AlumnA profile
I. India Thusi ’07
A Passion for Justice
Named a 2019 On the Rise–Top 40 Young Lawyer by the American Bar Association, Thusi, a California Western School of Law professor, has challenged the school-to-prison pipeline, the criminalization of sex work, and the Blue Lives Matter movement. And that’s just for starters.
by Pamela Kaufman
A Passion for Justice
Vito Di Stefano


sy India Thusi, 36, was only a few months old when she and her parents emigrated from Nigeria to Yonkers, New York, as part of a wave of Africans arriving to study at universities in the United States and other western countries in the early ’80s. While her mother and father eventually found their professional footing—he is a doctor, she is a teacher—Thusi had her own future as a lawyer mapped out by the time she was 8 years old. “An uncle might have suggested it, and I was also into debating,” she says. “I just knew I wanted to be a lawyer.”

She is also clear on what fueled her passion for social justice and civil rights law. At Gorton High School in Yonkers, she was shocked to see so many students of color disappearing into the school-to-prison pipeline: “I observed how intense policing and criminalization were, especially around marijuana,” she says. “A lot of the people I knew were getting arrested or even incarcerated, and I had a sense even back then that it just wasn’t right.”

Another thing that shocked her during high school: In her freshman year, she learned that though her parents were here legally, she herself was undocumented. After that, she says, she lived in constant fear, writing in a 2016 HuffPost essay that this new knowledge “did something to my psyche.” Although Thusi eventually attained legal status, she attributes the fact that she avoided deportation to sheer luck. “If I had been racially profiled, like many of my high school friends, my story would be different,” she says.

Instead, Thusi trained her sights on succeeding at school. When the administrators at Gorton told her they couldn’t offer A.P. Physics, she studied on her own—and passed the A.P. exam.

At Emory University in Atlanta, she showed that same kind of maverick determination, rechartering the school’s NAACP
chapter. She also launched a program that organized poetry slams and workshops in local juvenile detention centers. These efforts, she says, were partly a response to racism on campus. “The student newspaper ran an editorial about the biological inferiority of black people,” Thusi recalls. “There was an outcry, but Emory is a Southern school. At the time, one of the richest fraternities there had a Confederate flag flying. All these experiences came together and informed my outlook.”

Mentoring and Mentored

After graduating college, Thusi returned to Yonkers and taught for a year at Gorton before enrolling at Fordham Law. She was particularly interested in the Law School’s Crowley Program in International Human Rights, a unique offering for 2Ls that includes an intense course of study followed by a two-week fact-finding trip abroad. When interviewing with Professor Catherine Powell for a spot in the program, Thusi still recalls a comment by Powell that resulted in a light bulb moment. “I told Professor Powell that I had taught in a Yonkers public high school and she said, ‘That’s human rights work!’”

Thusi was accepted into the program and in 2006, she and about a half dozen other students traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa. “We studied women’s rights and property rights as connected to customary law and domestic law, as well as Muslim law. We met local scholars and visited the Constitutional Court of South Africa, the highest court in the country.”

On the trip, someone mentioned that South Africa had a really robust program for international law clerks, and another light bulb went off. She vowed to return to South Africa one day, hopefully to work for the Constitutional Court. “There’s a real embrace of human rights domestically,” she says. “The fact that judges are incorporating human rights norms was one of the main reasons I wanted to clerk there.”

Also on her wish list: becoming a law professor—eventually. “It’s such a competitive field that I doubted my ability to get a position,” she admits. Instead, she left law school with a clerkship for the Southern District Court of New York and a focus on civil rights and policing issues.

Professor Powell, one of her mentors at Fordham, had a significant impact on those career goals. “She emphasized the importance of doing human rights work domestically,” says Thusi, who went on to pursue a fellowship at the ACLU. “While I was there, I worked on policing in school and school-to-prison pipeline issues,” she says. “By the time I was a senior at Gorton, they had started with metal detectors and in-school searches of students, and that internship brought my life experience full circle.”

Thusi says she’s grateful for Fordham Law’s commitment to the kind of social justice work she is passionate about, evident in the resources it devotes to the Public Interest Resource Center, the Leitner Center, and other programs that give students experience in human rights. “The school also recognizes student pro bono achievement, and several faculty members closely mentor people interested in social justice work.” One example: Professors Brian Glick and Robin Lenhardt both helped Thusi prepare for her ACLU interview. “We did a mock interview, and they made sure I was up on the different cases I might be asked about,” she says.

When Thusi began looking into federal clerkships, Professor Daniel Capra guided her through. “He really encouraged me,
and you need that encouragement, because you may not always think it’s worth taking that chance,” she says.

Clerkships of a Lifetime

Taking that chance was well worth it. In 2007 and 2008, respectively, Thusi nabbed clerkships with two icons of civil rights law: the Hon. Robert L. Carter, who sat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and the Hon. Damon J. Keith of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. “Judges Carter and Keith were both graduates of Howard University, and were also friends,” she says. “Judge Keith emphasized the importance of social justice work.”

For his part, Judge Carter, who in 1954 served as lead counsel for the NAACP in Brown v. Board of Education, shared an insight with Thusi that continues to resonate. “In his time, it was really easy to recognize racism—it was in your face,” she reflects. “But Judge Carter reminded me that when you’re dealing with implicit or structural racism, it can be difficult to address the evil head-on,” she recalls. “The need to come up with novel strategies to combat veiled forms of discrimination is something I reflect on quite a bit.”

A Path to the Ivory Tower

In 2010, Thusi fulfilled her dream of returning to Johannesburg, where she clerked with Justice Johann van der Westhuizen of the Constitutional Court. She was moved by many aspects of her experience there, including the court building itself, constructed on the site of the notorious Old Fort prison complex where Nelson Mandela was once incarcerated. Today, the glass walls and floors symbolize the court’s commitment to transparency and openness. “Every day I’d go into work and feel inspired,” Thusi says.

So much so that once her six-month clerkship ended, Thusi enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of the Witwatersrand, concentrating on social anthropology and law and society, and earned her degree in 2017. Her studies helped further cement her interest in the gap between the law as it is written and the way different communities experience it—
a focus that hearkens back to her high school days.

For her dissertation, Thusi investigated the policing of sex workers in Johannesburg, concluding that to protect sex workers’ human rights, sex work should not be criminalized. In a 2019 article “Harm, Sex, and Consequences” (Utah Law Review), she makes the case for “distributive consequentialism”—a legal framework she believes can help rein in a system that aims to punish sex workers for immorality rather than for the damage they cause to the community. “I was and am interested in the ways that over-criminalization can create different harms and offenses,” says Thusi. “Sex work is one example of how criminalization can be more harmful than the offense itself.” And in a forthcoming article in Northwestern Law Review titled “On Beauty & Policing,” she argues that the policing of sex workers can reinforce racial hierarchies that are reflected in standards of beauty.

The need to come up with novel strategies to combat veiled forms of discrimination is something I reflect on quite a bit.

Thusi has also garnered attention for another 2019 article, “Blue Lives and the Permanence of Racism” (Cornell Law Review Online), based on ideas she began to develop while she was the Robert L. Carter Fellow at the Opportunity Agenda from 2015 to 2017, a social justice communication lab in New York City. She addresses the rise of the police-led Blue Lives Matter movement, arguing that it is aimed at invalidating Black Lives Matter. She also addresses new laws being proposed around the country affording additional civil rights protections to police officers, as well as framing any assault against them as a hate crime.

“It is strange,” she writes in the article, “that the response to watching videos of unarmed black people being shot by police officers is to say that we need to provide additional protections to police officers.”

Not surprisingly, Thusi has achieved her dream of going into academia. She is now an associate professor at California Western School of Law in San Diego, where she is encouraged by her students’ strong interest in human rights work. “Many will become community leaders,” she predicts, “or lawyers engaged in pro bono practices.” Her experience there leaves her with measured optimism for the future. “When you’re deep in doing social justice advocacy, it’s easy to get frustrated by the slow pace of change,” she says. “But I think it can be helpful to remind yourself that this is how things have always been in this country. Change is slow … but it can happen.”