Dignity taking is the destruction or confiscation of property rights from owners or occupiers, where the intentional or unintentional outcome is dehumanization or infantilization. There are two requirements: (1) involuntary property destruction or confiscation and (2) dehumanization or infantilization. Dehumanization is “the failure to recognize an individual or group’s humanity” and infantilization is “the restriction of an individual or group’s autonomy based on the failure to recognize and respect their full capacity to reason.” Evidence of a dignity taking can be established empirically through either a top-down approach, examining the motive and intent behind those who initiated the taking, or a bottom-up approach, examining the viewpoints of dispossessed people. When this larger harm called a dignity taking occurs, mere reparations (or compensation for physical things taken) are not enough. Dignity restoration is required. Dignity restoration is a remedy that seeks to provide dispossessed individuals and communities with material compensation through processes that affirm their humanity and reinforce their agency. In practical terms, the remedial process places dispossessed individuals or communities in the driver’s seat and gives them a significant degree of autonomy in deciding how they are made whole. The dignity takings/dignity restoration framework was first created by Professor Bernadette Atuahene following her empirical exploration of land dispossession and restitution in South Africa in her book, We Want What’s Ours: Learning from South Africa’s Restitution Program (Oxford University Press 2014). Since then, many scholars across disciplines have applied these socio-legal concepts to an array of case studies in various time periods and geographic locations, providing a transnational, historicized approach to understanding involuntary property loss and its material and non-material consequences. The dignity takings/dignity restoration framework provides a lexicon to describe and analyze property takings from poor and vulnerable populations across the globe in different historical periods; focuses on redress by linking events of property dispossession to highlight opportunities for learning, resistance, and solidarity; allows people who are not property scholars to participate in the conversation about involuntary property loss and adequate remedies; captures the both the material and immaterial consequences of property confiscation; and inserts dignity into the scholarly discourse about property, countering the singular focus on efficiency, which has dominated legal analysis since the ascendancy of law and economics.
Legal scholar Alexandre Kedar observes that Israel stole land from the Bedouin people through the doctrine of terra nullius—the claim that indigenous people never owned the property they inhabited—which renders the property confiscation invisible to their legal system. Because they were without property rights, the state expelled more than 70,000 Bedouins and then physically confined those remaining first to an enclosed zone under military control and then to state planned townships. The taking was premised on infantilization and dehumanization because state policy explicitly categorized Bedouins as an uncivilized people who required authorities to protect them from their own savage traditions.
Anthropologist Justin Richland described the initial separation of Hopi people from their sacred lands centuries ago, as well as the more recent degradation of these lands by the U.S. Forest Service, as a dignity taking. Beginning in 1882, the United States government drew and re-drew the boundaries of the Hopi’s aboriginal land, infantilizing and dehumanizing them by failing to recognize their sovereignty and unilaterally placing a sacred landmark under the U.S. Forest Service’s authority as “public land.” In 2013, the U.S. Forest Service further dehumanized the Hopi people by allowing the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort to spray frozen wastewater as artificial snow over one of their most sacred landmarks, Nuvatukya’ovi or Arizona’s tallest peak.
Moreover, Richland argues that scholars must understand that a dignity taking is sometimes a singular event and other times property rights are gradually eroded and the dispossession is ongoing, like the American government’s original taking and ongoing destruction of the Hopi people’s land. Here, focusing on a singular event of dispossession can obscure the iterative nature of the harm involved.
Sanele Sibanda describes the erosion of the Popela community’s land rights as an example of a dignity taking. The Popela community trace their origins to the Limpopo valley where they reportedly lived since the 1800s, herding cattle and farming the land. The advent of colonialism and Apartheid led to the land’s dispossession. Under white minority rule, their ancestral land rights eroded into labor tenancy where they were forced to work for white landowners for half the year to pay rent.
Legal historian Daniel Hulsebosch applied the dignity takings framework to the American Revolutionary War when the nascent government subjected Loyalists to a civil death by expropriating their properties, revoking their professional licenses, annulling their civil and political rights, and detaining and banishing them. The American revolutionary government dehumanized Loyalists by taking their lives—the most severe form of dehumanization. The state also infantilized Loyalists by stripping them of their most essential rights, and thus impairing their basic autonomy. Though Loyalists were deprived of their property alongside acts of dehumanization and infantilization, Hulsebosch found that this was not a dignity taking because their stigmatized identity was a choice rather than an immutable characteristic. However, it seems there may be two different types of dignity takings: for some people, the source of their oppression is an identity that they chose and can disavow at any time, while others are subjugated due to an identity that they cannot escape.
Political scientist Craig Albert analyzed whether the treatment of Iraqi Kurds under both the Islamic State (ISIS) and Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime constituted a dignity taking. Both regimes denied Kurdish self-rule through massive property depravation and state-led violence. Albert’s research outlined the circumstances required for the denial of self-rule to be considered infantilization: (1) the community must have a will to self-govern; (2) the community must have the capacity to self-govern; and (3) no greater conflict must result from granting sovereign rule. In his case study of the Iraqi Kurds, Albert concluded that all three factors were present, and that a dignity taking had occurred.
Legal historian, John Acevedo argues that in seventeenth century England, dignity takings took the form of criminal punishment. Authorities publicly executed felons in a dehumanizing manner, such as by quartering, the Bloody Code, and corruption of blood. Because the body is an individual’s most important form of property, its destruction or annihilation satisfies the property element required for a dignity taking. Moreover, after authorities executed a felon, they also confiscated the felon's estate. Even though American colonists removed many dehumanizing punishments from their legal code—such as the quartering of traitors, the Bloody Code, and corruption of blood—they did not remove all dehumanizing punishments. For example, in the Massachusetts Bay colony certain punishments evoked a dignity taking: maiming constituted dehumanization and public whippings infantilized the convict. In contrast, the imposition of a scarlet letter or other punishments purely meant to shame convicts did not rise to the level of a dignity taking (albeit deeply humiliating) because there was no dehumanization or infantilization.
Legal historian John Acevedo also analyzed the case of police misconduct in the United States under the dignity takings framework. When police use unlawful violence against vulnerable populations who have historically been dehumanized and infantilized, a dignity taking occurs. The property involved is the body, and it is destroyed or eliminated through physical abuse and murder. Beginning with America’s “War on Drugs” in the 1970s, Acevedo established how the popular media and political rhetoric dehumanized people who committed crimes and those with criminal records.
Ari Shaw describes the criminalization of homosexuality in Kenya as leading to both indirect and direct dignity takings. A direct taking occurs when statutory enforcement leads to forced examinations and medical tests. These examinations and tests given without the individual’s consent are a type of infantilizatio An indirect taking occurs from the institutionalization of stigma, a form of dehumanization. Labelling sexual and gender minorities as criminals legitimizes the use of violence against them based on their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Looking at the criminalization of homosexuality as a dignity taking reveals how governments wield homophobia as a political weapon to exclude individuals from the political process.
Lua Yuille describes gang injunctionsas dignity takings. Gang injunctions prohibit suspected gang members from engaging in a wide range of activities that would otherwise be legal. They cannot, for example, in public wear “gang clothes,” or carry “marking substances” like paint cans, pens, and other writing utensils they can potentially use for graffiti. This bans gang members from using certain property in public. These bans amount to the deprivation of identity property, which is property that implicates how people understand themselves. Additionally, Yuille found that the state treats young gang members like inhumane “super predators,” instead of as children and teenagers. The City of Monrovia subjected suspected gang members to a dignity taking because this dehumanizing treatment occurred with the deprivation of their identity property
Historian Andrew Baer established the Chicago’s police torture scandal, perpetrated from 1972 and 1991 by Jon Burge and a coterie of white detectives, as a clear example of a dignity taking. The detectives coerced confessions from over 120 African American criminal suspects using brutal tactics that easily rose to the level of dehumanization and infantilization. Because one’s own body is a form of property, these torture tactics constitute a dignity taking.
Sociologist Esther Sullivan extended the dignity taking conversation to include ownership rights that are derived socially rather than legally. She investigated mobile homes and mass evictions spurred by park closings. Though called mobile homes, many cannot move or the expense of moving them outweighs their value. When a mobile home park closes, the residents must abandon their mobile homes; in certain instances, this is a property deprivation. Under legally derived definitions of property ownership, a ground lease gives mobile home owners temporary occupancy rights, and so a park closing with appropriate notice would not infringe upon a property right. However, the socially derived definition of ownership that exists in mobile parks reveals that mobile park owners can violate their resident’s property rights, even through a legal closure. The media portrayal of mobile home residents as trailer trash is dehumanizing. Additionally, regulatory actions (such as exclusionary zoning and financial regulations) created and now sustain this subordinate status.
Racially restrictive covenants were private contracts recorded in a title deed that prevented subsequent purchasers (who were never party to the original agreement) from selling their homes primarily to African-Americans, but also to Asians along the West Coast. According to legal historian Carol Rose, racially restrictive covenants do not qualify as a dignity taking because the private actors who created the covenants took the “opportunity to acquire [the] property” rather than the property itself. Since lost opportunities are elusive, the concept of dignity takings is limited to the confiscation of property rights already obtained. Otherwise, the concept would become over inclusive and lose its analytic power.
Sociologist and legal scholar Cesar Rosado conducted ethnographic work in a Chicago worker center called Arise, which provides services to ensure that vulnerable and undocumented workers can exercise their labor rights. Rosado looked at whether two claims of unpaid wages fit within the framework of a dignity taking. First, the unpaid wages constituted the property taken from the workers. When there are severe power asymmetries between employers and workers, infantilization can occur as employers rob their workers of agency. Rosado concluded that wage theft claims can constitute a dignity taking.
Polish legal scholars Ewa Kozerska and Piotr Stec argue that Communist Poland’s mining and construction battalions are another example of dignity takings because wage theft accompanied dehumanizing treatment. Deemed unworthy of standard military training or uniforms, the battalions’ soldiers were considered “class enemies,” e.g. landowners, economic elites, dissenters and their family members, and clerics. Although the battalions operated under the guise of military service, the soldiers were slaves subject to forced labor, treated like animals, and dehumanized.
Subjecting undocumented citizens to dangerous work that causes bodily injury and fatalities can constitute a dignity taking. A dignity taking requires the depravation of property: the mutilation of the body caused by workplace injuries and the annihilation of the body caused by workplace fatalities satisfies this requirement. Dehumanization occurs when employers treat workers like machines instead of like humans, and dozens of interviews with immigrant day laborers in Northern Virginia, revealed that this occurs on a spectrum. According to legal scholars Rachel Nadas and Jayesh Rathod, a dignity taking most clearly results when a worker is injured or dies because of a workplace injury, and the employer had knowledge that the job posed a risk to the worker’s body but failed to provide the necessary training, safety equipment, and medical care to address the risk.
Legal scholars Kozerska and Stec also describe the nationalization of land, agricultural production, and other property in post war Communist Poland as a dignity taking. The state provided landowners no compensation for their nationalized property, and forced them to leave town and abandon their communities. Though the goal of communism was not to dehumanize and infantilize the landowning population—but to free the working class from control and abuse by the owners of capital—the dehumanization and infantilization of the capital class was a necessary evil in this larger liberatory project. According to Kozerska and Stec, “these individuals were persecuted even after expropriation, as they were stigmatized for being a bezet (i.e., former landowner)” and deprived of nearly all opportunity for gainful employment.
Legal scholar Eva Pils also writes about a communist nation—China—and how forced evictions intended to create space for China’s rapidly expanding cities involved a dignity taking. China has allowed private ownership of urban buildings since the reforms of the 1980s, but not ownership of the underlying land. Since urban owners can buy and sell their buildings, but rural owners cannot, rural properties are extremely vulnerable to expropriation in China as the burgeoning urban real estate market encroaches upon them. Relying on ethnographic interviews, Pils also determined that rural Chinese citizens are routinely infantilized and dehumanized in the course of the dignity taking because the state believes that they are “low quality”, unruly, confused individuals who need to be forcibly educated for their own good in what the state euphemistically calls study classes.
Pils primary contribution was to alter the definition of a dignity taking. In We Want What’s Ours, the property confiscation had to occur “without paying just compensation or without a legitimate public purpose.” Pils argues that because the method the Chinese state used to acquire the land and remove its inhabitants was dehumanizing and infantilizing, even if it pays just compensation and the taking is for the legitimate purpose of economic development, a dignity taking has still occurred. Hence, the updated definition of a dignity taking is when a state directly or indirectly destroys or confiscates property rights from owners or occupiers, and the intentional or unintentional outcome is dehumanization or infantilization.
The mechanisms that predatory property tax lien investors used to manipulate property tax delinquency laws and seize homes from African-Americans constituted a dignity taking. According to legal scholar Andrew Karhl, predatory tax buyers routinely infantilized their victims by overwhelming them with a deluge of documents, requirements, and timelines, in order to maximize their return on investment by accelerating and increasing the number of foreclosures. In line with this predatory design, victims lost their homes due to a modest amount of delinquent taxes and instead of outrage, many felt shame for being defrauded.
Coverture is a legal doctrine dismantled during the twentieth century that prohibited a wife from owning property or entering into contracts in her own name. Historical documents also reveal that the infantilization of women was intended by legislators who codified coverture. But, for women who owned property, the act that precipitated the alleged dignity taking was marriage, which legal scholar Hendrik Hartog argues is more accurately understood as dignity bestowing rather than dignity denying. A bottom up empirical interrogation using original sources established that becoming a wife was a source of dignity for women and it was spinsterhood that was a source of shame. Marriage was a gateway to adulthood and did not trap women in a permanent form of childhood, as the definition of infantilization requires. As a result, Hartog argued that coverture did not constitute a dignity taking because it lacked the dehumanization or infantilization element. Hartog argues that most women chose to enter into relationships where they were subordinate to and dependent upon a man.
Following a divorce, the customary law in southern Nigeria leads to the unequal division of matrimonial property; the man receives more than the woman. This qualifies as a dignity taking. The denial of women’s matrimonial property rights ignores their economic agency and capacity to make informed decisions, which constitutes a form of infantilization.
The continued registration and use of the Redskins trademark is an appropriation of the cultural property of Native Americans that rises to the level of a dignity taking, according to legal scholar Victoria Phillips. The term redskin is a racial slur used against Native Americans. But, the owners of the Washington Redskins and other sports teams insist that their redskin mascot is meant to be a positive and respectful representation of native people. Interview data shows that, despite the teams’ declared intent, most Native Americans find the use of the term disrespectful and dehumanizing.
Sound recordings of a community’s traditional music, performances, and events are cultural property that may also elicit dignity takings when taken or distributed without the community’s permission. According to ethnomusicologist Gianpaolo Chiriaco, other ethnomusicologists should also investigate these questions by prioritizing the voices and opinions of the people who they are recording.
Legal scholar Matthew Shaw studied the controversial 2013 closure of 49 public schools—which occurred primarily in Chicago’s communities of color— and concluded it was a dignity taking. Neighborhood schools are formally state property, but informally they are community property shared by residents in its vicinity. While children in the school’s enrollment area most obviously use it, neighbors also use the local school for community gatherings of all types because it often serves as a neighborhood’s nerve center. Beyond the property taxes paid to maintain the school, parents and neighbors routinely invest their time and money to further fortify neighborhood schools. Despite these investments, Chicago Public Schools closed several neighborhood schools that were “underutilized” as part of larger cost cutting measures, depriving the community of its property. Meanwhile, the school administrators’ dismissive attitude toward both community members and the independent hearing officer infantilized the community by giving them no real voice in the decision to close the schools.
Legal scholar Thomas Joo has argued that the demolition of Sacramento’s Japantown as part of the city’s urban renewal program constituted a dignity taking. Urban renewal was a public program created in the 1940s and 50s that used eminent domain to transfer ownership of homes and businesses in blighted areas to private developers for redevelopment. The avowed purpose of urban renewal was to eliminate urban decay. In practice, it eliminated long standing communities—mostly communities of color like Japantown—which belonged to the people who inhabited, ran businesses in, and frequented the area. Consequently, when authorities demolished Japantown, the larger community as well as individual homeowners and business proprietors suffered an involuntary property loss. After examining key archival records, Joo did not find evidence that city officials intended to dehumanize or infantilize occupants of Japantown. However, the Japanese American occupants newly returned from the internment camps of World War II felt that the demolition of their community was a continuation of this dehumanizing internment.
Legal scholar Shaun Ossei-Owusu notes the trend of urban hospital closings in low-income communities, and argues that the closure of Los Angeles’ King-Drew hospital in 2007 was a dignity taking. Because King-Drew was the only hospital in the city of Compton and surrounding areas that treated everyone regardless of insurance coverage, it was the community property of those within the hospital’s catchment area. Bureaucratic neglect and negligence led to several deaths—the most severe form of dehumanization. After the Los Angeles Times published an award-winning expose on the hospital’s many shortcomings, the federal government put it under review and then closed the hospital in 2007. This involuntary property loss as a result of dehumanizing neglect and mistreatment constituted a dignity taking.
Political Scientist Stephen Engel and English professor Thomas Lyle argue that the shuttering of gay bathhouses in New York at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic was a dignity taking. Although the public discourse characterized gay bathhouses as threats to public health and closed them under this pretext, empirical evidence shows that bathhouses were community institutions that actually bolstered public health through education and awareness campaigns. > Through closure, state authorities infantilized gay communities by stripping them of their autonomy By shutting down the gay bathhouses, state authorities “destroy[ed] community, depriv[ed] gay men of an important source of emotional sustenance and connection, and ignor[ed] the community-based work accomplished.”