UCLA Law professor E. Tendayi Achiume honored with MacArthur Fellowship

Achiume earned ‘genius grant’ for her widely impactful work on race, migration and international law

October 4, 2023
Natalie Monsanto
E.Tendayi Achiume

E. Tendayi Achiume, the Alicia Miñana Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law, has been awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced today. Recipients are selected for their exceptional creativity, their ability to transcend traditional boundaries and their promise for important future advances.

“My work is very much about the radical reimagining of unjust legal frameworks — being involved in a real way with what the law is doing here and now,” said Achiume, an international human rights expert. “This approach is a hallmark of what’s been fostered by my time at UCLA Law.”

Achiume’s research and work have focused on global governance of racism and xenophobia and the legal and ethical implications of colonialism for contemporary international migration. From 2017 to 2022, she served as the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, being the first woman to hold that position.

The MacArthur Fellowship is an $800,000 five-year grant that allows recipients the freedom to further their own pursuits. Individuals cannot apply for the award and must be nominated. Indeed, Achiume had no idea her name was in contention.

“When they called, I was sure it was a prank,” she said. “As it’s settling in, I’m turning my attention towards what it means to produce actionable knowledge about the world’s hardest problems. More specifically, I’m thinking about innovative ways to ensure that global frameworks grapple with the interests of the Global South, of marginalized nations, movements and impacted communities, in an institutionalized way. These groups don’t simply belong at the table, they are equally entitled to determine whether the table should be a table at all.”

Achiume’s body of work reflects the duality of the law as both a powerful tool for those subject to injustice and a source of many of the pathologies racial justice efforts seek to correct.

“If we’re fighting for the kind of world we want to live in,” she said, ‘the law is at the center of that fight and is a site of contestation we cannot cede.”

Achiume, who was born in Zambia, said her own life has been one of frequent moves, for family and economic reasons. While beginning her career in South Africa representing refugees and asylum seekers as a human rights lawyer, she realized her personal and professional experiences shared a deeply intertwined throughline: the difference a border can make.

The disparities in outcomes she was witnessing led to the emerging sense that rather than being the antidote to these injustices, the law was at the center of their perpetuation, but its role was basically invisible to those not being marginalized. This realization put Achiume on the path to her first position at UCLA Law, as a teaching fellow in the Binder Clinical Program.

“I had questions I couldn’t answer in practice, and this fellowship was my bridge to legal academia,” she recalled.

Her transition to the teaching fellowship marked a key turning point. The program’s blended focus on practice, serving communities, academic writing and research fostered a much deeper reckoning with the law, she said. And faculty at the law school proved pivotal.

“Remarkable people like Aslı Bâli, Devon Carbado, Cheryl Harris, Hiroshi Motomura, Noah Zatz and Scott Cummings — I could go on — have focused on work grounded in the world as it is, in some of the more brutal ways in which power is structured through the law,” she said. “Their indispensable and sophisticated work has been crucial in informing mine, and their support since I first joined the faculty has been invaluable.

Following her fellowship, Achiume became a professor at the law school and served as faculty director of the school’s Promise Institute for Human Rights.

“I’m also thankful for the support of the Promise Institute in my work examining human rights law from a racial justice perspective,” she said. “This too was critical.”

“That the MacArthur Foundation should recognize Professor Achiume in this way is no surprise,” said Michael Waterstone, dean of UCLA School of Law. “She is an exceptional scholar whose insights and profound sense of justice exemplify the best of what UCLA School of Law stands for. We could not be prouder of her for being honored in this way.”

Achiume emphasized that UCLA Law’s students — some of whom have accompanied her to New York and Geneva in her role as U.N. special rapporteur — have been central to her work.

“We attract really wonderful students at UCLA. When I went to law school, we were told, ‘This is the law. This is how you apply it.’ But our students now push for the work we do to be honest and radical in the most profound ways.

“They come in with a really sharp critique of the way the world is, and they put us on the spot to justify how the law can exist as it does in a world with such irrefutable injustices. They ask us what it would mean to have a version of the law more suited to the problems people are facing.”

The university’s broader dynamism was influential too. Achiume credits the campus-wide community of interdisciplinary scholars working in migration, Critical Race Theory, empire, human rights, Third World Approaches to International Law and other areas.

“UCLA is a public university which attracts people who aren’t just amazing researchers but — and this is key — are compelled to fight for a better world. It is really something beautiful, and it has made a lot of my work possible.”

Having concluded her mandate with the U.N. last year, Achiume is quick to emphasize how rewarding it was that the role allowed her to serve as a conduit between migrants rights and racial justice organizations’ knowledge and a forum like the U.N. It’s work she plans to continue as a MacArthur Fellow.

“Right now,” she said, “the law essentially tells vast groups of people that their experience isn’t a priority and that they won’t be represented by the laws controlling their lives. My work seeks to correct this. We must connect legal and power centers to those living on the front lines of racial subordination, those living the violence of borders. Their knowledge and experiences should be informing the policy that governs their lives.”

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