Friday, March 30, 2018
Professional Apartheid: The Racialization of US Law Schools after the Global Economic Crisis published in the American Ethnologist (August 2017)
Riaz Tejani, Assistant Professor of Legal Studies, University of Illinois at Sprinfield
Below is an excerpt of Professor Tejani's article:
"The 2008 global financial collapse was a watershed for US law schools. The sudden loss of capital, triggered by overspeculation and the repackaging of debt among multinational banks, caused global corporations to cancel transactions, settle litigation, and demand greater effi- ciency in remaining legal-services agreements.
Large global law firms laid off thousands of attorneys, canceled new recruitments, and began outsourcing work to legal temp agencies, which in turn benefited from a professional labor oversupply and the new “gig” economy. In the preceding years, US law schools had expanded their operations and planned their budgets based on tuition priced against once-widespread lucrative corporate law incomes. Now they faced austerity.
And because it was already in doubt whether law school job outcome reports were accurate, the moral hazard that they generated seemed to multiply after the economic crash. Prospective students took heed. Whereas legal education had seen increased demand in prior economic downturns, this time would be different: enrollment in US law schools plunged 30 percent from 2011 to 2015.
Indexing public fascination with this, failures in legal education made headlines in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and the Huffington Post. In an age of new cultural insurrections like Occupy and Black Lives Matter, people grew fascinated by the discomfort of this once-elite knowledge community. Beneath those news stories lay serious lessons about difference and knowledge capitalism in the contemporary global system. The so-called crisis of legal education and the legal profession, along with the overwhelmingly market-based reaction to it, suggests something deeper about the state of social justice under neoliberal political economy.
This is in part because, in the United States, formal legal education is virtually the only pathway to legal expertise, and law school—namely the three-year course of study in pursuit of the JurisDoctor, or JD degree—is a graduate-level, professional program only. Falling law school enrollment in the United States would shrink the legal profession, but the country already has one of the largest lawyer-to-population ratios in the world.
Prominent legal academics have nevertheless argued that the demand for legal education should remain high because the profession still lacks ethnic and racial diversity and because existing attorneys have not equitably served minority communities. In this context, the “crisis” of US law schools is as much about political economy as it is about the character of the legal profession.
Inequalities in legal education have long been present. For instance, the ethnographically salient division of US law schools into “top tier,” “second tier,” “third tier,” and “fourth tier” already long signified a preoccupation with hierarchy. The economic crisis would only exacerbate these inequalities. Facing declining enrollments, so-called fourth-tier law schools saw a market-based solution: to increase their marketing to ethnic and racial-minority communities and to style this as a mission to diversify legal services (Taylor 2015; Tejani 2017).
The suggestion appeared to be that US ethnic and racial minorities—long limited in their ability to access the justice system (Herrera 2014; Rhode 2004, 2015b)—can benefit merely from greater representation in the legal profession, if largely at a lower level of prestige and opportunity. This new approach to political-economic redemption in the legal-education community captures the marketization of race as a new feature of neoliberalism and has been critically labeled by at least one former law dean an “apartheid model.”"
To read the full article, click here.
Tuesday, March 27, 2018
This post is part of the blog's symposium, "Wakandan Jurisprudence: How Black Panther Challenges Us to Examine the Past, Present, and Future of Race.”
The Black Panther movie has drawn the attention of the entire world. It is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s highest-grossing movie. Think pieces have proliferated across the internet—and this blog’s symposium is no exception. And this boundary-breaking moment in pop culture has revolved around the unabashed humanization of Africans, the African Diaspora, and the subjugation of the African people.
In other words, despite this being a movie based on a comic book, Black Panther humanized blackness in a complicated and real-feeling way. This realization offers us a moment where we can reimagine our conversation about race.
To appreciate this, let’s think about how popular blockbuster films has typically portrayed blackness. While there are certainly exceptions, Hollywood has deployed numerous tropes that misrepresent and underrepresent blackness. These include the “Magical Negro” who uses powers in service as a sidekick to a usually white character, the “Black Thug,” who is intended to be a receptacle of dehumanized behavior and pathological violence, and the "deracialized Black hero" who is virtuous but only happens to be black.
But Black Panther, as Afrofuturistic fiction, forces us to re-imagine, confront, and defy the underlying narratives that drive those Hollywood tropes. And it unapologetically does so by, first and foremost, forcing us to imagine a world wholly owned by Africans, a world where Blackness is unbounded by white supremacy.
Wakanda is separate and apart from the white settler colonist world, yet its technology and sophistication (and its infiltrative practices and policy of noninterference) are more powerful than the nation-states of the colonialist or colonialist-influenced powers. While this utopia is imperfect and the film serves to expose its flaws—and this state-view is open to critique, as Saru Matambanazo has suggested in this symposium—this imaginative offering of Black statehood not subjugated by white settler colonialism defies the tropes that blackness is bounded by in Hollywood blockbusters.
Moreover, Black Panther humanized blackness by making it the moral norm within this cinematic construct. Wakandan blackness and Oakland blackness are the poles of the film. The alien infiltrators into this world are the two white characters, jokingly known as “the Tolkein white boys.” This defies the received-tradition of antiblackness.
Wakandan women and men are royalty, leaders, followers, citizens, and soldiers. Not the British Crown, the American President, or the Russian Federation. Wakandans own the conversations. Wakandans own the family, policy, and visionary disputes of the film. Within this dynasty built entirely apart from white supremacy, it is the Wakandans —all Wakandans—who are the whole moral agents. And T’Challa is their king and lord protector of this legacy.
N’Jadaka—aka “Erik Killmonger”—disrupts T’Challa’s Afro-utopia by making present and persistent the question of how the power of Wakanda ought to be used in relation to Black liberation. As Robin Walker Sterling pointed out during this symposium, the heart of N’Jadaka’s complaint—and his anger—is the Black privilege that Wakanda’s isolation and power allows.
But stop for a moment and appreciate that—Black privilege as a norm and a possibility rather than an oddity; Black anger as legitimate usurping political power rather than vicious trope.
Black Panther forces attention onto racial subjugation by giving N’Jadaka the most provocative and persuasive voice in the film. He demands redress for the diaspora’s dispossession through deploying the power of Wakanda to destroy white settler colonialism by force. He transforms Wakanda—for a moment—into an imperialist interventionist state powered by what Tabias Olajuawon called during this symposium a “fugitive politic” informed by “Black Combustibility.”
Let’s be clear: the film forces us to imagine Black anger as legitimate and normalized. Black anger is given a place at the table. It grants Black anger political power and vibranium weapons. But this anger is ultimately contained when T’Challa kills N’Jadaka and retakes the throne. Many see this as a failing, as if with N’Jadaka’s death the anger ends. But the film makes this reading more complicated.
The movie ends not with N’Jadaka’s death, but with T’Challa transformation. Pivotal to this is the defiance T’Challa shows in his second ancestor scene, where he confronts the tradition of nonintervention by telling T’Chaka, his father, and the host of ancestral kings that they were wrong to be passive. Thereafter, the re-awakened T’Challa accedes to N’Jadaka’s core thesis, the need for intervention to help the African dispossessed, but he fights N’Jadaka over the throne and the means. T’Challa’s victory leads to his use of soft power intervention instead of hard power. Moreover, this use of soft power shows T’Challa’s transformation from passive caretaker to interventionist leader.
The Black Panther movie thus offers us a thought experiment that imagines an empowered state (and statehood) of blackness and forces all of us—children of the dispossessed African diaspora and children of settler colonialism privilege alike—to imagine its potential scope. Nareissa Smith spoke to imagination and vision in this symposium. She rightfully puts Black Panther in the genre of films that encourage African Americans to imagine themselves anew and then “conceive a brighter, Blacker future.”
I think there is an additional possibility: Black Panther teaches us, the world at large, that Black diasporic anger has a place at the table in our political and legal discourse. Consciousness of the harm of racism can transform our thinking and challenge us to act differently and for the better. We must grow our imaginations by focusing on the evidence in front of our eyes.
Black privileged T’Challa now seeks to build bridges because he had to confront N’Jadaka’s diasporic anger and its moral claim. T’Challa had to make sense of that anger in both his final journey to the ancestors and his final confrontation with N’Jadaka. I believe T’Challa’s preparation in Wakandan constitutionalism intersected with his new awareness of diasporic anger. This synthesis transformed his imagination. T’Challa then rejects isolationism and reaches out in a humane way. Thus, T’Challa now possesses privilege and power but that privilege now incorporates race consciousness rooted in the realities of subjugation.
The real world needs more of T’Challa’s kind of consciousness raising.
For example, consider the limits of the Supreme Court’s judicial imagination around race. In an essay entitled “Normalizing Domination,” I argued that the Supreme Court’s treatment of racialized voting rights concerns represents an unwillingness “to believe what is before them by substituting other explanations for racial discrimination.” My explanation for this is the legacy of colorblind constitutionalism made manifest in a post-Shelby County v. Holder period of post-racialist retrenchment about the politics of race. The Court focuses on narrow measures of antidiscrimination success rather than broader discourses that continue to suppress poor minorities’ votes.
Black Panther would suggest that limited imagination can be turned around through taking in the evidence before our eyes and hearing the claims of the angry and dispossessed. This kind of listening requires going beyond the narrowest of measures and tendencies towards triumphalism. It requires a more expansive vision, the normalizing of the so-called “other,” the goal of actually learning from the other side and putting of privilege at risk.
For the Court, it would require embracing—rather than denying—the benefits of a constructive constitutional race consciousness meant to humanize all citizens. It requires recognizing that our constitution is dynamic and, as Justice Thurgood Marshall recognized, this dynamism is necessary to attain the freedom we have now. By changing the premise about race and the Constitution, the outcome in cases like Shelby County can too change.
I believe that judicial imagination, political imagination, and even our collective societal imagination can be transformed through these ideas. This is the larger moral of Black Panther.
Sunday, March 25, 2018
This guest post is part of the blog's symposium, "Wakandan Jurisprudence: How Black Panther Challenges Us to Examine the Past, Present, and Future of Race.”
There is much to be said about Black Panther, much to be said about a movie that has caused many to sit and drift, both anxiously and unwittingly, into the planning, enactment and re-imaging of Black Utopia and Black Reconciliation. There is something to be said for sitting and drifting. Both are often understood as passive acts, or non-acts, but in all truth require a type of still movement only found in focus and discipline. To drift is to the relieve the mind and/or body of navigational responsibility, to duty and desire to remain; it is always, already a type of freedom making. Submissive flight. Sitting, the upright folding of one’s body that relieves ankle and foot from the responsibilities of mobility and/or erection. A submission to gravity. A relief. A de/reactivation of specific muscles and joints. A re/balancing.
N’Jadaka emerges as a complicated and familiar character, destabilizing the narrative of Black Utopia. He is familiar, and forbidden, in the way the way that violent protest is a reoccurring, forbidden and familiar option that visits Black people in Amerikkka in the still of black being and the quiet of black rest. N’Jadaka--Eric Killmonger--operates as a stand in for myriad understandings and markings of what Black rage is and isn’t. He is the reminder and the promise of the uncontrollable nature of Black rage, what we might call Black Combustibility; the danger of black feeling, of black being, of black insistence on life and resistance.
“Combustibility is a measure of how easily a substance bursts into flame, through fire or combustion. This is an important property to consider when a substance is used for construction or is being stored.”
Black Combustibility is often marked and pathologized as the site of uncivilized blackness or Black excess. It is sometimes mis/understood as the inability of black people to control ourselves and imagined in tropes or hyper sexuality, hyper masculinity and excesses of strength and emotion. It finds its roots and routes in the transmutation of the Black being from subject to object in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade. Brandings, scars and Bodily regulations. These markings of Black Combustibility work together to create a narrative that marks the most expressive, authentic and charismatic of Black folks as not only dangerous to themselves—combustible—but also dangerous to the community and creates, or at least contributes to, the logic of anti-Black policing, surveillance and assassination plots (COINTELPRO). Here, I imagine Black Combustibility not as excess but as access and ability. It is the ability to become fire, that must be regulated, lest the ship of captivity burn from the hold. I imagine Black Combustibility here then, as the power of black rage, of black witnessing and black insistence on being, as having always, already been capable of undoing regimes of racial-sexual terror, subjugation and violence. Black Combustibility is the flame of black (after) lives that burns freedom present.
This harkens back to what Baldwin famously noted as a constitutive element of the reality of Black (woke) life, “to black and conscious in America to is to be in a state of rage.” To be conscious though, is not simply to be aware of what is happening, but to bear witness to these moments and to gird oneself—one’s people—for the wake, the aftershock, the ripples: wake work. This witnessing engenders a type of responsibility to recall and give voice to what has taken place and to do something with it; even if that something is to simply hold the truth of the occurrence and reckon with it.
N’Jadaka embodies the ultimate witness. First, he witnesses himself as other in Amerikkka. Not simply other as African American, but as Wakandan; knowing that there is a place where Black bloodletting need not occur, if only someone would invite him—and perhaps all those he’d lost—to the refuge. Second, he witnesses father’s death. Not the actual murder itself but the cosmic circumstances that marked his departure. The place that did not want, or perhaps see, him had made itself real only to steal his father, to take more of his birthright. Finally, he witnesses the both grandeur of Wakanda and the struggle of Diaspora. He comes to Re-present the story of abandonment, of rage, of wounds, of love, of home-crafting familiar to the descendants of slaves. He embodies the rupture. He yells the secret. He ushers in the shame of Wakandan (African) complicity in the transatlantic trade and gives voice and muscle to the trauma of dislocation, of orphanage of un/mothering.
N’Jadaka signifies the unrecoverability of African-Americans, while also speaking to a simmering, unmarked fugitive politic. Much like many Black Americans he has temporarily embedded himself in anti-Black institutions in order to afford some modicum of Black life. Even more so, he has used the tools of the CIA to create a pathway to his own understanding, and realization of, a Black liberation politic. “The sun will never set on Wakanda,” he says, not merely because all of the world will now be a Wakandan empire, but instead because all Black people are now Wakandans; entitled to her technology, her history and her future. In fact, all Black people are technologies of the Wakandan project. How might we understand this as a modern iteration of Pan-Africanism, infused with what Saidiya Hartman has called the fugitives dream?
Where Hartman embraces a statelessness that would be contrary to N’Jadakas vision of being King or “the” Black Panther, a re-imagining of both created exciting possibilities. For instance, what happens if we take Hartman’s idea of autonomy—from states, borders and rulers—seriously, and imagine N’Jadakas Wakanda empire as collective rather than monarchy? What if Wakanda is transformed from magnificent location to a collective politic? What if Wakanda is not only where you are, but how you are? The connective fabric of Wakandans then, might be transformed from the realm of monarchical rule and submission to free flowing bonds of culture, spirit and politic.
The embrace of Black Conbustibility isn’t a call to accept the ways in which Black people are continually pathologized; but to instead to see how we are being seen, to stop investing in the belief and practice of trying to change minds for the acquisition of freedom and instead revive or create a new language of freedom, a language of insistence, a language of flight. Perhaps it is a language yet to be made, one that is laying wait in the practice of home or space making, as we learn to come together again, anew. This is a language N’Jadaka stutters through. He is not yet fluent, but he is also not simply babbling.
Today, as Black people are routinely disciplined through legal and economic lashings of violent lessons of comportment—from laws criminalizing sagging to ongoing manifestations of the afterlives of slavery—there is little to lose from trying something old, in a new way. The state has failed to save us from itself; indeed, that is an impossible task it was not built for. However, by making our own fugitive homes, designing our own fugitive flights and dreaming our own fugitive dreams; we might fashion ourselves as the children able to save ourselves from the latest, in a long line predatory states, that lived off the consumption of our foremothers. Perhaps we’ll all be stateless. Perhaps, at some moment, we’ll create a town, a city, a nation, a Wakanda. Perhaps, we’ll continue to scatter in the moonlight. One thing is for certain; we have the ability to take flight and the weather is ripe for departure, with or without vibranium.
Tabias Olajuawon, JD is an author, scholar, and Ph. D Candidate at the University of Texas-Austin.
Saturday, March 24, 2018
This guest post is part of the blog's symposium, "“Wakandan Jurisprudence: How Black Panther Challenges Us to Examine the Past, Present, and Future of Race.”
Killmonger is ruthless. Intelligent. Single-minded. Strategic. But above all, he is angry.
And I have to admit, it was thrilling for me, a black woman who has recently come out as “angry,” to see black anger depicted so brilliantly on screen. I mean brilliant in the sense that it burned so bright I felt that I had to shield my eyes or look away from it. Killmonger’s every scene was pulsating with a blood-deep hostility that motivated him. It focused him. It propelled him to great successes, like a Ph.D. at MIT, and great evils, like killing hundreds of people and reducing them to nothing more than another notch on his body. This was a villain unlike almost any other I had seen. He was not motivated by greed or a protean, gossamer-edged sense of evil. Killmonger’s anger took the shape of a spear aimed unerringly at the heart of Wakanda. Here was the shimmering personification of righteous anger, turned poisonous, but sprung from love for his father, devotion to his father’s vision, and commitment to righting centuries of race-based wrongs. Why not remake the world with black people on top? Forge black privilege, black supremacy, and black power from vibranium and kimoye beads. I found myself nodding in agreement with Killmonger more often than not. And although I was sorry he died, I understood why he chose to, instead of accepting T’Challa’s offer of trying to heal him. His choice of death over bondage was completely consistent with his character. With his anger.
As thrilling as his anger was for me to watch, it was also a lightning rod for criticism. People were unsettled that Killmonger was so angry. His anger colored everything else about him: his intellect, such that he could have a Ph.D. from MIT and still be labeled a thug, and his motivations, such that his plans were labeled divisive.
I took these accusations debasing Killmonger’s anger personally. He gets to be angry, I thought. He has a right to his anger – especially since he is right to be angry. Because his anger was one of the things that, for me, made him black. It was part of his blackness. It certainly is part of mine. At least once a day, in ways large and small, I am reminded of ways in which my country fails me because I am black. I am angry that my black husband and I are far more likely to be stopped, detained, searched, and shot by the police than other people. I am angry that I have to worry that my black daughter’s teachers are underestimating her abilities or attributing any typical toddler misbehavior to personal failing, lack of ability, or some other deficiency based in implicit racial bias. I am angry that my chances of dying of a heart attack, of breast cancer, and of child birth are markedly higher than those same statistics for other women – and that, if I were in severe pain suffering from any of those things, I am less likely to get medication to adequately manage my pain. I am angry that when we apply for mortgages or car loans we will automatically be charged higher interest rates because we are black.
My anger is not colorblind.
Colorblindness reduces race to a physical concept. It erases black culture, black history, and black lived experiences. And it also washes out black anger. In order to be heard, we are supposed to be able to have debates with Tomi Lahren without seething, to discuss each millisecond of a video of police brutality without being overwhelmed by its graphic contents, to let people take pictures of our scarred backs to convince them that things are as bad as we say they are.
There needs to be more space for black anger in the law. James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” And Maya Angelou said, "Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns all clean." Anger can be just as much an engine of social change as any other emotion.
Perhaps that, ultimately, is a big part of why black anger gets such a bad rap. If you are angry enough, you might choose resistance – no matter the cost – over bondage.
Robin Walker Sterling is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law
Thursday, March 22, 2018
Image credits: Top, Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Studios. Bottom: Columbia Pictures
Like nearly every other person of color that viewed "Black Panther," I left the theater mesmerized. While the movie's all-Black cast makes it a unique Hollywood offering, its depiction of Blackness is even more striking.
From the beginning of cinema, depictions of Blackness have been largely negative. One of Hollywood’s earliest blockbusters, “Birth of a Nation,” depicted Black people as stupid, lazy, lascivious monsters intent on destroying white society. In later years, Hollywood depictions broadened to include roles such as the docile slave (“Gone with the Wind”), the simple buffoon (the ‘Stepin Fetchit’ films, “Amos ‘n’ Andy”), the sassy domestic (“Beulah”), and other negative portrayals.
The Civil Rights Movement ushered in an era of more positive representations. For the first time, African Americans were portrayed as educated professionals (“I Spy,” “Julia,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Who’s Coming to Dinner,” - any movie starring Sidney Poitier, really) capable of holding their own with whites.
In the 1970s, blaxploitation films such as “Superfly,” “The Mack,” and others presented an alternative view of Blackness that emphasized sexuality and criminality. Though this movement briefly waned, in the 1990s, films such as “Boyz n the Hood,” “New Jack City,” “Menace to Society,” and others also explored drug culture and crime. Though each of these films had strong anti-drug, anti-crime messages, for some, the takeaway was that these films were a realistic depiction of Black life.
To be sure, many African-Americans bristle at negative media portrayals because they fear – and somewhat justifiably so – that these films will negatively influence how whites view us. But, this argument is problematic for several reasons. Not only does this argument absolve whites of the responsibility to befriend actual Black people rather than celluloid substitutes, but it is also frequently used as a convenient excuse to engage in respectability politics. But the largest, glaring flaw in this argument is that it ignores how labelling certain depictions of Blackness “realistic” limits the Black imagination.
The wonderful thing about "Black Panther" is that it challenges Black viewers to see themselves in a different light. Wakanda is a peaceful, technologically advanced nation with a populace that lives together in harmony. Yes, it is fictional. No kingdom with the qualities of Wakanda exists – not in Africa, not in Europe, and not in North America. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to get as close to Wakanda as we can.
I came of age in the “New Jack City” era. While the movies of that era were not my reality, they did accurately depict the reality of any number of African-Americans. But when reality is so bleak, why must we double-down on it? If we can’t imagine beyond reality, how can we ever hope to transcend it?
According to an old saying, “Small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, and great minds discuss ideas.” To co-opt that phrase into this discussion, average Black minds can dissect our reality, but great Black minds can see beyond our current reality into a more just and prosperous future.
The value of “Black Panther” and other films that portray Blackness and Africanness in a positive light is that they allow African Americans to see ourselves in a different light. By altering perceptions, they stretch the Black imagination. Energized imaginations are then able to conceive a brighter, Blacker future.
It would be silly to argue that the reality of Black life as it is should never be portrayed. Every Black movie need not be set in Wakanda to be meaningful. However, “Black Panther” proves that while paying homage to our reality is important, imagining our future is equally so.
Hopefully, “Black Panther” will usher in a new era of creativity that stretches the limits of Blackness in cinema and beyond.
Wednesday, March 21, 2018
This guest post is part of the blog's symposium, "“Wakandan Jurisprudence: How Black Panther Challenges Us to Examine the Past, Present, and Future of Race.”
Black Panther fulfilled a diasporic desire that seemed impossible to articulate prior to its release. As a child of the Black African Diaspora, Black Panther made my heart feel full. I was hardly alone. Many African-American viewers met Ryan Coogler’s vision of the Black Panther as king of the exquisitely conceptualized Black African Utopia, Wakanda, with enthusiasm and joy. Its premiere was an emotional global event for many Black People.
But the cultural resonance has also stirred up many debates within the Black Diaspora (one example is the fascinating debate around the museum scene). However, the film’s treatment of the central struggles for Black Liberation left me dissatisfied. Black Panther is a wildly imaginative film, but its treatment of the possibilities for Black Liberation is grounded in the dualities of White Patriarchal Settler Colonial Supremacy and thus obscures the potential for alternative ways of being, becoming, and birthing freedom through solidarity.
This realization becomes clear when we explore closely the utopia of Black Panther and how the core conflict of the film is resolved.
Even before we are introduced to the Black Panther or his nemesis, we are first introduced to Wakanda—a fictional and technologically advanced African utopia that draws on the precepts of Afrofuturism and a range of African traditions and actors from across the Black African Diaspora. This Wakanda is a utopic ecosocialist African monarchy. It is untouched by the ravages of colonialism. Although perceived as poor and underdeveloped, it is actually a highly advanced confederation of five tribes whose peace and prosperity is fed by unlimited access to a mythical mineral vibranium. Tradition and technology thrive together in a complementary harmony.
But this utopia is maintained through a kind of “Wakanda First” isolationism. Wakanda relies on its technology to mask its prosperity and protect its traditions. This isolation leads to not only the fierce defense of its boarders against white “colonizers,” it also closes off Wakanda from beneficial trade and refugee protection. Furthermore, Wakanda refuses to intervene in the suffering of Black persons throughout the diaspora. The first thing viewers learn about Wakanda is that the nation failed to intervene when white colonizers enslaved Black men and women.
Accordingly, the first political act viewers see is King T’Chaka’s willing to murder his own brother, Prince N’Jobu, and leave a half Wakandan child in Oakland, California rather than either expose Wakanda’s true nature. N’Jobu offense runs deeper than this. In the course of conducting surveillance on the United States for Wakanda, N’Jobu compromises Wakandan security to arm and protect insurgent Black Americans. N’Jobu seeks a larger liberation--ending the continued terrorism and bondage that has grown from legalized slavery. Before his death, N’Jobu indoctrinated his son, N’Jadaka in Wakandaian culture and language, and ensured that N’Jadaka possessed the vibranium “mark” that identified him as a Wakandian.
To this world, we introduce Erik “Killmonger,” nee N’Jadaka (the sensational Michael B. Jordan) and son of N’Jobu. Erik is as much a product of US imperialism and foreign policy as he is of N’Jobu’s effort of liberation. A brilliant MIT graduate and an elite soldier, Killmonger fought for the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan. His methods include destabilization of established nations and institutions. After Killmonger wins the throne from T’Challa, he institutes a new foreign policy for Wakanda—an imperialist model of interventionalist destabilization and death that would make the Reagan/Bush era CIA proud. His strategy is to give Wakandian technology to insurgents of African descent to further their Pan-African vision of Black struggle so that the victims of the Diaspora end up “on top” of the global hierarchy.
Killmonger is, perhaps, the film’s most compelling character. His intellectual and physical swagger trigger unconscious nostalgia for “[the] sexified second coming of the extremist Nat Turner.” It is unsurprising that Killmonger’s desires for revolution resonate with viewers, particularly with African-American viewers who feel the tensions of his struggle in a visceral way. Killmonger, like other revolutionary villains before him (Magneto), engenders feelings from ambivalence to passion to sadness. Many Black audiences have received Killmonger as a woke Pan-African anti-hero who is on the right side of history. In his battles with T’Challa, it was difficult for many of us to determine who the real villain was. Killmonger is unapologetically angry but his anger is legitimate. He believes the Black elites of Wakanda have abandoned peoples of African descent globally when they could have made a difference. And while Killmonger is defeated, he is not all wrong.
After Killmonger’s death, T’Challa takes Wakanda in an alternative direction. T’Challa adopts a policy of openness, increased transparency, and global assistance. But this policy is nonetheless squarely within the neoliberal model. T’Challa buys up real estate in Oakland to open the “first of many” Wakandan technology and science education embassies headed by his sister, and chief technology officer, Princess Shuri. And in the first “reveal” scene in the credits, T’Challa announces his openness policy to the unsuspecting members of the United Nations.
While I admire the film and I believe Black Panther somehow, renders my existence more intelligible, I am at the same time deeply dissatisfied with the film’s the political elements. While I feel the pull of Killmonger’s wrath and revolution, I must reject the film’s oppositional way of thinking about Black Liberation. When we are dreaming dreams of liberation, I find it fascinating that we are so tame and so timid in how we can imagine alternative possibilities for liberation.
In the film, strategies for Black Liberation are filtered through a Western lens that privileges what is as opposed to expressing what could be. The knowledge and praxis of indigenous persons, particularly women of color who draw on these traditions, remains invisible and unintelligible. Liberation is seen as emerging from one of three possibilities: (1) isolation of Black Persons from others, (2) Neo-Imperialism designed to colonize the historical colonizers, and (3) Neo-Liberalism’s investment in globalization, open markets, trade, and education. Neoliberalism, in Black Panther, is presented as a healing third way that enabled T’Challa to embrace both Wakanda and the highest objectives that Killmonger represents. But I found myself feeling dissatisfied and annoyed that STEM education, technology, and market trade are represented as a path to liberation – because such approaches carry costs and entrench existing institutional structures of power. Why tame the possibilities of Wakanda with neoliberal normativity? Neoliberal answers to inequality center individualism, mythologize merit, and valorize markets at the expense of community and solidarity. They refuse to disrupt dominant norms and fail to make reparations for past transgressions. The path to liberation cannot be won through real estate development, hackathons, and coding camps.
Though many claim claim Black Panther as feminist (because of the fierce women stars and in spite of the erasure of queer women), the film failed to offer an intersectional feminist approach for liberation. A key premise of the work of feminists of color who work toward liberation—from bell hooks to Lilla Wilson—is that we are bound to one another. Our liberation is entwined. Those who oppress and those who are oppressed must seek liberation together or none shall be free.
Killmonger and T’Challa could take a lesson from feminists of color. Their praxis reveals the paradox of bondage and the possibility of liberation.
Bondage binds both victims and oppressors. Liberation, in its truest form, frees not only the marginalized but also the privileged. Liberation cannot be accomplished through only individuals acts. It requires a radical recognition of interdependency and solidarity. And liberation cannot be accomplished by merely inverting the hierarchy. Reparations must be made. The path to liberation requires forging communities across difference and making institutional amends for past transgressions. It also requires unprecedented forms of accountability where those who have done wrong acknowledge the wrong and alleviate it.
In one of the most iconic moments of the film, Killmonger is confronted by Queen Ramonda (played by Angela Bassett) and he says, “Hey, Auntie.” Killmonger and T’Challa alike would do well to listen to the wisdom of Aunties, particularly feminist women of color. It is my hope that Black Panther, as much as it sates these diasporic desires, has the potential to create the ground for future possibilities that we can use to envision what liberation could be beyond isolation, neo-imperialism, and neo-liberalism.
Saru Matambanadzo is the Moise S. Steeg Jr. Associate Professor of Law at Tulane University Law School.
Monday, March 19, 2018
Welcome to "Wakandan Jurisprudence: How Black Panther Challenges us to Examine the Past, Present, and Future of Race"
Black Panther has been a box office juggernaut. The film claimed the number one spot in its debut weekend and has yet to relinquish the top spot at the box office. The action-packed superhero film easily surpassed one billion dollars in ticket sales over its five week theatrical run. It is not only commercial successful, but also critically acclaimed.
This blog is not an entertainment blog. It's not even a media and the law blog. We are a blog that focuses on race, racism, and the law. Why would we devote time to a superhero movie?
For us, the significance of Black Panther goes beyond its ticket sales or comic book origins. This film has a cultural significance that goes beyond the silver screen. Its portrayal of Africa, Africans, and Blackness in general makes it more than mindless popcorn-munching entertainment. At the end of the day, the law is merely the codification of social mores. Black Panther challenges those social norms on many fronts.
There are a number of reasons why Black Panther deserves scholarly consideration. King T'Challa, the Black Panther, is one of only a handful of superheroes of color. Though Hollywood has created multiple interpretations of heroes such as Batman and Superman, Black Panther is first feature film dedicated to a Black superhero. Though that alone would be significant, the fact that T'Challa reigns over the kingdom of Wakanda, a fictional African realm, causes us to rethink how Africa has been historically portrayed in Western media. The prominence of Black women in the film - and the varied roles that they occupy - is directly contrary to the standard Hollywood fare. Moreover, the fact that Wakanda has achieved untold technological advances adds another layer, as it causes us to consider the impact of racism and colonization on the African continent. To that end, T'Challa's foe, his American-born cousin Erik Killmonger, is also a metaphor for the relationship Africans forcibly taken to the New World have with the Continent.
For these reasons, and many more, we believe that an examination of Black Panther is fully in line with the goals of this blog. This week's online symposium will feature provocative, enlightening, and entertaining posts. We hope you will enjoy it!