Enforcing Dispossession: Black Land Theft and Law Enforcement in the Rural South

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 8:50 AM
New York Ballroom East (Sheraton New York)
Justin M. Randolph, Yale University
The precarity of black property is a foundational paradigm for understanding the histories of white supremacy and black inequality in the United States. One threat to rural black existence, the theft of real property by law enforcement officers, is a common trope in the oral testimonies and the activist agenda of African American farmers. Yet this type of theft remains narrowly defined and poorly historicized for the age of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement.

Existing studies of rural black dispossession rely on the compounding animus and negligence of individuals to constitute systemic racism. Whether recounting the racially motivated actions of U.S. Department of Agriculture employees or abstract mechanisms of global cash crop markets, these narratives fail to account for the role of the growing carceral state. These explanations thus prove insufficient, as they presume a failure of American liberalism rather than a symptom of racial capitalism. In short, I find that black activists and thinkers have centered property theft as an intended consequence of the Jim Crow criminal justice system on their way to imagining alternative models of public safety.

This paper seeks to build individual instances of land theft into the broader context of twentieth-century African American history. First, it offers three categories of black land thieves from postwar Mississippi: 1) the county sheriff; 2) conspiring creditors; and 3) evicting landlords. Then, it reflects on how rural black activism has centered the property crimes of law enforcement in the black freedom struggle and considers resonance with contemporary allegations of theft.