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K-Sue Park

Emerson Collective Fellowship

Illuminating the complex origins of American property law.

Headshot of K-Sue Park

A former housing attorney, K-Sue Park came to her area of scholarship by accident. While studying at Harvard in the aftermath of the 2008 foreclosure crisis, she learned that elements of the American land-tenure system—including easy foreclosure—originated in New England. “I was surprised to find that foreclosure had been rare and difficult in England, and that colonists had first used the practice to dispossess Native nations,” she explains. She also discovered that the land-title recording system she used for cases had been developed to create markets for the trade in stolen lands, and slave markets.

As a professor at Georgetown Law, Park studies and teaches the origins of U.S. real-property law. She shows that its links to slavery, conquest, and the prioritization of property over the individual have delivered dire outcomes for communities of color. 

As an Emerson Collective Fellow, Park will write her first book, “The Racial Land Crisis: How Conquest and Slavery Made Property Law in America.”It will examine the history of our land-tenure system, from the homesteading that made land into a commodity through to modern-day policing of property. “We take this land system for granted because its history has been erased,” says Park. The American real-property system converts most land to “real estate”—property that’s an asset for its owner, rather than land dedicated to the well-being of communities, or valued for what it contributes to nature or to the climate. Park’s book will emphasize the environmental costs of this system over centuries, and will show how, to be effective, climate solutions must take into account—and redress—the prioritization of market growth.