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Interview with Professor Regina Austin: Tape Index

Interviewee: Professor Regina Austin

Interviewer: Randy Lee

Date: October 21, 1999

Place: Professor Regina Austin’s office at the Law School

Time - Topic

0:00 - Introduction

0:43 - Place of Birth and Birthdate

Washington, D.C., 1948.

0:52 - Parents’ Place of Birth

Trenton, New Jersey.

1:03 - Parents’ Occupations

Mother is a hairdresser, father became a government clerk.

1:19 - Siblings

Brother and sister, both younger.

1:23 - Place in the Family

Being firstborn made a difference. She is bossy and inherited family work ethic.

1:51 - Place Where Grew Up

Washington, D.C.

1:55 - Interests as a Child

Reading and studying.

2:30 - Fondest Memory of High School

Finishing first in her class.

2:50 - High School Activities

Student government, cheerleading, and editor of the yearbook.

3:13 - Mentors and Role Models in Childhood/Adolescent Years

History teachers. Grew up in an all-black environment, “a very different sort of world that the one [she] found when [she] left home at the age of eighteen.”

4:09 - Family’s Socioeconomic Status

Lived in two worlds. Father’s mother was a business woman, privileged relative to others in the community. Her mother’s family was not as financially secure since her mother was a single parent raising three kids alone, and this helped her understand what being working-class meant. Learned the value of money.

5:55 - Family Members Involved in Upbringing

Grandmother raised her in the early years and then her mother as she grew up.

6:08 - Growing Up as a Black Woman

Different today because of advancements with regards to civil rights and women’s rights.

6:56 - College

Always knew she was going to go to college. She grew up in a household with six women and one man, her brother. All of them knew they were going to go to college. It was a very strict, religious household. Believed she would become a high school teacher. She assumed that in order to go away to college she would have to get a scholarship so she worked very hard.

8:20 - University of Rochester

She decided to go to the University of Rochester because the school gave her the most money. During college she lived on the twenty dollars a week that her mother sent.

9:01 - College Activities

Very active in “taking over buildings.” She struggled to get the University to enlarge the number of minority students at the University and to come up with academic and support programs for black students. She remembers that there were only three black females and three black males in her freshman class.

10:15 - Fondest Memories of College

Taking over the faculty club was the highlight of her college career. She acted as the lawyer for the group in the negotiations with the administration and she was successful in getting concessions.

11:14 - Major

History major and English minor. She was a student of Herbert Gutman, a labor historian and a historian of slavery.

11:51 - Careers Considered

High school teaching “because that’s what good, upwardly mobile, young, black women from the working class did.” Then, she decided to apply to law school and was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania and New York University Law Schools. Penn offered her more money so she decided to come to Penn.

12:51 - Law School Admissions

She was called after she had decided to attend N.Y.U. When Penn offered her more money, she decided to attend Penn. She remembers that she was in the “first substantial cadre of minority students” ever admitted to the law school.

13:41 - Law School Decision

She decided to go to law school in the middle of her senior year in college.

13:54 - First Year of Law School

She was called on by Professor Howard Lesnick during her first hour of law school. The class met in room 100. There was a large number of young men who had served in the military in her class. There were as many women as minority students in her class. Her professors were: Paul Bender for Civil Procedure, Martha Field for Criminal Procedure, Mr. Morris for Torts, John Stedman for Property, Howard Lesnick for Labor Law, and Curtis Reitz for Contracts.

15:56 - Law School Activities


16:07 - Typical Day at Law School in the 1970s

She thinks law school was harder then. Exams were at the end of the year. People seemed to work at all hours of the day and night There were fewer women in the class and it was somewhat more difficult for women in the classroom. There were three black women in her class, but she was the only one left after the first year so it was lonelier for her as a black woman. She lost the companionship of black female peers.

17:35 - Experience as a Black Woman

The expectation was that black women would have trouble academically. Many of the male students had done other things before law school and had families, but she had come directly from college. It was difficult dealing with them at times because their lives were so different. She had done her “activism stint” in college so their interest was not compatible with her interest. Her goal was to pass her first year classes.

20:20 - Female Faculty Member

Martha Field.

20:56 - Influential Law School Professors

Martha Field, Ed Sparer, and Julius Chambers.

21:35 - Fondest Memory of Law School

She liked to study. Ed Sparer’s insistence that the class discuss the relationship between work and welfare had a great and lasting impact on her.

22:45 - Worst Memory of Law School

The isolation was difficult. “Being a token is not the easiest role to fulfill.” She feels she missed the fun of being in an educational institution.

23:39 - Favorite Class

Welfare law.

23:58 - 1973 Yearbook Memories

She still sees the Blumenthals, Ed Dennis, Roslyn Gould. She did not pose for her picture so the yearbook photographer caught her outside the dean’s office. She went to her twenty-fifth reunion since she is now a professor.

25:46 - Political and Social Issues of the 1970s effect on the Law School

Much more attention was paid to Supreme Court cases and the opinions that students read in class were “right off the presses” and just handed down by the Court. The law does not have the same immediacy today. In the 1970s, students felt they had an important role to play in society and there was a “fervor” in the law school that hasn’t been duplicated since. Students were more active in governance, who was on the faculty, what was being taught, and the role of the law school in the world. Clinical education was started back then.

27:25 - Order of the Coif

She finished in the top ten percent of the class. She says that she had just wanted to survive. She believes it is important to do well in law school because it allows one to keep one’s options open.

28:04 - Clerkship

She decided to become a clerk because “it was the thing to do.” She did not have any great career goals and did not know anything about the legal profession. She worked for a solo practitioner in Washington, D.C. during the summer after her first year. One day, the dean of the law school, Bernard Wolfman, called her into his office and told her that he had set up an interview for her with Bernard Segal at Schnader, Harrison, Segal and Lewis. She worked at Schnader, Harrison after her second year, and she got a permanent offer, but decided to clerk for Judge Edmund Spaeth for a year before going back to Schnader, Harrison.

30:24 - Judge Edmund Spaeth

She clerked for Judge Spaeth because of his connection with Penn Law School and because of his reputation of being a progressive jurist.

30:50 - Cases, Experiences as a Clerk

She doesn’t remember any especially significant cases on which she worked. Her experience as a clerk allowed her to understand why there were some judges on the Pennsylvania courts that were not highly respected.

31:23 - Associate at Schnader, Harrison, Segal and Lewis

She was a “library litigator” and a typical day was a day spent in the library. She only conducted one deposition and the deponent, who showed up drunk, dropped his pants at the elevator. She didn’t want to be a “real litigator” and she liked the library work and liked writing.

32:32 - Specialty


33:05 - Cases Worked on as an Associate

Worked on a case involving the financing of the airport and a case involving one of the buildings in the University Science Center. She worked on many other cases, including some large scale insurance litigation. She says, “I never had any cases where I felt that I was on the wrong side.” When the firm decided that she was going to be involved in representing UPS in postal rate hearings, it spurred her to look for a teaching job because she did not want to do that.

34:31 - Women and Minorities at Schnader, Harrison, Segal and Lewis

Bill Brown, a former chair of the E.E.O.C. was there. There were very few minorities and very few women. “It was very tough,” she remembers. She started working before there were “dress for success” suits for women and says she wore platform shoes and a shirtwaist dress to work. It was especially difficult for the women who were attempting to be mothers and lawyers. She was able to work all the time and did her two thousand billable hours “fairly easily.”

36:07 - Returning to Penn as a Professor

She knew from the beginning of her career as a law student that she wanted to be a law professor. She received an offer to teach at Penn Law School in 1975 or 1976 and she came to Penn in 1977. She wanted to be “a little more mature” as she was coming back to her alma mater and she “found it difficult to conceive of [herself] as a colleague surrounded by [her] instructors.”

36:55 - Offered a Position Two Years after Graduation

It was not unusual then for the school to hire very young, recent graduates. At that time, Penn hired people who had done very well in law school and who had clerked for judges. Today, it is very rare for that to happen.

37:37 - Having her Law Professors as Colleagues

It was very comforting to have her professors as colleagues because her “back was always protected, so [she] could make trouble and knew that [she would] have back up.” That was very important to her because as a woman and a minority, she had many issues to make trouble about. It was difficult being young because students tend not to be as respectful of younger professors, along with the fact that she was female and a minority, and she encountered trouble in the classroom. “It was nice to have people who knew you and who had high expectations of you to be supportive.” At the time, many professors lived in Center City so there was a lot of social as well as professional interaction.

39:04 - First Classes Taught

Torts and insurance. She had not thought of teaching Torts, but that was what she was asked to teach.

39:35 - First Year of Teaching

She cannot remember what it was like or what she learned. She still has the book.

39:47 - Teaching Style

Not a “Socratic wonder,” it is not what she is interested in doing. She uses film, ethnographies, and social science literature to expand on the cases to get to the “heart of the controversies.” Believes that context is very important and that judicial decision-making leaves out too much of the context or assumed a context which bears little relationship to reality. These techniques make the context come alive. Using film also is useful in holding the attention of people who are used to visual texts. She would like some of her students to make videos to begin to construct visual contexts for legal controversies.

42:07 - Resistance to Teaching Style

Some say it is much too liberal, much too loose, not doctrinal, policy is empty.

42:23 - Changes in the Student Body

The student body has changed and you have to accommodate yourself to your audience. There was a period when many students were lapsed academics, disappointed graduate students, or women who had delayed college and therefore came to law school as more mature students and that was a time when you could do certain things that you can’t do in a time when students came directly from college. The data from this year’s first year class indicates that we may be entering a period where students do something between college and law school and that will make a difference.

44:14 - Importance of a Diverse Faculty

Absolutely essential for students to have access to a diverse faculty. Students are diverse and if we are here to educate everyone then we have to pay attention to the diversity of interests of the student body and the profession needs to be diverse because the client base is quite diverse.

45:31 - Significant Contributions to Penn Law School

She has survived. It’s the students that she has taught that have gone out to do things that have made a difference. People seem to get something out of the articles that she has written. It is important for institutions to have faces that are not all the same. “It does help people to believe in the society when they can see that the institution has incorporated people whose interests are like their own and whose needs may be like their needs. So if I’m a face for the institution, maybe that’s a contribution as well.”

47:21 - Changes in Penn’s Interaction with the Community

The University has become much more involved. That is one of the contributions of President [Judith] Rodin. The University is no longer trying to wall itself off from the surrounding community. In the 1970s the law school was surrounded by row houses. There was a vibrant black community destroyed in the name of urban development and expansion. She doesn’t think that would happen today, as the University is much more cognizant of its role in the city.

48:50 - Visiting Professor at Harvard, Stanford, and Brooklyn Law Schools

She had a good time in Brooklyn and if she had to do it over again she would go to Brooklyn. Brooklyn was a different kind of school since it is a freestanding school, not connected to the University in an ostensibly black and gentrifying neighborhood. The students are different, their orientation is different, and she learned some things there. She didn’t learn a lot at Harvard. At Stanford, she had resources with regard to her Environmental Justice work.

50:09 - Controversy at Harvard

“It was like being in the middle of a family feud and having no real stake in the outcome and having your name and your persona totally stolen,” she says, “[I]t has become something I still have not been able to live beyond, around, or over, but I’ve moved on.”

51:28 - Classes Taught at Other Law Schools

Torts, Advanced Torts, Insurance.

51:41 - Most Significant Academic Work

She considers “Sapphire Bound,” an article about black feminism, her most significant work. All of her work is directed at showing the relevance of culture to the resolution of legal issues. It is very important to recognize that we are not all the same, people have different ways of responding to material circumstances, people live under different material circumstances, and a single approach cannot be superimposed on a country as diverse as ours.

53:31 - How the Work of a Minority Feminist Legal Scholar should be Different

It should start with the premise that black people are the center of the universe and should go from there. We all start from somewhere and it makes sense for black women scholars, when it’s relevant to the topic that they’re dealing with, start from a base point which puts black women first and go on from there.

54:42 - Minorities in Positions of Power

You can advance your race in very quiet ways. Sometimes you have to be loud and she has found that being loud and persistent can reap rewards for others. There are may ways to deal with problems of inequity in our society.

55:45 - “Critical Race” Scholarship

She is not sure exactly what critical race jurisprudence is and she doesn’t want to presume to categorize what other people do. She says, “[I] start with black folks as the center of the universe and then go out from there.” That may be a common characteristic of critical race studies. She relies on culture as a base on which you build.

57:08 - Most Influential Women in Black History and in Realm of the Law

A tough question. Ida B. Wells, Mary McCloud Bethune, Judge Constance Motley.

58:20 - African-American Problem Solving

Groups need to have problem-solving capacities of their own that are not dependent upon a centralized state authority and that’s true for black people as it is true for others. There has to be some capacity outside of the state to protect the well-being of members of the community.

59:47 - Discriminatory Treatment of African-Americans

Service discrimination is rampant in this country. When her and her husband go into certain restaurants she thinks she gets different or inferior treatment because there is an assumption that black people cannot afford to be there. She believes that the world is much more segregated than one might imagine. This could be because blacks and Latinos choose to patronize their own restaurants in their own communities or it could be that black and Latino patronage is not desired or encouraged. She suspects it is more of the latter. There are times that she is very pessimistic about the social sphere and about there being spaces where people can come together and see different people who are like them in many ways.

1:02:25 - Personal Reactions to Discrimination

She reacts poorly to discrimination sometimes. She gets angry. She does not tell any first person narratives. The paper that she wrote on leisure discrimination evolved out of an experience that her and her husband had on a Caribbean island at a hotel where the security guards at a hotel could not understand that they were guests there. She started versions of her paper with her first person narrative but eventually moved it out of the paper entirely. She says, “No matter how bad things get, I an not going to be the worst example of [ill treatment]�I know that there is going to be somebody who’s worse off than I am. My job as a lawyer and my job as a legal scholar is to tell their story.”

1:04:45 - Conforming to Others

There are times when she keeps quiet and there are times when she conforms to the behavior, or exceeds the behavior, of others. She says that the fact that she has not given up the “cushy job” of being a law professor means there must be some element of conformity in her.

1:05:40 - The Underground Economy

She studies informal economics and anyone who knows about “real life” in any kind of community knows that there is informal, underground economic activity. There is a lot of economic activity that we do not investigate in law school. We don’t pay too much attention to what’s happening on the lowest levels of the economic sphere.

1:06:56 - Co-authored Book

Her husband, Manthia Diawara, and her other co-authors had a lecture series. Manthia and his co-authors are neither social scientists nor editors so she edited the book which had been conceptualized by people involved in the humanities, literature, culture, and economically focused. There is a vast divide in the black academic world between the humanists and the social scientists. This book was conceived in one world but finished in the other.

1:08:44 - Husband Manthia Diawara

Professor at New York University. Teaches Comparative Literature and Film. Head of the Africana Studies Department and the Institute of Afro-American Affairs.

1:09:00 - Thoughts About a Career in Sociology

She has thought about getting a Ph.D in Sociology, but she feels too old and she has written too much to go back to the status of an entry level graduate student.

1:09:38 - Committee Work

Served as a member of the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Environmental Justice, Research, Education, and Health Policy Needs and Committee on Waste Incineration. Those committees were very difficult because they were composed of scientists and social scientists and the law is more political than either group. Many of the things she thinks people are concerned about are thought to be insignificant to scientists and get rationalized away by social scientists. She thinks she was able to make a contribution to both committees.

1:11:02 - Environmental Racism

She got involved in teaching Environmental Racism as a result of an author she co-authored. The article was one of the seminal pieces in the law having to do with Environmental Racism and she got interested in it. She will continue to write papers having to do with race, culture, and space. It’s not an easy course to teach.

1:12:46 - Law as a Vehicle for Social Change

Environmental justice groups have made gains using the law as an ancillary tool. The law is useful as a supplement to activism, but the law is not what it was in the civil rights era. It is not a “magic bullet.” It can be useful when joined with “people power” to improve things for people.

1:14:27 - Using the Law to Improve the Lives of Minorities

Two areas where the law is going to become increasingly important in the future. First, in the area of public health, minority groups need to get their fair share of the attention and dollars that are being devoted to health care in this country. Second, attention must be paid with regard to economic development and the privatization of wealth. We have to find ways for people to get into the competition.

1:17:02 - [Microphone adjustment and comments about the Oral History Project]

1:18:15 - Area of the Law of Interest

Fast food. Currently studying the social meaning of black people’s money and discrimination and the fast food, or quick service, industry.

1:18:54 - Free Time

Involved with activities connected with her husband’s programs. They do cultural things in New York City. She attends film festivals, primarily African film-going. She likes to travel. She has step-children and a cat.

1:19:46 - Contribution to the Legal Profession

She considers herself an institutional actor. Penn has been the locus and the focus of her activities.

1:20:15 - Most Challenging Issue as a Professor and as a Lawyer

Integrating the faculty. Integrating the student body was tough for awhile, but she did her service on the Admissions Committee. Minority people are just as smart, creative, and talented as anybody else and need to be represented on the faculty in decent numbers.

1:21:34 - Changes in Legal Education

Legal education has become more corporate and more of a business. There’s less of a sense of mission and more of a sense of the profession being a tool or secondary to primary economic actors. Things have become more complex. The United States is an actor in the world, but not the only actor. It is difficult to travel abroad and to find that people relate to her as an American, as opposed to a black American or a black female American. We have to come to understand our roll in a global economy.

1:24:53 - Greatest Accomplishment

“I’ve survived…. I taught my class this morning and if I didn’t do it well today there’s always Tuesday and the students will let me know if there’s more to be done. I’m not ready to sum things up yet.”

1:25:24 - No Advice for Young Lawyers

She says that she does not know enough about the world in which they are operating to pontificate.

1:25:41 - Integrating the Faculty

It is very important to her to integrate the faculty. She is on the faculty appointments committee.

1:26:05 - Future Plans

Writing her first book. When people pick up books, it means something to them. She says, “A book is something that will last.”

1:26:41 - The End