Category: Race


Race, Love, and Promise

Sheena and Tiara Yates

Martha Ertman’s wonderful new book, Love’s Promises: How Formal and Informal Contracts Shape All Kinds of Families, is a must read for anyone concerned about families or law. Ertman’s core argument is that “contracts and deals” can play a critical role in “helping people create and sustain families.” In advancing this claim, the book – which reads like a good novel even as it maps the complex, shifting landscape of modern family law – primarily relies on Ertman’s own, very compelling story of love and parenthood. Along the way, however, it also communicates the stories of other “Plan B” families, those that Ertman describes as being formed in “uncommon” ways. In doing so, it clears important space for lawyers and non-lawyers alike to consider the experiences of all families. 

Ertman persuasively makes the case that formal and informal “exchanges . . . [already] define family life” in a host of ways, and that greater reliance on such contracts could support the formation and functioning of Plan B families, as well as their more “common,” Plan A, counterparts. As a family law professor,I am deeply sympathetic to this view.  Even more, like so many others, my personal life is comprised of a patchwork of formal and informal contracts. On one hand there is my almost twelve-year legal marriage and the enforceable post-adoption contact agreement — something Ertman would call a “PACA” — that provides for annual visitation with my younger son’s birth mother. Then, on the other hand, sit the unenforceable, but nevertheless important “deals” that I have made with family members. These include the parenting norms that my spouse and I follow in raising our two children, and the mutual vows that we made before family and friends – such as “to love your body as it ages” and “to support you in the pursuit of your dreams.” These promises both help to define and affirm the contours of our loving commitment as a couple and a family.

Nevertheless, I often found myself seeking more from the story that Love’s Promises tells about the place of contract in family life. Like the students I teach, I have some nagging questions about how well contract can work for those who, for example, lack the money to hire a lawyer to draft or defend their cohabitation agreements, or who, because of past experience with the legal system, might never think about contract as a potentially liberating force in their lives. Moreover, I wanted a more complex narrative about the operation of race and contract in the family context than the book attempts to communicate.

To be clear, Love’s Promises does not ignore the subject of race. Indeed, Ertman deserves high marks for examining topics such as Whites’ exclusion of Blacks from marriage during slavery; the forced sterilization of African American women; and the concerns about transracial adoption articulated by organizations such as the National Association of Black Social Workers in the 1970s in crafting her vision of what the rules concerning contract and love should be. But, as important as this past history is, what I most craved was deeper engagement with what increased reliance on contract would mean for issues of race and family in the future.

Laws pertaining to family have historically structured families, but also race – how it is defined, understood, and experienced — in very consequential ways. Think, for example, about antimiscegenation laws that helped to give content to the very idea of race, determining who would be regarded as black or white, slave or free. I am thus very skeptical about the notion that, without more, we can expect that a norm which encourages greater reliance on agreements — especially those that would be more than mere “deals” and thus enforceable in court – will always have an equality-enhancing effect. A newspaper article that I recently read about the efforts of a black, lesbian couple (their picture appears at the outset of this post) to expand their family helps to explain why.

Sheena and Tiara Yates, fell in love and, after their 2011 New Jersey commitment ceremony, decided that they wanted a child. They successfully had one child and later tried to become parents again. As they had the first time around, Sheena and Tiara, who legally married in 2014, used in-home insemination to conceive. To formalize their family unit and intentions, they also entered into a written contract with the known donor whose sperm they utilized. Their agreement contemplated the donor’s relinquishment of all parental rights in the new baby, something designed to permit Sheena and Tiara to parent the child they’d longed for as a unit of two.

Despite the contract, the donor subsequently brought a custody suit to challenge the agreement’s terms and, at least preliminarily, succeeded in doing so. In a decision that the Yateses are now appealing, a judge granted him parental visitation rights. In cases involving insemination, New Jersey, where Sheena and Tiara reside with their family, courts will only recognize a non-biological parent’s rights if the insemination process was carried out by a physician. Although Sheena and Tiara, according to news sources, met with a doctor and were prescribed prenatal vitamins, the actual insemination process was performed at their home, without medical assistance. Significantly, this is the second custody suit that the Yateses have had to defend. The donor for their oldest child challenged the agreement that they had with him on similar grounds and now has visitation rights with that child as well.

Race, gender, and class intersect in troubling ways in the Yates case. Admittedly, it is not contract per se that produces the potential inequality. In fact, Sheena and Tiara clearly saw contract as an important tool in growing their family. But they entered into the donor contracts described within in a particular context, one in which the medical and legal costs that attend physician-assisted fertility treatments generally remain out of reach for low and even some middle-income families, a group in which African Americans — perhaps LGBTQ Blacks most of all — are disproportionately represented. It is not hard to imagine that health care costs figured into their decision to inseminate at home or, for that matter, to use a known donor rather than an anonymous donor affiliated with a sperm bank. Add to this the potential effects of other factors, such as fact that, given past history, many African Americans mistrust doctors and medical facilities, a phenomenon that Kimani Paul-Emile discusses in her work. All of this troubles the story of contract’s ability to advance the aspirations of all families equally.

Significantly, my lament is not simply that Love’s Promises passes up an opportunity to discuss how the realities of race and structural inequality in this country might diminish the power of contract for African Americans and other groups of color in the family context. Ertman’s book also misses a chance to say something about the particular advantages that contract could offer such groups. Despite my earlier argument, my sense is that there may be some places where contract could be very effectively deployed to disrupt the effects of racial stigma and inequality, especially if paired with other tools.

Consider the example of nonmarital black families, especially those with children. Today, African Americans are the most unmarried group in the country. While the U.S. has seen declines in marriage among all groups, they have been steepest among Blacks. Interestingly, African Americans place a higher value on marriage than many other groups. Studies suggest, however, that considerations regarding financial security and other related issues may prevent them from seeing marriage as a viable option for organizing their lives. In a recent law review article in the Hastings Law Journal, I make the argument that, instead of investing in marriage promotion programs that too often ignore the structural racial inequality (e.g., poverty, school drop out rates, housing and food insecurity, and high incarceration rates) that often creates a barrier to marriage, we should work to honor and better support nonmarital black families where they stand.

When it comes to cohabiting couples, Ertman concludes that they “should be recognized as an ‘us’ in relation to one another through property-sharing rules,” such those proposed by the American Law Institute. She stops short, however, of saying that cohabitants should “be treated as an ‘us’ when it comes to institutions outside the relationship, like the IRS and the Social Security Administration.” As Ertman notes in addressing proposals advanced by other law professors, a focus on cohabitants alone won’t do much for African America, a community in which black “women . . . are three times more likely than white women never to live with an intimate partner and more likely than white women to center their lives among extended kin.” But contract might be a more effective tool if extended to nonmarital families with children, whether the parents reside together or not. This might be especially true if combined with changes in tax policy and the structure of benefits that Ertman is less comfortable making in the absence of marriage.

For reasons already articulated, I do not think that adults in poor, nonmarital black families will or should run out to find lawyers who can draft binding contracts for them. But I can still imagine a world in which a contract-based norm works to destigmatize such families by making it plain that they have structures and “deals” like many others, not just the “tangle of pathology” described in the Moynihan Report issued fifty years ago.   In such a world, even informal contracts could assist the adults in “fragile” families in negotiating the many challenges that they face and serve to reduce conflict. Further, such agreements, to the extent that they help reveal the precise terms of the negotiations in which such families already engage, might uncover the reasons that fragile black families seem to be able to navigate co-parenting better than their counterparts. They might also disrupt stereotypes about the contributions that fathers, in particular, make to such families. Despite the racialized trope of the “dead beat” dad, studies show that nonmarital African American fathers tend to be more involved with their children than nonmarital White fathers, and regularly contribute diapers and other goods as a way of providing support, even when dramatically reduced job opportunities make money scarce.

Love’s Promises helps us see the current realities of both “Plan A” and “Plan B” families, and to imagine what the future could and should be as a normative matter. I’m very grateful to Martha, the symposium organizers, and my fellow participants for helping me to think even more about the possibilities of contract in the family law context, especially where families of color are concerned. On this day, especially, when the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that LGBT couples are “Plan A” families in the eyes of the Constitution, I only hope that Ertman decides to write another book that builds on the important foundation that she has set.



UCLA Law Review Vol. 62, Issue 2

Volume 62, Issue 2 (February 2015)

Judging Opportunity Lost: Assessing the Viability of Race-Based Affirmative Action After Fisher v. University of Texas Mario L. Barnes, Erwin Chemerinsky & Angela Onwuachi-Willig 272
Enforcing Rights Nancy Leong & Aaron Belzer 306
Milliken, Meredith, and Metropolitan Segregation Myron Orfield 364



David’s Sling: How to Give Copyright Owners a Practical Way to Pursue Small Claims Jeffrey Bils 464
Nonserious Marijuana Offenses and Noncitizens: Uncounseled Pleas and Disproportionate Consequences Jordan Cunnings 510

Police Killing Unarmed Minority Men on Video with Impunity is not New

The grand jury’s decision to not indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner despite video of the incident, in the wake of the failure to indict Darren Wilson, further illustrates the apparent immunity of police officers in cases where officers have killed ethnic minority Americans. The Garner case is a reminder that the interpretation of (crime) videos is filtered through pre-existing cultural lenses, but it also speaks to a more fundamental problem. The case provides more evidence that video has not been a panacea in addressing lethal violence by police officers, a fact which is relevant in discussing the likely efficacy of cop cams. I have posted other similar disturbing videos of lethal force being used against unarmed ethnic minority men (after the jump) wherein there has been no accountability in the criminal justice system for the officers involved.

Read More


Will The Nobel Committee Follow Oscar and Restrict Selling Medals?

Apparently Watson, of DNA discovery fame, is selling his Nobel Medal. Christie’s estimates the price at $2.2 million. I will go into the reasons for the sale below. But first, I wonder whether the Nobel Committee will put in a restriction on selling the medals. The Oscar folks, (aka the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) placed a restriction on awards granted after 1950: the recipient or heirs had to offer it the the Academy for $1 before selling to anyone else. Unrestricted Oscars have been sold for $510,000 (1993, Vivien Leigh’s Oscar for “Gone with the Wind”) and $1,540,000 (1999 David O. Selznick’s Oscar for “Gone with the Wind”) among other prices. Whether the Nobel folks see the award as their key asset (as AMPAS does) or they have other objections to its sale will determine what they do.

For those wondering why sell the medal, Watson made some comments about race in 2007. According to Irish Central, in an interview with the Financial Times, Watson said he was “‘inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa’ because ‘all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.'” That statement resulted in boards and other groups choosing not to work with him. In short, he needs the money.

Given that Watson has said he will give some of the money to science charities, I wonder whether he might set up fund in honor of Rosalind Franklin, the woman who took the picture that allowed the structure of DNA to be seen and died four years before the Nobel for DNA’s discovery was made. (The Nobel prize is awarded only when one is alive). Nonetheless, her credit has been lost. Then again if Ms. Franklin were alive, she might not be happy to have a fund created in her name by someone who has Watson’s current reputation, let alone the DNA discovery problem.

Correction: Earlier version mistakenly listed Crick as the Nobel medal seller.


To Sarat or Not Sarat

As in Austin Sarat, Law and Humanities scholar at Amherst College.  As in one of the leading figures within the Association of Law Culture and Humanities, which has become one of my favorite destinations over the years for engaging discussion across the disciplines.  (FYI, today is the deadline to submit abstracts to the Law Culture and Humanities Conference being held at Georgetown this year).
Glancing across Sarat’s scholarship one might notice a fascination with documenting the morbidity of law.  Images of war, death, and imprisonment filter the landscape of writings; the images are used to magnify their contrast. They create discourses in binaries.  We understand legal violence distinctive from non-legal violence; death distinctive from non-death; and imprisonment distinctive from non-prisoned life.  Sarat sums this up in his Article Violence, Democracy, Responsibility, and the Problem of Punishment.


Moreover, by equating the conditions of legal legitimacy with that masking, much of that jurisprudence promotes righteous indifference and allows law’s violence to continue unabated. I am neither so idealistic nor so naive as to imagine that a change in legal theory would in itself end violence done, authorized or approved by legal institutions and officials. Still the energy in much of my work on punishment comes from a desire to interrogate legal theory in order to understand how law, surrounded by so much pain, is, nonetheless, able to maintain its calm, bureaucratic facade.


Drawing on themes that prompt considerations of justice and violence, it’s no wonder that Sarat and Robert Cover were walking the same halls in New Haven in the early 1980’s.  I don’t know if Sarat and Cover interacted much.  Really, does it matter?  Sarat himself was a well accomplished scholar in the humanities prior to enrolling at Yale (I mean how many of us as one L’s had their professor begin a civil procedure class by reading and discussing our own work?) .  Perhaps he and Cover never interacted.  I’d like to think they didn’t but that the recursiveness of space, time and ideas latched on to them independently as they traveled the halls.

Besides violence, Sarat’s scholarship prompts me to think about similar themes in my own work.   Loneliness has been a particular theme of mine.  Robert Penn Warren, Fydor Dostovsky, and Flannery O’Connor have been shaping devices of this theme.  They play themselves out in a chorus of questions about space, roles, isolation, and time.  When Warren writes about the South as a Lonely place, he prompts me to wonder whether and how time shapes people.  For those three, time is the violence of memory, sometimes maintained through static relationships of property, law, family, and culture.  Sarat likewise prompts us to consider how time shapes our understandings of justice and violence.  He writes in the same article prompted above:

For me, democracy requires a particular orientation toward time. Democratic temporality is the time of change, of reconsideration. It is open-ended and open to a sense of the endlessness of time. Acts of punishment, even if we had a way of calculating what people deserve, are always in some sense the servants, not the masters, of time. Numerous authors have highlighted the problem of time in asking whether the person being subject to punishment, 2, or 12, or 20 years after the crime is really the same person as the one who committed the crime that justified the punishment in the first place. When, many years ago, Justice Brennan described the death penalty as taking away the right to have rights, he might well have said that no punishment that seeks to be timeless, or stop the movement of time, can be reconciled with a democratic theory of punishment.

The conception of time as a marker of change is one, I think Robert Penn Warren would greatly admire.  On May 15, 1961, The New Republic published a review of Warren’s essay The Legacy of the Civil War.  In the review essay, writer Peter d’a Jones aligned Warrens views with Robert Patterson of the Citizens Counsel of Mississippi, a group formed following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  The group, put simply, was designed to use legal (and non-legal) violence to stymie desegregation.
Following the review of Warren’s essay, Warren wrote a letter to the New Republic editor:

Dear Sir,

This letter is promoted by a review of my essay the Legacy of the Civil War, which appeared in your issue of May 15.  I could wish that Mr. Peter d’a Jones had thought better of my essay or at least of my intellectual integrity, but I am not now writing in defense of either.  What I want to do here is disabuse those readers who may feel, from Mr. Jones’ review that I have much sympathy with Mr. Robert Patterson of the Citizens’ Committee of Mississippi, whom he cites with, perhaps, some effect of guilt by association.  

The quickest thing for me to do is state three things — things which it is strange for any citizen to feel constrained to state.

1 It is morally right, as well as politically and economically necessary, that all the rights and privileges of American citizenship be guaranteed to all citizens.  
2 A man’s worth should be judged by the qualities of his manhood.
3 Any official of any state who does not honestly and vigorously endeavor to punish, with full rigor, any violence against or coercion of any individual or group has violated his public trust and should be impeached.  

I suppose that a reader can easily infer from these statements my attitude in specific instances, as I had assumed one might from other writings of mine, including the Legacy of the Civil War; but I shall add that I think Dr. Martin Luther King a great man, and that the sit ins conducted according to his principles are morally unassailable, and will win.  One reason they will win is that they offer, even to the man howling from the sidewalk, an exhibition of courage, dignity, and self control.  

                        Very Respectfully Yours,

                        Robert Penn Warren

P.S.  One more thing: since Mr. Jones takes the trouble to quote from me in 1929, I wish he had taken the trouble in his researches to glance at my explicit repudiation some time back, of what I said in 1929.  In 1929, in my youth, I was wrong — and even now, I do not feel myself entirely above error.  

Warren’s reflection of change over time merges with his views of social responsibility.   For what its worth, Warren was also wandering around New Haven in the early 1980’s.  How I would enjoy sitting at a table amongst Warren, Sarat and Cover as they talked about these things.  How the walls in New Haven must have been ablaze with ideas in the early 80’s.

(P.S. Robert Patterson was also former Captain of the Mississippi State football team — ergo my promised college football reference, in case anyone needed an irrational reason to hate the number one ranked team).


UCLA Law Review Vol. 61, Issue 4

Volume 61, Issue 4 (May 2014)

Expressive Enforcement Avlana Eisenberg 858
Insider Trading as Private Corruption Sung Hui Kim 928
Marriage Equality and Postracialism Russell K. Robinson 1010



Fast and Furious, or Slow and Steady? The Flow of Guns From the United States to Mexico Jessica A. Eby 1082
Parole Denial Habeas Corpus Petitions: Why the California Supreme Court Needs to Provide More Clarity on the Scope of Judicial Review Charlie Sarosy 1134





Identity Performance as a Bottleneck to Employment Opportunity

In his timely and provocative book, Professor Joey Fishkin makes an important intervention to anti-discrimination law praxis and theory. Poignantly, he observes that in developing anti-discrimination legislation and doctrine, policy makers as well as judges have largely focused on either eliminating or diminishing severe, pervasive, and arbitrary bottlenecks in the opportunity structure as opposed to focusing singularly on the achievement of equal outcomes. He defines bottlenecks as a “narrow place in the opportunity structure through which one must pass in order to successfully pursue a wide range of valued goals.” (Page 13). Professor Fishkin identifies three types of bottlenecks—“qualification,” “developmental,” and “instrumental good”—that policy should address in educational and employment contexts to bring about “equality pluralism”: “[the] opening up a broader range of opportunities for everyone.” (Page 2). As a race and law and employment discrimination law scholar, I am particularly interested in how Fishkin’s “anti-bottleneck” principle applies to arbitrary “qualification bottlenecks” in the employment context. Indeed, my scholarship on grooming codes discrimination illuminates how an obscured yet severe and pervasive “qualification bottleneck”—(non)conformity with racialized and gendered identity performance standards imposed by employers (which are reified within anti-discrimination jurisprudence like Title VII)—constrains or widens one’s range of employment opportunities.In this post, I will draw upon my scholarship on grooming codes discrimination to briefly explicate how one’s ability to navigate and negotiate identity performance demands limits or increases employment opportunities. Read More


UCLA Law Review Vol. 61, Issue 2

Volume 61, Issue 2 (January 2014)

Negotiating Nonproliferation: International Law and Delegation in the Iranian Nuclear Crisis Aslı Ü. Bâli 232
Detention Without End?: Reexamining the Indefinite Confinement of Terrorism Suspects Through the Lens of Criminal Sentencing Jonathan Hafetz 326
Transparently Opaque: Understanding the Lack of Transparency in Insurance Consumer Protection Daniel Schwarcz 394



California’s Unloaded Open Carry Bans: A Constitutional and Risky, but Perhaps Necessary, Gun Control Strategy Charlie Sarosy 464
Exclusion, Punishment, Racism and Our Schools: A Critical Race Theory Perspective on School Discipline David Simson 506





Google Books and the Social (Justice) Contract

In channeling Judge Baer, Judge Chin at long last dropped the other shoe in the judicial effort to bring new information technology uses for copyrighted works fully in to the copyright regime. Congress has been slow to address the challenge of tapping the full copyright social utility/justice potential of these advances and it’s been left to the courts to sort it all out in the context of individual adversarial conflicts. Poignantly, when Jonathan Band asks “What [was] the Authors Guild fighting for?”, he also illustrates the tree-myopic/forest blind nature of the Guild’s position. What the Guild failed to see is that property rights fit into a larger socio-legal system: Yes your neighbor is precluded from trespassing on to your land but your ability to engage in whatever “private” activity strikes your fancy while thereon is limited by the legal system as a whole. Your land is individual private property, not an independent sovereign state.


Judge Baer reminded rights holders of this aspect of the social contract and now Judge Chin has made it clear to the Guild that this is not some narrow, eccentric application of copyright social utility. Property rights, including copyrights, exist to advance society, and to state the obvious, information technology has evolved our society. Like all other rights, customs, and expectations, however, whereas some aspects of copyright as previously envisioned fit comfortably into our new configuration others don’t fit at all. And when that ill-fit impedes important social progress modifications must be made, and if necessary, expectations altered.


The courts’ reasoning in both Hathitrust and Google Books moves fair use jurisprudence further toward the express consideration of copyright social justice in the application of the doctrine. As Kevin Smith notes, the judges in both cases have seized this opportunity to retrofit fair use, and it seems to me that these decisions push beyond questions of aesthetic and even functional transformation and pave the way for weighing social transformation in assessing the first fair use factor. I have also applied some of the legal conclusions drawn from Bill Graham Archives and other Grateful Dead archive projects to specific copyright social justice needs, for example, that of socially beneficent access to the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Like some other historically and culturally important works, many of these books enjoy only marginal commercial market value and similar to the information harvested through data mining, “digital fair use” may be the only means by which to return these works to the general public. The social resuscitation of significant works through mass-digitization, and other uses that serve important and otherwise unattainable copyright social objectives, should be considered a purpose that satisfies the first fair use factor.


Authors and other copyrights holders would do well to finally get ahead of the information technology curve. The Authors Guild’s mistake was not so much in the effort to preserve what they considered to be their property rights or even in the effort to extract every conceivable drop of revenue out those rights, but rather, in failing to accept that in order for these rights to retain any value they must function as part of a thriving societal system or eventually forfeit the basis for legal recognition. In the analog world, the public’s access to most books remains largely dependent upon the vagaries of the commercial marketplace. Digital information technology has presented the opportunity to compile the world’s books toward the creation of global libraries accessible to every human being on a socially equitable basis. To believe that analog social inequity will be permitted to endure indefinitely in the face of digital information possibilities is simply unrealistic. Keeping in mind that the stimulation, perpetuation, and re-ignition of the cultural expression/dissemination/inspiration combustive cycle is the raison d’etre of copyright will enable authors to embrace digital change and as Gil Scott Heron sang, possibly even direct the change rather than simply be put through it.