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Emerging Scholars: Counting on Critical Resistance

Counting on Critical Resistance

Ethnic Studies

Dylan E. Rodríguez
Title: Assistant Professor, Department of Ethnic Studies, University of California, Riverside
Education: Ph.D., M.A., Comparative Ethnic Studies, University of California, Berkeley; Double B.A., Africana Studies and College Scholar (interdisciplinary program with a concentration in Asian American studies), Cornell University
Age: 31

Dr. Dylan Rodríguez, one of the founders of Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex, has become a central voice in the prison abolitionism movement. The University of California, Riverside assistant professor represents a new generation of scholar-activists who are using their interdisciplinary training to re-invigorate what many consider to be long-settled debates about race, gender and privilege within the academy and the world at large.

“Dylan represents the wave of the future in ethnic studies,” says Dr. Andrea Smith, an assistant professor of women’s studies at the University of Michigan. “He’s an important voice and an influential voice now. And I think his work is really going to be transformative for ethnic
studies, prison studies, really for anyone who’s coming at these
questions from a social justice angle.”

Rodríguez’s course is a risky one professionally. Taking political stands on divisive social issues is rarely a safe path to tenure. And he has paid a price for his activism, recently enduring a grueling, nearly
two-year investigation by the local police and the university.

“It might have started with my statements against the war in Afghanistan. I said at the time that there was no such thing as a ‘good American war,’ that all wars were acts of colonialism, empire and
domination,” he recalls.

The probe was actually initiated to investigate his support of students organizing a campaign against sexual violence by a group of fraternity members. Rodríguez was accused of triple head-butting a fraternity member at a rally. The charge amounted to nothing, as videotape
evidence and the testimony of dozens of witnesses contradicted the claim.

“I was completely exonerated, but it was incredibly stressful. It aged me 20 years,” Rodríguez says. “But I’ve always known if I was going to try to take positions that I know are going to extract a certain kind of response, a certain kind of repressive response, then I have to make damn sure that I’m protecting myself, because it’s important that I be in the position I’m in [as university faculty] not just for my own personal welfare but because it’s an opportunity to facilitate and empower the students of color and other people of color who are in this space, too.”

His passion has its roots in his childhood. Rodríguez grew up in Alexandria, Va., the eldest of three children born to a couple who were part of “that first wave of educated Filipino petit-bourgeoisie,” he says. Ironically for a young scholar who has earned a reputation for lambasting global capitalism, imperialism and colonialism, his father worked for the World Bank. But the elder Rodríguez was also actively sympathetic with the anti-Marcos and anti-martial law movements. Dylan’s godfather was a political refugee from the Marcos regime.

“So there were all these contradictions growing up, but they were
productive contradictions. In my adult life, what I’ve been able to do is to reflect on that period and understand the larger connection it has with the politics of the United States,” Rodríguez says. “Martial law in the Philippines is inseparable from the emergence of the prison-industrial complex in the United States and all these other issues I’ve been talking about.”

Just as Rodríguez’s early lessons in activism came at the knee of his father and godfather, his current life is shaped by a large intellectual family as well. His wife, a Japanese-Canadian scholar, is an active organizer in the feminist and anti-racist movements. He also has an activist mother figure in Dr. Angela Davis, the former Black Panther who teaches in the renowned History of Consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has male mentors as well, including Dr. James Turner, the founder of the Africana Center at Cornell University, where Rodríguez did his undergraduate work.

By Kendra Hamilton

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