Legal Fictions

Trademark Discourse and Race
  • Richard Schur


Culture, whether as ideology or as everyday ritual, is where power inequalities manifest themselves in the behavior and values of ordinary people. This chapter examines how trademark law has enabled the ongoing circulation of racialized images and how its doctrinal building blocks offer striking analogies for understanding how race has operated and continues to function. Circulation of racial imagery is not simply an accidental effect of the current trademark system but a fundamental element of its logic. The entire purpose of trademarks is to rely on catchy slogans, fanciful phrases, and distinctive imagery to serve as proxies for authenticity or quality claims about product and corporate identities. Sometimes, these marks are truly arbitrary without any literal or cultural referent. Other times, marks build on existing but legally unrecognized cultural narratives or metaphors. In other words, trademark law is a key site within legal discourse where stereotypes and assumptions can get transformed into operative and potentially valuable fictions.1 This chapter invokes I. Bennett Capers’s strategy of “reading back” and “reading black” to suggest how much trademark law can teach us, perhaps unintentionally, about the function and operation of race in contemporary life.2 This approach reveals that the concept of race, as a social fiction that identifies a person, is a key, albeit unspoken, feature of trademark discourse.3 The slippage between racial and trademark discourse can also be found in unexpected places in American culture, including major civil rights cases such as Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Gratz v. Bollinger (2003).4


Racial Identity Legal Discourse Corporate Identity National Basketball Association African American Culture 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Bone, Robert. “Schechter’s Ideas in Historical Context and Dilution’s Rock)’ Road.” Santa Clara Computer and High Technology Law Journal 24 (2008): 469–506.Google Scholar
  2. Capers, I. Bennett. “Reading Back, Reading Black.”Hofstra Law Review 35 (Fall 2006): 9–22.Google Scholar
  3. Capers, I. Bennett. “Reading Back, Reading Black, and Buck v. Bell.”Injustice Unveiled: African American Culture and Legal Discourse, edited by Lovalerie King and Richard Schur. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009.Google Scholar
  4. Everett, Percival. “The Appropriation of Cultures.” Callaloo 19, no. 1 (Winter 1996): 24–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Fears, Darryl. “Patent Offense: Wayan’s Hip Hop Line.” Washington Post, March 15, 2006, sec. C.Google Scholar
  6. Gossett, Thomas. Race: The History of an Idea in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.Google Scholar
  7. Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003).Google Scholar
  8. Greene, K. J. “Trademark Law and Racial Subordination: From Marketing of Stereotypes to Norms of Authorship.” Syracuse Law Review 58 (2008): 431–45.Google Scholar
  9. Gross, Ariela. What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Haney Lopez, Ian. White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York: New York University Press, 1996.Google Scholar
  11. Hannaford, Ivan. Race: The History of an Idea in the West. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.Google Scholar
  12. Harris, Michael. Colored Pictures: Race and Visual Representations. Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.Google Scholar
  13. Johnson, Alex. “Destabilizing Racial Classifications Based on Insights Gleaned from Trademark Law.” California Law Review 84 (1996): 887–952.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Kern-Foxworth, Marilyn. Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. Westwood, CT: Greenwood, 1994.Google Scholar
  15. Lipsitz, George. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Benefit from Identity Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.Google Scholar
  16. Manring, M. M. Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998.Google Scholar
  17. McKenna, Mark. “The Normative Foundations of Trademark Law.” Notre Dame Law Review 82 (2007): 1840–1916.Google Scholar
  18. Piper, Adrian. Out of Order, Out of Sight: Selected Writings in Art Criticism, 1967–1992. Vol. 1 and 2. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.Google Scholar
  19. Plessyv. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).Google Scholar
  20. Pro-Football v. Harp, 284 F. Supp 2d 96 (D.D.C. 2003).Google Scholar
  21. Schechter, Frank. “The Rational Basis for Trademark Protection.” Harvard Law Review 40, no. 6 (1927): 813–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Schur, Richard. Parodies of Ownership: Hip Hop Aesthetics and Intellectual Property Law. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Silbey, Jessica. “The Mythical Beginnings of Intellectual Property Law.” George Mason Law Review 15 (Winter 2008): 319–79.Google Scholar
  24. Sotiropoulos, Karen. Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Troutt, David D. “A Portrait of the Trademark as a Black Man: Intellectual Property, Commodification, and Redescription.” U.C. Davis Law Review 38 (April 2005): 1141–1207.Google Scholar
  26. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Serial No. 76639548. Alexandria, VA: 2006.Google Scholar
  27. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Serial No. 77309301. Alexandria, VA: 2008.Google Scholar
  28. Winant, Howard. “The Theoretical Status of the Concept of Race.” In Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader, edited by Les Back and John Solomos, 181–90. New York: Routledge, 2000.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Lovalerie King and Richard Schur 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard Schur

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations