Thursday, April 2, 2020


Daniel Sharfstein on Second Skins

Daniel Sharfstein

At the Seminar in Private Law on March 31, 2020, Daniel Sharfstein, Professor of Law and Professor of History at Vanderbilt Law School, presented his paper titled, “Second Skins.” The paper told the story of arbitration and labor rules in New York’s fur business in the early 20th century and also recounted the internal dynamics of the predominantly immigrant furriers’ community.

Sharfstein began by saying that to understand the legal position of immigrants in the United States, one should not limit the analysis to public immigration law and border-related spaces only. These issues are obviously important, but the everyday life of immigrants is also shaped by norms governing their labor relations and economic status, Sharfstein said. This sphere, often overlooked, is what Sharfstein called the “private law of the immigrants.”

Roughly a century ago, one New York City industry, the fur business, was predominantly migrant driven, Sharfstein said. According to his research, the majority of both factory owners and of the workers were Jewish, came from Eastern Europe and spoke the same language, Yiddish. This fact influenced the dispute settlement model within the industry, he said, and led to the development of a sophisticated arbitration system, by which manufacturers and laborers resolved some of their internal conflicts. Hence, the law governing everyday life of many immigrants was privately made by the community.

However, Sharfstein noted, it would be a mistake to assume that the self-governance model was perfect and flawless. Violence would sometimes break out, and the internal dynamics of the community shifted drastically. Ultimately, Sharfstein said, the New York furriers’ community, like any migrant community, was dynamic and not static, changing, and in flux. Scholars trying to understand it, as well as scholars studying other instances of the private law of immigrants, should remember that what they study is dynamic and change is inevitable, Sharfstein said.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, classes at the Law School have transitioned online. Following the suggestions of the President of the Yale University and the Dean of Yale Law School, the YLS Center for Private Law strives to continue its mission of teaching and community outreach and has moved the remainder of the 2020 Seminar in Private Law online. This year the Seminar is devoted to the theme of private law and inequality. We would like to thank Professor Sharfstein for being willing to participate in this format, as well as the countless administrative and IT staff of the Law School who tirelessly worked to make the transition online possible and seamless.