From studying Reconstruction to pursuing racial justice

Ryan ShafferPhoto/Mike Lovett

Ryan Shaffer '21.

Ryan Shaffer '21 was doing some light research on the Supreme Court during the Reconstruction Era for an American history class taught by assistant professor Abigail Cooper his sophomore year when the wheels of inspiration started turning.

"It was just quick research for this five-minute discussion in class," Shaffer recalled. "But I could see how relevant this era of the court still is today and it stuck with me. Coming into Brandeis, I knew I was interested in legal history. This was the moment when I started to hone my focus."

This year, Shaffer was awarded the Doris Brewer Cohen Prize in Justice and Public Life for the best thesis in the social sciences at Brandeis, a culmination of more than 15 months of research and collaboration.

His 116-page thesis, “The Chase and Waite Courts: Hindering the Reconstruction Promise of Racial Equality," focuses on the current legal reverberations of the pivotal years after the American Civil War when the Supreme Court hindered legislators’ ability to expand protections for African Americans and reduced the influence of the newly passed Reconstruction amendments. 

Shaffer and Cooper, his thesis adviser, met weekly to discuss his research, what he was learning, and whom to talk to on campus to develop a deeper understanding of his subject. Cooper, a social historian who specializes in slavery, emancipation, the Civil War and Reconstruction, was the perfect partner.

"What is really beneficial about the thesis process is the ability to work so closely with a faculty member who not only knows so much but understands the interests that you have and gives you really good guidance and direction about where you need to be looking," Shaffer said. "When you get the right faculty member, it is beneficial for your research, your writing and your cognitive thinking in general. I have no doubt that I've left the process a much better researcher and a much better writer than I was coming into it."

Shaffer, who triple-majored in history, economics and philosophy at Brandeis, is looking forward to his next step — law school at New York University. He chose NYU over other top law schools because of its commitment to anti-racism and racial justice. He is looking forward to pursuing a career in public interest law, particularly working in impact litigation for racial minority and low-income populations.

"The whole thesis process reaffirmed my belief that through the entire conception of American history, there's been intense judicial opposition towards radical racial equality and a redefining of racial hierarchies, and it's shown even through the most transformative period in American racial history," Shaffer said. "Once I had that lens in mind, it was just really clear cut that NYU, with its day-in, day-out commitment to racial justice and anti-racism, was without a doubt the best place that I could be."

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