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Politics in, of, and through the Legal Academy: Akbar Interviews Matsuda, Part 2


Amna Akbar (@orangebegum) is the Charles W. Ebersold and Florence Whitcomb Ebersold Professor of Constitutional Law at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.

Mari Matsuda (@mari_matsuda) is Professor of Law at William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawai'i.

Part 1 of this interview is here.

Note from Amna Akbar: Mari Matsuda is a central scholar within the critical traditions of legal scholarship: in particular Critical Legal Studies, Critical Race Theory, and feminist legal theory. I sat down with her virtually, on December 3, 2020, to ask some questions about her insights on where we are today, where we have been, and where we might go. The conversation has been edited for clarity and readability.


Speaking of intellectual and scholarly trends, there’s growing interest in an intersection of understanding of how race, class, and gender informed political, economic and social relations. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, and right now capitalism and colonialism are more central in terms of objects of critique and systems that people in movements are imagining moving beyond than at any point in my life. I wonder how you view this moment within a longer trajectory. Is there anything unique about the current debates, or are we back to where the debates were a few decades ago?


It’s a misreading of critical race theory to think that it was not a critique of colonialism and capitalism and it was not rooted in political economy. My intellectual genealogy and political genealogy is a straight line to DuBois, whom my mother knew personally. And DuBois was a Marxist who centered an analysis of the uses of white supremacy to build wealth and power and destroy Black bodies in the United States. And I don’t think I’m unique in that in CRT. You know, Charles Lawrence has in his office a letter from Dr. Dubois that was sent to him on the occasion of his birth telling him that he needed to fix the mess the world was in.

If you look at the movements we come from, there was an explicit understanding that war and economic exploitation and police violence were outcomes of a racist, colonialist, capitalist system. When I was growing up, I saw images of Hiroshima, of napalmed children, children who looked like me. I was taught that our tolerance of this was racist and also that it had its origins in the Cold War, in the ideology that was fueling American empire. These are things that I’ve known all my life, and it has driven the intersectionality of my work. All these things are connected: Our ability to see some human beings as not human, justifying harm to their bodies and stealing of their land and labor. This is a package deal and critical race theory has always said we have to fight the whole package. That’s what intersectionality means.


Do you see anything unique in the way that capitalism and colonialism are figuring into like movement demands and imaginations or academic debates these days?


What feels different now is that this is part of ordinary public discourse. I grew up in a world where it was the job of the student to be more radical than the professor. Then I started teaching in a world where it was the opposite. Instead of my students dragging me to the barricades, in the ‘80s they’re talking about what kind of car they’re going to buy when they get out of law school. But now the students, because their lives are coinciding with the collapse of capitalism, know the status quo doesn’t work. They speak about it in quite matter-of-fact terms. Nothing has changed for me in the political analysis, but I think the voicing by everyone — from the beautiful young people who are filling the streets in rebellion to Joe Biden, President-elect to the United States—of a critique of wealth inequality, that is a new moment. Not that it’s never happened before, but it’s new in my professional timeline. I see it as a time of great danger and great promise.


My parents are from Pakistan, so I’m a South Asian American, and I’ve been involved with different racial justice work for most of my adult life, a lot of it in support of the Black freedom struggle. I’ve struggled with the question of how to think about my own racial and ethnic identities in that context. I wanted to ask you, as an Asian American activist and scholar of many decades: how do you think of your role?


The theorized version of my answer is in a piece I wrote called “Beyond and not beyond Black and White.” It goes something like this.

In the United States anti-Blackness and the racism that justified genocide against Native people is the first place you have to go to understand the embeddedness of racism within empire. When my ancestors show up at the turn of the last century, they were coming into a landscape in which it was okay to lynch people who were not white. They are threatened by that violence and excluded in the workplace because of that violence and treated as expendable because of that violence. As an Asian American, I better understand that the Black freedom struggle is my struggle.

I have also come to understand when to step back. So, I used to write about the native Hawaiian struggle—in fact I wrote about it in “Looking to the Bottom.” I don’t do that anymore because there are native scholars who should take the lead. They are doing amazing theoretical analysis and descriptive work around that movement.

Being in coalition and being in solidarity comes with an obligation to not be stupid. I don’t know how to put any other way. Learn something about the people that you’re in coalition with before you open your mouth. Know when to stand back. Standing back doesn’t mean doing nothing.

I think this came much easier to me than it does for someone of your generation. In the first part of my childhood, I grew up in Los Angeles. Japanese Americans in Los Angeles were segregated into the same neighborhoods that Blacks and Chicanos were segregated into. We went to the same public schools. We got harassed by the police. We—I—went to majority Black schools. So I grew up with this sense of solidarity with Black people.

That kind of experience is increasingly rare because of the way post ’65 immigration law has privileged immigration for rich Asians. That, plus other shifts in law and culture meant that Asians could move into white neighborhoods and go to white schools. This changes the dynamics between how Black and Asian people share space.

I think the other thing that’s happened is that, while in the ’70s there was an Asian American formation that was political and intentionally multi-Asian, now what students experience is more tentative. What would South Asian law students have in common with Korean law students? And even in a South Asian group, is it high caste Hindus or does it include people from other caste backgrounds and different religions?  We need to rebuild Asian American solidarity, which starts with teaching ethnic studies.


Can you talk a bit about how you teach organizing? And why?


I started teaching organizing for social change when I was at Georgetown in the early aughts. There were so many students who knew things were wrong. They had big, compassionate hearts, but when I said to them, “what are you going to do about it?” they gave me a blank look. It was troubling to me that students with so much privilege and so much emotional affinity to justice thought that the actual process of making change was going to be up to somebody else.

So I developed this class with Marilyn Sneiderman, who is the best organizer I know. We had students actually organize other people to attain a specific goal. We taught the techniques of traditional organizing along with social movement history so they could see that throughout history people have done this work, organizing others to give them a sense of their own power to make changes in the material conditions of their lives.  It is absolutely the most fun thing to teach.


The last question I have is about the struggles in Hawai’i that you’re involved with and how your position as someone who has lived in Hawai’i for a good portion of your life shapes your views of the United States and the struggles of our time.


There are two struggles in Hawai‘i history that shaped my thinking. First was the radical multi-racial Communist-backed ILWU union that ended the plantation system in Hawaii in 1946. Growing up, I knew many of the veterans of that movement, including amazing Asian women who were put on trial and accused of attempting the violent overthrow the United States. These were not violent women. They were militant supporters of worker rights and they brought about an economic revolution in Hawai‘i.

The second movement is the Kanaka Maoli Aloha ‘āina. When I was a teenager, I watched young dreamers in the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana stop the military bombing of the island of Kaho‘olawe. They went up against the US military with nothing but their love and their bodies. And some of them died. They had an astonishing victory. Nobody thought it was possible to stop the bombing of this island, yet it happened. I would add that this movement for Native Hawaiian sovereignty and the decolonization and liberation of the nation of Hawai‘i came on the tails of the Black Power Movement. This was not an accident. There was direct conversation between those movements, and an understanding that decolonization is a global necessity if human beings are to live healthy, peaceful lives on this planet. It continues. It continues in amazing ways in Hawai‘i. The most recent example is the protect Mauna Kea struggle. Anyone that doesn’t know about it should find the videos. They’re incredibly moving.