On Charlottesville

Virginia Law Review


Using Charlottesville as a case study, this Article explores the theory, mechanisms, and impact of legally constructed residential segregation—the crown jewel of systemic dehumanization—that make structural inequality possible in America, notwithstanding the plain language and intent of the 14th Amendment. The assertion explored here is that in Charlottesville, both overt and covert dehumanization informed legal process historically, and produced devastating human consequences which persist today. In particular, the state and local laws that regulated where African Americans live their lives in Charlottesville link these two forms of dehumanization, just as Thomas Jefferson did in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia. While blatant dehumanization was employed as an overarching justification first for enslavement and later for segregation of blacks in Charlottesville, subtle and implicit infrahumanization convinced Charlottesville’s City government to disparately allocate services basic to human existence. This Article reviews an historical record to confirm that both forms of dehumanization motivated laws that limited black Charlottesville residents’ equal access to clean air, clean water, decent shelter, and adequate health care. Further, it summarizes evidence that blatant and subtle dehumanization converged to establish and maintain institutionalized systems of social ordering in Charlottesville to constrain housing, employment, and education opportunities historically available to blacks. Contemporary data shows that where dehumanizing legal systems initially established segregation, they have continually institutionalized inequality in Charlottesville. This Article argues that law has been used to institutionalize unjust and enduring differences between racial groups in Charlottesville. Further, it theorizes that to the extent these inequities were predicated upon laws that presumed the relative inferiority of blacks as compared to whites, the law codified dehumanization and institutionalized white supremacy. Legally enabled dehumanization bred and reinforced the in-group favoritism and out-group hostilities that predictably fostered racial hatred and violence in Charlottesville, and elsewhere in the United States. This Article builds on an emergent literature in legal epidemiology that studies the etiology and deployment of law to mediate the distribution of disease and injury.


Dayna Bowen Matthew, On Charlottesville, 105 Virginia Law Review, 269–341 (2019).

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