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Race Nuisance: The Politics of Law in the Jim Crow Era

58 Pages Posted: 15 Jul 2006  

Rachel D. Godsil

Rutgers Law School


This article explores a line of cases in the Jim Crow era in which courts ruled against white plaintiffs trying to use common law nuisance doctrine to achieve residential segregation. These "race-nuisance" cases complicate the view of most legal scholarship that state courts during this era openly eschewed the rule of law in service of white supremacy. Instead, the cases provide rich social historical detail showing southern judges wrestling with their competing allegiance to precedent and the white plaintiffs' pursuit of racial exclusivity. Surprisingly to many, the allegiance to precedent generally prevailed. The cases confound prevailing legal theories, particularly new formalism and critical race theory's interest convergence. While superficially supportive, the article illustrates the limitations of formalism's reach by also exploring the related line of racially restrictive covenant cases. Similarly, while many of the cases appear to support white property owners' interests, this article demonstrates that the race-nuisance cases are better understood as demonstrating that white interests are multi-faceted. Interest convergence therefore may explain unexpected outcomes but is unlikely to predict such outcomes. Another line of inquiry raised by the cases is whether courts racialized nuisance doctrine by marking as nuisance conduct associated with Blacks and rewarding Blacks who adhered to white norms. The first claim is impossible to know with any certainty - and the second embraces gross oversimplifications of racial group behaviors. In sum, the article casts substantial doubt on the background assumptions about the way law worked during the Jim Crow era, and thus provides a more textured understanding of that period. However, the article also grapples with the reality that legal norms do not easily translate into social practice.

Keywords: race, nuisance, civil rights, Jim Crow, property, formalism, interest convergence, legal history

Suggested Citation

Godsil, Rachel D., Race Nuisance: The Politics of Law in the Jim Crow Era. Michigan Law Review, Vol. 105, December 2006; Seton Hall Public Law Research Paper No. 914196. Available at SSRN:

Rachel D. Godsil (Contact Author)

Rutgers Law School ( email )

United States

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