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MacArthur Fellow E. Tendayi Achiume on the intersection of climate and racial justice


This is the day the MacArthur Foundation announces its new class of fellows - the so-called Genius Grants, recognizing people in fields as diverse as poetry and molecular biology. One of this year's winners is a woman who spent five years in a senior position at the U.N. focused on racism, discrimination and xenophobia. Now, she's a law professor at UCLA being recognized today for her work reframing debates around global migration. Professor E. Tendayi Achiume, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and congratulations.

E TENDAYI ACHIUME: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

SHAPIRO: Your work ties together some big themes - climate change, racial justice, global migration. To start with just one piece of this puzzle, you argue that climate change is a crisis of racial justice. How do you explain that connection to someone who hasn't thought about it in those terms?

ACHIUME: You know, we read a lot in the media about how we are facing a global ecological crisis, which I think is exactly right. And I think the tendency is to think that, because it's the climate, we are all equally impacted. And in my work, I try to show that, in actual fact, at every stage of the crisis, the impacts are racially disparate and ethnically disparate as well. So if you think about the causes of the climate crisis and their roots, they're anchored in global emission levels that date back to the colonial period, when extraction from racially marginalized groups put them on the front lines of exposure to the environmental harms that we're paying the price for today. When you think about the impacts today, researchers have shown us that living in racially marginalized communities, living in parts of the world in the Global South, puts people at greater risk of the harms of environmental degradation and even of the climate crisis.

And then, finally, even when we look at the main responses that seem to underlie transitions to more green technologies, to more green economies, we find that these innovations are being developed in ways that, again, reinforce the marginalization of racial and ethnic and other groups as well. And so the point of the report is to say, as we tackle the climate crisis, we have to be thinking very seriously about racial justice because of the way that the inequities and the human rights violations distribute themselves.

SHAPIRO: So let's talk about what that means for migration. I met a young man on a reporting trip last year. His name was Seydou Diop, and he had migrated from West Africa, from Senegal to Spain. And when I asked why he chose to make that dangerous journey, he reframed the question, saying, basically, why shouldn't anyone be able to travel for any reason or for no reason?


SEYDOU DIOP: (Through interpreter) I think that traveling is part of being free.

SHAPIRO: He told me, people who don't want open borders need to recognize that borders today are open - just not for everyone.


DIOP: (Through interpreter) I ask you, how could it be that you were able to travel to my country with your passport? And me with my passport - I can't just go to the United States and travel with dignity.

SHAPIRO: So, Professor Achiume, how does the argument that he is making at that personal, individual level fit into the case that you make in global legal academic terms?

ACHIUME: I think the person that you interviewed is really tracking a sensibility that people, especially in wealthy nations, are not as closely in touch with. When we think about the history of global migration and when we think specifically about the history of the international frameworks that shape how we move historically, they really defended freedom of movement. And again, this was defending the kinds of colonial migration that I think are very deeply connected to the subordination and the exploitation and the marginalization that many people are fleeing, even in the present.

SHAPIRO: Could I just pause you to say, when you say colonial migration, what you're talking about is Europeans going by the millions to Africa, to the Americas, and taking advantage of the people and resources in those countries.

ACHIUME: That's absolutely right. So, you know, in the late 19th century, early 20th century, you have 65 million Europeans fanning across the globe and relying on legal frameworks that really defended that movement. And a lot of that movement was precisely for the purposes of exploitation that have made wealthy nations today what they are. But when we look at the way that the law works today, the person who you interviewed rightly points out how passports for people from the Global South prevent them from traveling to the places that are often very intimately connected to the dispossession that people are fleeing.

When we think about the U.S.' southern border and we think about people who are fleeing Central America, and we think about the extensiveness of U.S. intervention in the region - economic, military - this idea that those people are strangers who have no entitlements to come to the places that are often deeply responsible for their displacement is something that's entrenched in international law, but I argue is deeply unethical and flies in the face of how borders have worked historically as well.

SHAPIRO: And so you argue that global migration is, in effect, a form of decolonization or reparations.

ACHIUME: I argue that granting people the right to move can be a way of conferring reparations to which they're entitled and that so much of the movement that we consider illegal economic migration is actually acts of individuals who are trying to enhance their self-determination in ways that I think should be coded as decolonial acts of political agency and economic agency as well. And what we need is laws that can recognize and protect that. And I think the climate crisis really puts a fine point on the kinds of arguments that I've been trying to make.

SHAPIRO: As you know, your arguments are not exactly in sync with the prevailing political discourse today. Whether we look at the U.S. border with Mexico or boats crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, huge sums of money are being spent to keep people out. Politicians have learned that xenophobia wins elections. So how do you counter that?

ACHIUME: You know, I think that xenophobic responses to people moving are deeply shortsighted. And I think you're right that politicians profit from the kind of fearmongering around borders and how they work. But if we look at the actual systems that are driving people to move, if we think about our global economic system and its reliance on a kind of capitalism that is just untenable for the climate and for the planet, I think we're seeing shifts in movement - the climate movement, the racial justice movement - shifts that, I think, put people at odds with their governments in ways that I'm hoping will result in demands for more just economic systems, more just political systems, and, as a result, more just borders.

So I think so much of my work is about trying to see the different kind of politics, a different kind of law that moves beyond the shortsightedness of some of what we see on a daily basis in newspapers and in political discourse as well.

SHAPIRO: Well, I want to just end by asking you about this recognition about the MacArthur Fellowship - the genius grant. It comes with $800,000. It is not something you applied for. How does it feel to suddenly have this unexpected recognition and this financial resource to use however you would like?

ACHIUME: I mean, Ari, it doesn't feel real. It feels entirely surreal. And honestly, I - it's not clear to me that this isn't part of an elaborate prank - even this interview.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ACHIUME: So I think it's going to take a while to sink in and to work through how this grant can, I think, go to the peoples and the movements and the actors that are doing the most to bring about the kind of work - world that my work is invested in.

SHAPIRO: E. Tendayi Achiume is an international expert on human rights law, currently a professor at UCLA Law School, and she is one of the new MacArthur Genius Fellows. Thank you, and congratulations again.

ACHIUME: Thank you, Ari.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.