Cows, Guns, and Pocket Constitutions: Producing a White Right to Public Lands in the West

Authors: Robin Wright*, University of Minnesota - Minneapolis
Topics: Legal Geography, Cultural and Political Ecology, Cultural Geography
Keywords: law, race, property, land, nation
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Washington 2, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The recent stand-offs at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the Sugar Pine Mine, and the Bundy Ranch have catapulted seemingly fringe disputes with the federal government into the national spotlight through a potent performance of 2nd Amendment bravado and Constitutional expertise. In each case, occupiers and their allies made facially race-neutral claims to grazing lands while relying on a construction of US nationhood and citizenship that positioned them not only as the rightful users of the land but as righteous defenders of the law. Recent scholarship has illustrated how the U.S. Constitution secured the settler state through the legal and territorial protection and projection of white wealth and status. Yet contemporary forms of lay conservative Constitutional interpretation indicate how the Constitution also serves as an important text in a discourse and technology of law that transects formal and informal legal settings, state actors and so-called private citizens, and court documents and online forums. This paper argues that the legal discourse of non-formal legal actors functions to reproduce the conditions for white privilege, regardless of whether or not those discourses are legitimated in formal judicial decisions by the state. Through research on the growing online and offline networks of self-identified Constitutional educators and defenders, I show how the circulation of a Constitutional discourse allows white Americans to defend their proprietary use of public lands by asserting exclusionary and possessive claims to land ownership and to membership in the nation.

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