Critical Race Theory: Mari Matsuda

"Critical Race Theory is a theory of justice.”

Mari J. Matsuda is a lawyer, activist, law professor, and founding practicioner of Critical Race Theory. We discuss the various ways inequality threatens our freedom, the dangers of harmful speech, and the way racism is systemic to our institutions.

Mari J. Matsuda is a lawyer, activist, law professor, and founding practicioner of Critical Race Theory. We discuss the various ways inequality threatens our freedom, the dangers of harmful speech, and the way racism is systemic to our institutions.

Critical Race Theory

Critical Race Theory is a theory of justice designed to respond to the endemic racism in America’s legal system. It places intersectional anti-racism at the center of analysis of law, politics, and power. It examines the origins of the idea of race and seeks to understand how institutions continue to perpetuate racism today. Although slavery and the genocide of Indigenous people have ceased, these past practices continue to inform our institutional systems and create injustice. Critical Race Theory reveals unconscious bias and systemic disenfranchisement as legacies of racist attitudes and legislation.

Inequality as a Threat to Freedom

Inequality harms our freedoms in many ways. Corporate monopolization harms our freedom to choose where we get our food, products, and information. Inequality in the form of sexism and racism harms our freedom of expression, such as valuing some people’s ideas over others. Education inequality can harm our freedom to learn, communicate, and succeed. Income inequality can dictate who people listen to in politics through campaign contributions and investments. Solving these inequalities will create a level playing field for everyday citizens to thrive in our society.

Harmful Speech

Valuing all speech necessitates cracking down on harmful speech. Hate speech has spread rapidly around the internet, which has a stifling effect on many who would otherwise make their voices heard. Hate speech is often directed toward women leaders, journalists, and authors. It can result in resignations and the withdrawal from public life—effectively stifling free speech. Free speech is critical to democracy, so we must keep tabs on speech that decreases the democratic conversation, like racism and misogyny. The market of ideas is suffering a failure, and like the real financial markets, we need better regulation to keep it working correctly.

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Mari J. Matsuda is an American lawyer, activist, critical race theorist, and law professor at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii.

Prior to returning to Richardson in the fall of 2008, she was a professor at the UCLA School of Law – the first Asian American woman to be tenured at a law school in the US – and Georgetown University Law Center. She specialized in the fields of torts, constitutional law, legal history, feminist theory, Critical Race Theory, and civil rights law.

From her earliest academic publications, Matsuda has spoken from the perspective and increasingly used the method that has come to be known as Critical Race Theory. She is not only one of its most powerful practitioners, but is among a handful of legal scholars credited with its origin. Voices from the bottom, Matsuda believes—and critical race theory posits—have the power to open up new legal concepts of even constitutional dimension. Paradoxically, bringing in the voices of outsiders has helped to make Matsuda’s work central to the legal canon. A Yale Law School librarian ranked three of her publications as among the “top 10 most cited law review articles” for their year of publication. Judges and scholars regularly quote her work. She has also published several books, such as Words that Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment and We Won’t Go Back: Making the Case for Affirmative Action.

Matsuda serves on national advisory boards of social justice organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Asian American Justice Center. By court appointment, she served as a member of the Texaco Task Force on Equality and Fairness, assisting in the implementation of the then-largest employment discrimination settlement in U.S. history. A Magazine recognized her in 1999 as one of the 100 most influential Asian Americans.

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