In September, Thomas Mitchell ’87 got a call from a Chicago number he didn’t recognize. Spam, surely; he ignored it. The next day, an email popped up from the MacArthur Foundation—with a request for his unpaid time. “It said something like, ‘Professor Mitchell, we are very interested in having you serve on a task force that will deal with analysis of racial equity of the grant the foundation gives, and we would like to talk to you immediately,’” Mitchell recalls. He read it and heaved an inward sigh.
As a professor of law at Texas A&M University, Mitchell gets requests like these all the time. He has focused much of his career on an antiquated piece of real estate law that has been, among other things, a major driver of Black land loss in the United States. “Among property law professors, studying the property problems of disadvantaged African Americans in the South was considered at best a marginal, fringe, niche area,” he says. “And since few people were studying it, I became the recognized national expert.” That means Mitchell has had to become adept at saying no when people come knocking at his door.
Still, this was the MacArthur Foundation. “So I agreed to talk to them, but I’d rehearsed what I was going to say.” When he returned the call, he didn’t make it five seconds into his prepared remarks. The woman on the phone said the request was a ploy to get him to call. She asked him if he was seated—and then she told him. “I assumed they had a portfolio of awards, and I’d won some lesser fellowship,” he admits. “But she said, ‘No, we only have one award.’” That would be, of course, the MacArthur Fellowship—colloquially known as the genius grant.
Mitchell’s work may not sound like the kind of project that wins genius grants. For more than 40 years these no-strings-attached, $625,000 awards have been given to Americans in almost every field you can think of. Out of more than a thousand MacArthur Fellows, only eight have been legal scholars—but Mitchell’s work is different. Back to that antiquated real estate law: It’s called the law of partition, and it’s something we Americans inherited from our British forebears. “It deals with tenancy-in-common ownership, which is the most prevalent form of common real property ownership in the United States,” Mitchell explains. Common real property ownership is when a group of people or companies all own a piece of property together but no single person or company owns a particular part of it.
Tenancy-in-common is the most prevalent form of this real property ownership. The law of partition, meanwhile, governs how people exit that ownership—it’s a law that decrees how those joint owners can part ways. If owners can’t come to a consensual agreement, they can file a partition action. One of the most common partition actions would be a physical division of the property, and an allocation of the parcels that would result from that division. The other most common partition action would be the forced sale of the property, with the proceeds then distributed to the common owners.
“Historically, a forced sale was considered a radical remedy, one reserved for unusual circumstances,” Mitchell says. But starting a few decades ago this began to change. “The overwhelming number of state statutes had a preference for physical division, but it was a thin preference. A typical statute will say a partition action is preferred unless it will ‘result in great prejudice’ to the common owners.”
OK, but what exactly does “great prejudice” mean? Turns out there’s no single definition. “Into that vacuum, a bunch of judges came up with their own test—a test that said, in deciding whether great prejudice exists, the only relevant factors are economic,” says Mitchell. “They’d say if the property maintained as a whole has what you call ‘economies of scale’—that means it’s worth more as a whole than the aggregated values of the parcels that might result from division—they would then order it sold, because theoretically that would maximize wealth.”
People said, ‘You might get one or two states, but you will have total failure in the South.’”
Mitchell refers to this as the “economics-only test,” and it’s fine as far as it goes, but many people value their property for noneconomic reasons. “A lot of families say, ‘Well, this property has been in our family for generations.’ In the case of African Americans, some of it was acquired at the end of the Civil War, and it’s invested with family-heritage value,” Mitchell says. “Some properties have historic value or other cultural value. And for many of these families, a forced sale would sometimes render family members homeless.”
When judges appraise these properties using an economics-only test, they don’t have to quantify any of those other factors, and might assign it zero value. “As a result, it had the impact of making the forced sale the de facto preference as opposed to physical division. This reversed the historical preference.”
If you’re a real estate developer this works out just fine. It means that if you can convince one of dozens of co-tenants to sell their share in a property, you can force that sale, no matter how many other co-tenants oppose it, and often end up getting a bargain. But if you’re one of those other co-tenants—and especially if you’re already at a systemic, structural disadvantage, for any number of social reasons—the law of partition makes a bad situation even worse.
Take, for example, Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. In the early 1950s a highway was built to connect the island to the mainland, and it suddenly became highly desirable property. At that time the majority of landowners on Hilton Head Island were Black, and in many cases these properties had been passed down for generations without wills; most of these families did not have access to lawyers. With each generation the number of people with an interest in each property ballooned—heirs could number in the hundreds—but to force a sale, all that a real estate developer had to do was find a single heir who wished to sell. “The economics-only test is inappropriate not only because it says your family or heritage has no value, but even on its own terms, the economic benefits are mythical,” Mitchell says. “A forced sale produces a price well below market, so ultimately the family not only loses their property but gets pennies on the dollar.”
The law of partition has also been a tool of gentrification in hot urban neighborhoods. In places such as New York City and Washington, D.C., a real estate speculator needs only to pick out one co-tenant—often someone who no longer even lives in that area—in order to gain access to a newly desirable address. These are often high-equity properties, too. “That’s because a lot of African American families acquired ownership during redlining,” Mitchell says, referring to the practices that restricted Black people from acquiring bank loans in certain neighborhoods. “So they had to buy in cash. These properties in Harlem or Brooklyn or Queens had been paid off. Now values were through the roof, and speculators would buy out one family member and go to the others and say, basically, ‘We have you over a barrel.’”
Who loses? Targets are typically poor people who face race-based discrimination. They also tend to have low rates of estate planning. They often lack access to affordable legal services. And finally, they are often a privileged minority within a disadvantaged group.
“African Americans who became landowners at the end of the Civil War, or in urban contexts, New York City for example—those were privileged groups,” Mitchell explains. “Those subsets overcame tremendous hurdles, because becoming property owners was a direct threat to white supremacy. When you look at the history of lynching, it is traditionally associated with African American men who had interactions with white women, but the majority of those lynched were actually African American property owners.”
The properties these groups owned were often not considered prime real estate—until suddenly they were, as in the Hilton Head example. “You can think of that in a rural context, where suburban sprawl takes over farmlands, or in an urban context, in gentrifying neighborhoods where values become superheated, and suddenly these communities have a bullseye on their back.”