- Professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania
- Proponent of critical race theory
- Views America as a nation awash in racism
- Believes that (nonwhite) minority status confers the privilege of interpreting the law as one pleases
Regina Austin holds a BA from the University of Rochester (1970) and a JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School (1973), where she currently serves as a professor. Austin is a proponent of critical race theory, a scholarly tradition that considers white racism a permanent aspect of American life and thus favors compensatory, race-based preferences for blacks in the realms of employment and higher education. Professor Austin’s university describes her as “a leading authority on economic discrimination and minority legal feminism,” and an expert on “the overlapping burdens of race, gender, and class oppression in traditional legal scholarship.” Austin is also the director of the Penn Program on Documentaries & the Law, a “social justice” initiative that trains law students “to become producers and directors of visual legal advocacy … pieces” created on behalf of capital defendants.
A longtime, outspoken advocate of racial separatism—particularly as an antidote to the supposedly continuing oppression of black Americans—Austin has made cultural and ethnic discord a central theme of her courses, which consider legal issues through the prism of identity politics. One of her seminars—“Advanced Torts: Intentional Torts and the Intersection of Race, Gender & Class”—examines “the law of intentional torts from the perspective of intergroup and intragroup conflict.” The course teaches 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.” In short, “Advanced Torts” encourages students—especially nonwhite minorities—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. Moreover, students are taught that minority status confers the privilege of interpreting the law as one pleases.
“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, explaining that minority communities require an “alternative source of authority.” In her published articles, she has exhorted African Americans to reject the distinction between lawful and unlawful activity as the imposed strictures of an oppressive white society. Deriding “conformity to law” as one of those “traditional values” that often “intensif[y] divisions within the black community,” Austin countenances certain types of illegal “hustling” that, by her telling, occupy the “good middle ground between straightness and more extreme forms of lawbreaking.” Such relatively harmless hustlers, she explains, include “clerks in stores [who] cut their friends a break on merchandise, and pilfering employees [who] spread their contraband around the neighborhood.”
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 perspective, Austin explained, was the “common characteristic of the body of scholarship that is classified as critical race studies.”
A salient feature of Austin’s courses is their promotion of an aggressively political agenda in preference to scholarly objectivity. Such is the case with her “Environmental Racism” seminar, which grafts Austin’s views on race with her commitment to “the environmental justice movement.” The official course description of this seminar acknowledges that it 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.”
Austin gives voice to the Marxist core of critical race theory when she laments the way “resources are removed from access by the market,” resulting in “lesser quality environments” for minorities and the poor. Her proposed solution is wholesale redistributionism—which she calls “a restoration of the public interest in private wealth”—in order to “produc[e] privatization or quasi-privatization for people who are the least well off.” Toward this end, Austin sees the law as a “useful … supplement to activism”—a sentment that squares neatly with Austin’s conception of herself as a professor-activist: “I’m an institutional actor.”
Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald notes that in Austin’s view, teen pregnancy, like lawbreaking, also has a political as well as a personal dimension; that it represents an “attempt to break out of the rigid economic, social, and political categories that a racist, sexist, and class-stratified society would impose” on poor black females.
Austin was a focal point of controversy in 1990, when she was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School. At that time, Harvard professor Derrick Bell—explaining that black female law students were in desperate need of “role models” like Austin—issued a “non-negotiable demand” that the school hire her as a tenured faculty member. When Harvard would not cave to Bell’s pressure, the professor protested by taking a leave of absence from his teaching post.
For additional information on Regina Austin, click here.