Bernadette Atuahene

Professor of Law, Author, Documentary Filmmaker, and Activist

Bernadette Atuahene earned her JD from Yale and her MPA from Harvard.  After graduating, she served as a judicial clerk at the Constitutional Court of South Africa, and then practiced as an associate at Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton in New York.  She is now a law professor at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and a Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation and has written extensively about land dispossession.  She has worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the South African Land Claims Commission, and she has also directed and produced an award winning short documentary film about one South African family’s struggle to regain their land. She has been honored with the Fulbright Fellowship, Council on Foreign Relation’s International Affairs Fellowship, and Princeton’s Law and Public Affairs Fellowship. Her first book, We Want What’s Ours: Learning from South Africa’s Land Restitution Program (Oxford University Press, 2014), is based on 150 interviews she conducted with South Africans dispossessed of their land by the colonial and apartheid governments and who received some form of compensation post-apartheid.  In 2015, she won a National Science Foundation Grant for her new book project about land and housing in Detroit.

We Want What's Ours

We Want What’s Ours is a detailed study of South Africa’s attempts to rectify the deprivation of land suffered by thousands of people under the colonial and apartheid regimes. It teaches a critical lesson about these transitions: remedying past wrongs entails more than distributing money or even returning property, because the dispossessed did not just lose their possessions, they also had their dignity taken from them. A comprehensive remedy for these ‘dignity takings’ involves confronting the underlying dehumanization, infantilization, and political exclusion that enabled the dispossession.That is, it requires ‘dignity restoration’ – a remedy based on principles of restorative justice that seeks to rehabilitate the dispossessed and restore their agency.

After We Want What’s Ours was published, over 25 distinguished scholars have empirically developed the concepts of dignity takings and dignity restoration: Read their work here

Property Tax Foreclosure Crisis in Detroit

The Michigan state constitution prohibits property tax assessments from exceeding 50% of a property’s market value. Using assessment and sales data from 2009-2015 for the entire City of Detroit, we find that property tax assessments are substantially in excess of the state constitutional limit. In fact, in each of the examined years, anywhere from 55-85% of properties were unconstitutionally assessed, and the constitutional violation was most pronounced for lower valued properties. To remedy inflated assessments, in 2014 and 2015,Detroit’s assessor implemented assessment decreases ranging from 5% to 20% for select districts, but we find that systemic assessment inequity persisted for lower valued properties despite these reductions.

Most importantly, this study on unconstitutional property tax assessments in Detroit, is part of a larger book project that introduces and develops a new theoretical concept called stategraft, which is when state agents transfer property from residents to the state in violation of the state’s own laws. Although the concept was developed using the Detroit case, stategraft applies beyond Detroit to many other cases, including the discriminatory fines imposed and enforced by the police and courts in Ferguson, MO, broken treaties with Native Americans, and abuses of civil forfeiture.



Documentaries to Inspire Social Change

We Want What's Ours

Interviews & Appearances

JOHANNESBURG – For people claiming land rich in mineral wealth, or in cities where property prices are at a premium, land claims are not only about dignity and the right to a home. Watch here…

Support for small scale farmers: Should development support for small-scale farmers be based on the enforcement of basic human rights or on pro-poor development of markets? Guest: Bernadette Atuahene- Professor of Law, IIT @ Chicago-Kent College of Law. Listen now…

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