Place, race, and the law intersect powerfully in the passage of early 20th century zoning ordinances requiring “the use of separate blocks, for residences, places of abode, and places of assembly by white and colored people respectively” State v. Gurry, 121 Md. 534 (1913). Baltimore enacted a comprehensive racial zoning ordinance in 1910 and cities throughout the South quickly followed, adopting similar or identical laws. One consequence of these segregation ordinances was a profound shift in judicial conceptions of property rights and regulations. The first three state courts that considered these racial zoning ordinances invalidated them as trammeling unconstitutionally upon property rights. The next three state courts to consider these laws, however, upheld them as a reasonable response to congested municipal conditions. What can explain why state courts responded so differently to these identical laws? These state court decisions, I find, are differentiated by a shift from a theory of property as a natural right to an analysis of property through a utilitarian calculus. This shift facilitated important equitable restrictions on property rights. The utilitarian emphasis on the greatest good for the greatest number, without consideration for who benefits and who sacrifices, however, also enabled these early municipal segregation ordinances.
Justin Steil is an Associate Professor of Law and Urban Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research examines legal and spatial dimensions of socio-economic inequality and strategies for advancing racial justice.
He is the co-editor of Furthering Fair Housing: Prospects for Racial Justice in America’s Neighborhoods (Temple University Press, forthcoming 2021), The Dream Revisited: Contemporary Debates about Housing, Segregation, and Opportunity (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Searching for the Just City: Debates in Urban Theory and Practice (Routledge, 2009). His research has been published in the American Journal of Sociology, Politics and Society, Urban Studies, the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the Annals of the American Association of Geographers, and the Journal of the American Planning Association, among other journals.
Steil received a B.A. African-American Studies from Harvard University, an M.Sc. in City Design from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in Urban Planning and a J.D. from Columbia University. He previously worked as advocacy director for a non-profit fighting predatory lending, planner for an environmental justice organization, program manager for a project bringing youth and prisoners into critical dialogues about justice, and trainer with a domestic violence crisis center instructing Ciudad Juárez police in the support of survivors of sexual assault.
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