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REGINA AUSTIN Printer Friendly Page
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  • Professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania
  • Believes the black community should accommodate criminal behavior and find “good middle ground between straightness and more extreme forms of lawbreaking.”
  • Her approach to teaching law rests on her belief that “law is useful as a supplement to activism.”

A professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, Regina Austin is a feminist, an environmentalist activist, and a proponent of critical race theory, a scholarly tradition that considers white racism a permanent aspect of American life and thus advocates compensatory, race-based preferences for blacks in such realms as employment and higher education. Professor Austin’s university describes her as “a leading authority on economic discrimination and minority legal feminism.”

Long an outspoken advocate of racial separatism, particularly as an antidote to the supposedly continuing oppression of black Americans in the U.S., Austin has made cultural and ethnic fissure a centerpiece of her courses, which consider legal issues through the prism of identity politics. Characteristic of Austin’s approach is her popular seminar, “Advanced Torts: Intentional Torts and the Intersection of Race, Gender & Class.” As a course description reveals, “the seminar will consider the law of intentional torts from the perspective of intergroup and intragroup conflict.” More precisely, the course promises to teach students to analyze legal disputes “from the perspective of groups of subordinate status,” a category that Austin subdivides into “race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, or class.” The plain intention of “Advanced Torts” is to encourage students, especially minority students, to regard the law not as a body of rules applicable equally to all citizens but rather as an infinitely malleable concept subordinate to one’s perceived identity.

Central to Austin’s “Advanced Torts” course is her claim that minority status confers the privilege of interpreting the law as one pleases. As writer Heather MacDonald points out, Professor Austin, in her published articles, has exhorted the black community to reject the distinction between lawful and unlawful activity as the imposed strictures of an oppressive white society. Austin pours scorn on such “traditional values” as “conformity to the law,” which she insists will “intensif[y] divisions within the black community.” Austin has also called on blacks to engage in outright lawbreaking, which she calls “hustling,” but which in fact amounts to any number of acts of thievery licensed by Austin’s demands for social justice. Thus, “clerks in stores [who] cut their friends a break on merchandise, and pilfering employees [who] spread their contraband around the neighborhood,” are encouraged by Austin to occupy the “good middle ground between straightness and more extreme forms of lawbreaking.”

Similar notions of black exceptionalism govern Austin’s work as a professor. Asked in a 1999 interview to describe how she views her role as a legal scholar, Austin answered that it “should start with the premise that black people are at the center of the universe and go on from there.” This view, Austin explained, was the “common characteristic of the body of scholarship that is classified as critical race studies,” which she has long promulgated in her academic writings. A component of critical race theory that holds special appeal for Austin is the assertion that minority communities and cultures are not subject to the law. “I rely fairly heavily on culture as being the base on which you begin to build so that your authorities come from the culture and not outside of the culture,” says Austin, who claims that minority communities require an “alternative source of authority.”

Still another salient feature of Austin’s courses is their rejection of any pretense of scholarly objectivity in favor of an aggressively political agenda. Such is the case with her seminar, “Environmental Racism,” a course that grafts Austin’s views on race with her commitment to environmental activism. An official description of the seminar discloses that it “will explore the problems and principles that fuel the environmental justice movement.” The description also acknowledges that the seminar has a political agenda, among whose aims are “supporting the environmental racism claim,” championing “environmental/occupational health issues such as pesticide poisoning and sweatshop conditions,” and “protecting biodiversity.” Students will even take trips to those sites “which have been impacted by environmental injustice.”

Of the issues taken up by the “Environmental Racism” seminar, it is the assertion that current environmental laws disadvantage minority communities that resonates most powerfully for Professor Austin. Austin’s critique of environmental issues, however, is tied up with her opposition to privatization and free-market capitalism. Expounding on her environmentalist views in a 1999 interview, Austin expressed her hope “that minority groups get their fair share of the attention and the dollars that are being devoted to health care in this country”; she further lamented that “resources are removed from access by the market,” ostensibly resulting in “lesser quality environments” for minorities and the poor. Austin’s solution was to see to it that the privatization of wealth is “unraveled in a way that produces privatization or quasi-privatization for people who are the least well off.” Toward this end, Austin admitted, reiterating one of the operative themes of “Environmental Racism,” “law is useful as a supplement to activism.” The sentiment squared neatly with Austin’s conception of herself as a professor-activist; as she puts it, “I’m an institutional actor.”


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