110: David Delaney’s Race, Place and the Law

In Race, Place, and the Law, 1836-1948, David Delaney shows how race, place, and the law are both socially constructed and mutually constitutive.  Working primarily from the legal history of racialized landscapes in the United States, he argues that law was critical to the shaping of these landscapes because it considered itself abstract but was intimately involved in constructing geographies of power.  Lawyers and judges ratified property lines and interpreted and upheld boundaries.  Thankfully, as he shows, the same supposed abstraction that gave the law authority to create racialized landscapes also gave it the power to destroy them.  Delaney thus complicates the role of the US legal system in the construction of racialized landscapes of power that affected (and still affect) all Americans.

Delaney argues that racism from 1836-1948 was spatialized, or enacted on and through the landscape, and supported by the legal system.  Spatialized racism changed dramatically over time, however.  Before the Civil War, it generally took the form of white territoriality versus black mobility – as evinced, for instance, in cases where 


Southern slaveholders considered slaves to be “property” and argued that Northern states should return escaped slaves.  After the war, Jim Crow segregation focused on establishing physical “color lines” on the landscape where power differentials between blacks and whites weren’t clear, and on carefully regulating interactions between races where power was obvious.  Beginning in the 1890s, lawyers for the NAACP were able to take advantage of the abstract universalism of the law to successfully challenge segregation, with the 1917 Buchanan case setting the stage and a 1948 case making restrictive covenants illegal.  In particular, legal challenges to legalized segregation upheld the privileging of the Federal government over state power, the rights of all people, not just white people, and the concept of property as something a person can own but can never be.  

Throughout, Delaney emphasizes that power, in a legal context, is focused on the control of meaning, where the law attempts to resolve social conflicts by using reason to limit ambiguities.  The law, in the context of a racialized landscape, effectively authorizes acts of exclusion, expulsion, and confinement, so that the people in power can create and enforce spatial and social divisions based on race.  And racism, legally encoded in the landscape and supported/fought in everyday interactions, pervasively affects all members of society, even as that society dismantles racialized landscapes and moves toward new social and spatial configurations.

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