A conversation with Catherine Powell
Youngjae Lee: How would you describe the focus of your scholarship?

Catherine Powell: My scholarship is about race, gender, poverty, and belonging. I’m most interested in questions of belonging and inclusion against the backdrop of the ways race, gender, and poverty are pathologized to roll back on rights, both civil and economic, of marginalized individuals and communities.

YL: There are several striking ideas in that answer. Let’s focus on the words, “belonging,” “inclusion,” and “pathologized.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by those?

CP: My work is about legal borders, racial borders, and gendered borders—how we view who is deserving of full citizenship. In my work, I have demonstrated how race and gender are woven together to produce marginalized, liminal status and create boundaries that separate who is worthy (of entry, the vote, and other rights of citizenship) from those who are not; who belongs as members of our community and who does not. For instance, in “Race, Gender and Nation in an Age of Shifting Borders,” I focused on two common tropes in the current immigration debate, the “welfare cheat” and the “criminal,” which are deployed to shift borders inward and outward—not so much the physical borders as the legal constructs that represent borders and serve gatekeeping functions. Similarly, “‘Welfare Queen’ Goes to the Polls,” co-authored with Camille Gear Rich, turns to the ways the “welfare queen” trope has been updated and deployed in the voting rights context, to play a gatekeeping function by suppressing votes of particular communities.

Women need to reconceive particular racial justice concerns (such as voter suppression) as part and parcel of a feminist law agenda. What we view as racial injustice interests (i.e., voter suppression) is also a gender equality set of interests affecting women regardless of race.
YL: So the idea is that these tropes are being used to pathologize one’s race, gender, and poverty, and the pathologizing is used as a way to exclude people from nationhood and citizenship. You’ve also been interested in political implications of such pathologizing, not just for those who are not included or are not allowed to belong, but also for a broader segment of the population. Could you give an example of that phenomenon and what should be done about it?

CP: Yes, while lawmakers have targeted Black, Latinx, and poor women with voting restrictions (i.e., voter ID laws and Florida’s poll tax for ex-felons), such restrictions affect women as a whole. Women are more likely to change their names upon marriage and find it harder to pay the poll tax (as women, even white women, earn less than men and are more subject to economic insecurity). Moreover, undermining the voting rights of Black women, in particular, undermines the ability of all women to elect progressive officials who support women’s rights writ large (as Black women are the most reliable voters for such elected officials). So, race is used to fracture women’s shared interests, and our understanding of our collective interests are obscured. My scholarship exposes this use of race as a fracture. Women need to reconceive particular racial justice concerns (such as voter suppression) as part and parcel of a feminist law agenda. What we view as racial justice interests (i.e., voter suppression) is also a gender equality set of interests affecting women regardless of race.

YL: You also have a human rights background. How does that influence your work?

CP: The focus on borders and nationhood situates me between U.S. critical race theorists and a new emerging group of transnational critical race theorists. My work is firmly in the tradition of this group of scholars who are bridging notions of rights inside and outside formal geographic, national borders, as we interrogate how identity is used to erode rights. In the “‘Welfare Queen’ Goes to the Polls” piece, I have written about how Black public intellectuals like Frederick Douglass and the Black female suffragist Frances Harper moved back and forth across these disciplinary boundaries. As a former NAACP LDF attorney and now co-chair of Blacks in the American Society of International Law, I view myself in that tradition.

YL: What are you working on at the moment?

CP: Lately, I’ve been focusing my research on belonging with regard to work and economy and how race and gender identity (and, relatedly, structural inequalities) are used to undermine rights along the global assembly line. I am consulting with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights—the oldest and largest coalition of the biggest civil rights groups (including the NAACP LDF, National Women’s Law Center, Human Rights Campaign, among others)—to develop a presidential transition paper on creating a racially just post-COVID-19 economic recovery—situated in the context of the global health and economic crises, given problems with transnational labor and supply chains. This work goes back to my early scholarship on the rights of women workers along the global assembly line in the garment industry, and I have written about two short pieces on this theme, “Color of Covid: The Racial Justice Paradox of Our New Stay-at-Home Economy” and “The Color and Gender of COVID: Essential Workers, Not Disposable People” — in which I coined the term “Color of Covid” which CNN journalists Van Jones and Don Lemon based a mini-series on. I am currently developing these themes in a longer scholarly piece on the ways the emerging touchless economy—as a result of the pandemic—has amplified the race and gender inequalities of the platform economy.

Scholarship Excerpt
Geo. L.J. 19th Amend. Special Edition 105 (2020) (with Camille Gear Rich)