A Radical, Subaltern Chorus: Saidiya Hartman’s Album of Rebellious Young Black Women

Saidiya Hartman opens her powerful and lyrical Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval with an epigraph from Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen’s Quicksand: “She was, she knew, in a queer indefinite way, a disturbing factor.” As I read Hartman’s brilliant narrative recreation of the voices, words, and intimate lives of “young black women,” at the turn of the twentieth century, as they sought “to create autonomous and beautiful lives, to escape the new forms of servitude awaiting them, and to live as if they were free” (P. xiii), another Harlem Renaissance novel came to mind: Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral (1929). The desire to live free also preoccupies Angela Murray, the young Black woman whose own intimate history and experiments in living are at the center of Plum Bun. While Murray has more economic and family resources and class privilege than the young Black women whose lives Hartman makes palpably and poignantly real to readers, this fictional heroine and these women alike perceive the bar that “the color line” poses—at every turn— to living “as if” free. “Freedom!” is the most frequent “note” in the “melody of living” of which Angela dreams, and she perceives that “[c]olour or rather the lack of it seemed . . . the one absolute prerequisite” to that dream life and to the “difference between freedom and fetters.” (Fauset 13, 137.)

The “fetters” created by the color line’s racial caste system constrain yet fuel the subjects of Hartman’s narrative: young Black women on a quest to rebel and “live free” in the decades between 1890 and 1935, in New York City and Philadelphia. To construct her dazzling portraits of those “wayward” lives, Hartman uses a method of “close narration” by attempting to “inhabit the intimate dimensions” of those lives and place “the voice of narrator and character in inseparable relation.” (Hartman, P. xiii) She draws on “a vast range of archival materials” to “convey the sensory experience of the city and to capture the rich landscape of black social life.” Such archival sources treat these young women as “a problem,” and include “the journals of rent collectors; surveys and monographs of sociologists; trial transcripts; slum photographs; reports of vice investigators, social workers, and parole officers; interviews with psychiatrists and psychologists; and prison case files.” (P. xiv.) Countering that diagnosis, Hartman insists on the beauty of these experiments in trying to live free, arguing that these “young black women in open rebellion” show “utopian longings” and provide “an intimate chronicle of black radicalism;” such radicalism included “free” motherhood, intimate partnerships outside of marriage, and “queer and outlaw passions.” (P. xv.) As the archives reveal, the regulatory apparatus of governmental and quasi-governmental officials labelled and punished these young Black women for their supposed deviance from marital, gender, and sexual norms. Continue reading "A Radical, Subaltern Chorus: Saidiya Hartman’s Album of Rebellious Young Black Women"

Race and Tax: Colorblind No More

Jeremy Bearer-Friend, Should the IRS Know Your Race? The Challenge of Colorblind Tax Data (Nov. 18, 2020), available on SSRN.

The summer of 2020 opened the eyes of many to the concept of systemic racism, and some even started looking in unlikely places – like tax law. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) acknowledged in a June 2020 hearing that “Congress writes the tax laws. If there are ways that our current tax code exacerbates racial inequity, then it’s our job to fix it.”

Senator Brown’s articulated vision will be difficult to achieve because the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) does not collect or publish statistics by race. I confirmed this fact in a telephone interview with an IRS employee when I was writing one of my first pieces about systemic racism and tax policy over two decades ago. I was most interested in the distribution question – whether or not taxpayers were treated differently by race. (The answer is yes — they are treated differently. I write about this in a forthcoming book, The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans—And How We Can Fix It.) But equally important questions were asked and answered by George Washington University Associate Professor of Law Jeremy Bearer-Friend, in his article: Should the IRS Know Your Race? The Challenge of Colorblind Tax Data. Continue reading "Race and Tax: Colorblind No More"

Desegregating Our Perceptions of Police

Monica C. Bell, Anti-Segregation Policing, 95 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 650 (2020).

When I was a public defender in Baltimore, I often observed a chasm between my Black clients’ and neighbors’ experiences with police and White perceptions of policing. Baltimore is infamous for its longstanding racial segregation—spatial, cultural and political. As a result, the everyday realities of policing in Black neighborhoods were largely invisible to White Baltimoreans (including judges, prosecutors and jurors) which fostered a kind of White blindness, sometimes genuine but often willful and disrespectful. That, among other things, permitted egregious forms of police corruption to persist, since accurate Black reports of police misconduct were commonly dismissed as implausible or wildly exaggerated.

I was reminded of this lesson by the wave of horrified White reactions to the video of George Floyd’s murder and to other videos of police aggression against Black people. White blindness made these videos more surprising; Black Americans have been experiencing and reporting discriminatory police violence for decades. It crystallized for me how White blindness to Black experiences is a deep, enabling feature of our segregated criminal system. It also made me wonder, perhaps too hopefully, whether this new, terrible video evidence might be understood as performing a kind of informational anti-segregation work in criminal justice culture and politics. Monica Bell’s insightful article Anti-Segregation Policing is the starting point for anyone interested in such questions. Continue reading "Desegregating Our Perceptions of Police"

Corporate Law in Paradise

William Moon, Delaware’s New Competition, 114 Nw. U. L.R. 1403 (2020).

William Moon’s thought-provoking recent paper, Delaware’s New Competition, examines whether there exists an international market for corporate law. Moon’s paper captures a trend in which certain offshore jurisdictions are emerging as corporate lawmakers and attracting publicly traded firms. Specifically, the paper analyzes how a small group of island nations, or “havens”, are developing legal infrastructures that attract public companies. It explores how and why foreign nations might compete for a market share of “American” corporations.

Paper’s Central Findings

Moon’s paper moves beyond the domestic charter competition narrative centered on Delaware to explore its international and comparative dimensions. The popular view of offshore incorporation is that it is largely driven by tax considerations. (Pp. 1417–18.) Moon considers another aspect of the jurisdictional product bundle: corporate law. Continue reading "Corporate Law in Paradise"

Patent Fake News

Janet Freilich, Ignoring Information Quality, __ Fordham L.R. __ (forthcoming 2021), available at SSRN.

Complaints about the patent system are legion. Critics complain that it is too easy to get a patent, that it is too easy to challenge an existing patent, that many patent denials are rationally inexplicable, that aggressive enforcement of patents stifles innovation, that patent trolls abuse the system to extort money from innocent users of widespread technology, and that inventors leverage modest modifications of existing patents to extend the patent period beyond intended legislative limits. While Janet Freilich’s forthcoming article, Ignoring Information Quality, may not reveal the root of all patent evil, it illuminates an important problem in the U.S. patent system, namely that patent examiners rely on low quality information to make their ever-important decisions on patentability. This, according to Professor Freilich, leads examiners to grant patents based on dubious claims that undercut, rather than further, patent law’s purpose of encouraging useful innovation and to reject deserving patents based on an incorrect understanding of background information.

The attentive reader may wonder why this is an administrative law jot rather than an intellectual property one. The answer is simple—the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), the agency that grants patents, is an administrative agency, and thus Professor Freilich’s article is a case study in the importance of high quality information across the spectrum of administrative law. Information quality problems like those that plague the patent system exist in many corners of administrative law where sensible policy decisions and predictions are possible only in light of high quality information. Professor Freilich’s paper shines a light on a problem in the patent system that is similar to problems that have been noticed in administrative rulemaking, where mountains of comments may overwhelm the capacity of agencies to separate the wheat from the chaff and in adjudications where subjects of administrative action in areas such as immigration enforcement may lack the capacity or knowledge to gather and present the facts relevant to their cases. Continue reading "Patent Fake News"

Arrested Development: The Decline of Legality in Consumer Contract Law

Samuel Issacharoff & Florencia Marotta-Wurgler, The Hollowed Out Common Law, 67 UCLA L. Rev. 600 (2020).

First year teachers of common law subjects describe the common law system with a little bit of romanticism. Through the aggregation of many court opinions, and through learning from variant approaches in different states’ jurisdictions, a process of reflective equilibrium finds legal rules that make sense as applied to diverse fact patterns and that reflect ongoing changes in technology and social mores. The status of each state’s supreme court as the final arbiter of questions of common law features keenly in Louis Brandeis’s oft-quoted characterization of the states as “laboratories of democracy.”1 Writing with Samuel Warren, Louis Brandeis famously declared that “the common law, in its eternal youth, grows to meet the new demands of society.”2

As Samuel Issacharoff and Florencia Marotta-Wurgler’s important new paper The Hollowed Out Common Law shows, changes in procedure and surrounding law have caused the common law of contracts not to function as it has in the past. Specifically, they argue that there has been a dearth of doctrinal elaboration and robustness in the burgeoning domain of online contracting over the past three decades. They document several shifts in law and legal practice that has led to the decline in number and refinement of analysis in these consumer contracting cases. As Brandeis’s comments show, the pressure on common law judges to develop doctrine comes from contrasting apex state supreme court opinions, and the consideration of a variety of novel fact patterns by all courts. Yet Issacharoff and Marotta-Wurgler’s study shows two shifts against the creation of a robust common law of contracts (1) state supreme courts are no longer the dominant voice in consumer contract law and (2) a depressed number of consumer contract cases are decided on their merits before any court. I will address their contributions on each of these points in turn. Continue reading "Arrested Development: The Decline of Legality in Consumer Contract Law"

What Does a Textualist Look Like?

Thomas O. Main, Jeffrey W. Stempel, & David McClure, The Elastics of Snap Removal: An Empirical Case Study of Textualism (Aug. 17, 2020), available on SSRN.

Who are the most textualists federal judges (at least in the context of “snap removal”)? Thomas Main, Jeffrey Stempel, and David McClure conclude that they are younger, Republican-appointed, white, female judges who attended elite universities. This conclusion is but one of many important insights their empirical work offers to the continuing snap-jurisdiction debate.

For the uninitiated, snap removal is a proper (or improper) exercise of federal removal jurisdiction, depending upon your approach to statutory interpretation. The primary federal removal statute allows a state-court defendant to remove a case to federal court when it otherwise could be brought in diversity jurisdiction. One exception to this scheme, the forum-defendant rule, bars removal “if any of the parties in interest properly joined and served as defendants is a citizen of the State in which such action is brought.” Because the statute requires the forum defendant to be both joined and served, in many states there is a window of time in which the forum defendant is joined but not yet served, during which the non-forum defendants may attempt removal. That is to say, these non-forum defendants may be able to remove if they do it as quick as a snap. Continue reading "What Does a Textualist Look Like?"

Smart Thinking about Police Unions and Labor Law

Much has been written and said about police unions lately, most of it justifiably impassioned but not all of it well-informed by public-sector labor law rules and practices. This article is both. And while the question of the effect of police unions on police reform has been a hot topic in 2020, it is worth noting that Professor Hardaway identified this as a significant issue before it was as much in the limelight as it is now.

The article begins by recounting a series of tragic killings by police and calls for reform via the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The article then carefully describes a long history of racism in policing. Moving to modern times, the article catalogues the inadequacies of private litigation in achieving police reform. Continue reading "Smart Thinking about Police Unions and Labor Law"

Performers and Portrayers

In 1956, sociologist Erving Goffman wrote his now-classic text, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Consciously or not, Goffman posited, people are invariably actors, their lives spent staging and arranging a string of performances across time and space. Were A and B to meet for a walk, their social interaction would comprise complex impression management techniques with each simultaneously actor, and audience, to the other.

Goffman’s contributions were neither startling then nor dated now. “All the world [was already] a stage” to a 17th century playwright, and as Rush admonished in the late 20th century – Limelight; Moving Pictures (1981) – “we are merely players, performers and portrayers.” Rush continued, casting the limelight as “the universal dream for those who wish to seem,” by contrast to its incompatibility to a life of authenticity, where seeming – and being – are merged. Goffman might have questioned whether such a life were even possible. But it is likely that none of them – not Shakespeare, nor Goffman, nor even Geddy Lee or Neil Peart – could have known the prescience of their observations as applied to the social media platforms on which so many live today. Shelly Kreiczer-Levy and Ronit Donyets-Kedar do, and through Better Left Forgotten: An Argument Against Treating Some Social Media and Digital Assets as Inheritance in an Era of Platform Power, they invite us to think longer and harder (or at least, differently) about what it means to propertize online presentations of self through inheritance. Continue reading "Performers and Portrayers"

Three Deft Kicks to the Problem of Cyberbullying

Ronen Perry, Civil Liability for Cyberbullying, 10 U.C. Irvine L. Rev. 1219 (2020).

Torts-minded readers with an under-18 person or two they care about in their lives will appreciate Civil Liability for Cyberbullying (“Cyberbullying”), published in June by the Israeli private law scholar Ronen Perry. They will find ample theory, doctrine, erudition, and intellectual loft too, but this paper is peopled. In both his article and a blog post he wrote about it Perry leads by remembering a person: Megan Meier, who at age 13 heeded a suggestion posted on MySpace in 2006 that she kill herself.

From this opening Perry moves to spend most of his time on three groups whom the law could hold responsible for the harms of cyberbullying. First are young peer offenders. (P. 1226.) Next come what Perry calls “real-life supervisors” (P. 1235): parents, teachers, school administrators. Last are “virtual supervisors, namely platforms that enable juvenile cyber-activity and cyber-wrongdoing,” for example Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. (P. 1245.) Perry has tort liability plans for all these groups. His exposition contains many virtues, of which I will mention three. Continue reading "Three Deft Kicks to the Problem of Cyberbullying"

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