justice work is in line with the way it has responded to other inflection points in the nation’s history.

“We deepened our immigrants’ rights work right after the election of Donald Trump and his Muslim ban…our work on privacy and religious freedom after September 11… and we deepened and expanded our voting rights work after Shelby County versus Holder ushered in a tsunami of voter disenfranchisement efforts,” Ms. Archer said. “And the really fundamental failure to recognize the humanity and dignity of Black people has become impossible to ignore this past year, as Black people have endured violence and death at the hands of the state, while we're disproportionately bearing the health, education, economic, financial and community burdens of COVID-19.”

While she said the ACLU would work in various areas in the space of racial equity such as policing and reparations, she noted that the law cannot “work alone.” She pointed to significant movement in racial equity efforts during this past summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

“There had been for years lawyers who were readying litigation who had legislation ready to go, but there were also community activists who were organizing,” Ms. Archer said. “There were writers who were writing about police brutality and telling stories, and there were artists who had movies ready to go all come together in this moment, to push us toward some really significant change.”

She encouraged students and others to use their unique talents and skills to move the fight forward.

“If we're going to finally move forward in our fight for racial justice, there's no sitting it out,” Ms. Archer said.

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