Contracts Under Review: Brittany Farr examines the intersections of race and private law

Brittany Farr believes in the importance of storytelling. As a folklore and mythology major at Harvard College, Farr says, she first began to realize how stories help us to understand who and what society values. Now a leading scholar in race and private law, Farr says she draws upon these initial lessons in storytelling in her current research, which examines how freed and enslaved African Americans used or attempted to use contract law to seek remedies for acts of violence.

Brittany Farr
Brittany Farr

“A lot of people easily see the connections between race and constitutional law or criminal law, but how contract law and race interact feels less intuitive,” says Farr. “This is really what draws me to this kind of scholarship…. I think our historical, legal perspective could use some broadening.”

Farr joins the Law School from the University of Pennsylvania’s Carey Law School, where she was a Sharswood Fellow and lecturer in law. In her latest research project in progress, Breach by Violence, Farr has been examining primary documents— including census data, appellate decisions, news clippings, oral histories, and case files—involving instances where sharecroppers who were violently attacked by their landlords sued those landlords for payment owed for breach of contract.

“I’m interested in understanding what people thought about the law and their relationship to the law,” says Farr. “Contract law was so obviously racist and oppressive and in a way that I think is actually hard to imagine in our contemporary moment. That there were people who, even in those circumstances, thought that they could use the law and get our legal system to work for them is, I think, an important part of history and one that I find really inspiring.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree cum laude at Harvard, Farr went to the University of Southern California, where she earned a PhD in communication in 2016. The 2014 protests following the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shifted her focus to examining how stories of race were told on a large scale, she says. Her PhD thesis looked at how fears about Black motherhood have influenced public policy campaigns, popular culture, and certain laws. While examining how race and racial fears fit into legal doctrine for her thesis, Farr decided to pursue a law degree to better understand the interplay.

Farr went to Yale Law School, where she began studying “warranties of soundness,” used in the sale of enslaved people in the United States in the 19th century. In particular, she says, she became intrigued by how gender and health were invoked in litigation around these warranties, and became interested in studying old cases through a broader historical lens.

“Brittany Farr is a true scholar and an intellectual powerhouse,” says Claire Priest, Simeon E. Baldwin Professor of Law at Yale Law School, who was one of Farr’s law school advisors. “Her research has contemporary relevance as we think about contract law in its relation to undocumented workers, impoverished tenants, and other groups lacking social power…. I suspect Farr will inspire a new generation of scholars.”

At the Law School, Farr will teach a seminar on contract theory, where she plans to provide more historical context to classic cases taught in traditional contracts curriculum. “So many of the faculty members—and the students— at NYU are doing interdisciplinary work, and I am so excited to join that community of fellow travelers,” says Farr, who moved to New York with her partner in 2021. In time away from research, Farr says she enjoys science fiction and fantasy—in particular, N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. “People sometimes think of science fiction as a kind of escapism,” says Farr. “It’s actually this beautiful lens that we sometimes need to see and recognize how beautiful our world is and can be.”   

Posted September 8, 2022