The Alchemy of Race and Rights

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Overview

Patricia Williams is a lawyer and a professor of commercial law, the great-great-granddaughter of a slave and a white southern lawyer. The Alchemy of Race and Rights is an eloquent autobiographical essay in which the author reflects on the intersection of race, gender, and class. Using the tools of critical literary and legal theory, she sets out her views of contemporary popular culture and current events, from Howard Beach to homelessness, from Tawana Brawley to the law-school classrom, from civil rights to Oprah Winfrey, from Bernhard Goetz to Marth Beth Whitehead. She also traces the workings of "ordinary racism"--everyday occurrences, casual, unintended, banal perhaps, but mortifying. Taking up the metaphor of alchemy, Williams casts the law as a mythological text in which the powers of commerce and the Constitution, wealth and poverty, sanity and insanity, wage war across complex and overlapping boundaries of discourse. In deliberately transgressing such boundaries, she pursues a path toward racial justice that is, ultimately, transformative. Williams gets to the roots of racism not by fingerpointing but by much gentler methods. Her book is full of anecdote and witness, vivid characters known and observed, trenchant analysis of the law's shortcomings. Only by such an inquiry and such patient phenomenology can we understand racism. The book is deeply moving and not so, finally, just because racism is wrong--we all know that. What we don't know is how to unthink the process that allows racism to persist. This Williams enables us to see. The result is a testament of considerable beauty, a triumph of moral tactfulness. The result, as the title suggests, is magic.

Williams enables us to see how we can unthink the process that allows racism to persist. She presents an eloquent argument for keeping rights and affirmative action in the legal vocabulary--and a powerful description of the seemingly ineluctable status of black people in the United States today.

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Editorial Reviews

The Nation

One of the most invitingly personal, even vulnerable, books I've read...Williams has a knack for keeping you just a bit off balance...Her readings invigorate familiar controversies: If you thought there was nothing new to be said about Howard Beach or Eleanor Bumpurs, Tawana Brawley or Baby M., read Williams on them. But some of the most magical turns of argument flow from far less public events...The law needs a brain...and, even more, a heart and some courage. Certificates won't help. This book just might.
— Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

San Francisco Chronicle

Williams melds sophisticated legal scholarship, memoir and allegory into a rich melange that will change perceptions about the substance and spirit of black women...At a time when the nation is wrestling with political correctness or wrongness...Williams' candor about the law and her life is refreshing...The Alchemy of Race and Rights brings jurisprudence to the people while leaving no doubt that the author is among the finest legal talents among us.
— Evelyn C. White

Women's Review of Books

This is a work where style and substance are deeply connected...Writers of feminist jurisprudence first pushed the door open wide some fifteen years ago, and many scholars of color have walked through. Williams' work is among the best, and the most respected, in this tradition...There is passion in these essays, and there is rage, clarity, confusion, intelligence and tenderness. This is more than the alchemy of race and rights. This is the magic and complexity of life.
— Judy Scales-Trent

The Nation - Henry Louis Gates Jr.
One of the most invitingly personal, even vulnerable, books I've read...Williams has a knack for keeping you just a bit off balance...Her readings invigorate familiar controversies: If you thought there was nothing new to be said about Howard Beach or Eleanor Bumpurs, Tawana Brawley or Baby M., read Williams on them. But some of the most magical turns of argument flow from far less public events...The law needs a brain...and, even more, a heart and some courage. Certificates won't help. This book just might.
San Francisco Chronicle - Evelyn C. White
Williams melds sophisticated legal scholarship, memoir and allegory into a rich melange that will change perceptions about the substance and spirit of black women...At a time when the nation is wrestling with political correctness or wrongness...Williams' candor about the law and her life is refreshing...The Alchemy of Race and Rights brings jurisprudence to the people while leaving no doubt that the author is among the finest legal talents among us.
Women's Review of Books - Judy Scales-Trent
This is a work where style and substance are deeply connected...Writers of feminist jurisprudence first pushed the door open wide some fifteen years ago, and many scholars of color have walked through. Williams/author' work is among the best, and the most respected, in this tradition...There is passion in these essays, and there is rage, clarity, confusion, intelligence and tenderness. This is more than the alchemy of race and rights. This is the magic and complexity of life.
Catharine A. Mackinnon
Williams is an original and imaginative mind, an unstultified, insubordinate thinker who jumps off cliffs and lands on her feet, who flies close to the sun and never melts her wings. She accomplishes the near impossible: simultaneous depth of engagement in law and world. The alchemical forge she theorizes between race and rights parallels her own method: 'the making of something out of nothing.' See what she makes out of sausage, polar bears, Beethoven. See if you can ever shop at Benetton's again.
Kenneth A. Betsalel
Reviewed by Kenneth A. Betsalel, University of North Carolina at Asheville Patricia J. Williams has written an important book that should be read by all those seeking to understand subjective ways of knowing the world and the ways in which legal and personal identities are formed. Williams, who now teaches law and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has also taught at Stanford University Law School and the City University of New York. Through the use of anecdotes (which can be considered the book's primary data) and analysis of contemporary events (mostly culled from THE NEW YORK TIMES), this highly personal, almost confessional work portrays Williams' encounters with such pub- lic/private issues (a distinction Williams wants to self- con- sciously blur) as life in the academy, affirmative action, surrogate motherhood, racial violence, and truth telling in academic research. Nearly all of Williams' narratives are linked to her concern with race relations in the United States and the apparent failure of the nation to come to terms with its past. The strength of this book (and what might also be considered its major flaw) revolves around the question of method. Paulo Freire has written in THE PEDAGOGY OF THE OPPRESSED that to negate the centrality of subjectivity in human understanding is "naive and simplistic" and is but a vain attempt to deny the importance of people in the making of their own history. The problem with Williams' book is not that she is subjec- tive, but that her subjectivity is occasionally misplaced. By this I mean Williams sometimes uses subjective forms of discourse and evaluation (a epistemology of knowledge that emphasizes personal interpretation and meaning) to make points and win arguments rather than as a method to explore what she fully recognizes is a complex, often paradoxical, even tragic reality. In effect, Williams uses what she at one point refers to as her "subject position" (p.3) to create straw men, dare I say "fic- tions," in order to display her considerable brilliance as a social critic. For example, Williams insufficiently develops evidence to question Stanford University's handling of the Ujaama House incident (a case in which a student maliciously defaced a poster of Beethoven in order to ridicule the idea that Beethoven could possibly have African ancestry) or to claim her colleagues' exams (one of which made use of a hypothetical murder case based on Shakespeare's Othello) were racist and sexist. It is not that Williams is mistaken in her analysis of any given event, only that her description of the event may not be based on an accurate picture of reality. Williams recognizes this problem when she describes how her sister (who is an historian and serves as her alter ego) objects to her fictionalizing identities in order to tell the truth. I would like to quote this passage at length in that it gets at the heart of my criticism of Williams' work. I sit down and write my sister a long letter, including my memo. I tell her how I have fictionalized the identities of people and collapsed several conversations with different colleagues into the mouths of only a few characters. My sister responds with a phone call: she tells me I'm a coward. She thinks I should write up everything Exactly As It Happened and have it published somewhere. Otherwise, she says, I open myself up to being dismissed as merely liter- ary; people will be able to say It Didn't Happen. Page 105 follows: But the exams are all real, I insist, and all the events did happen, just not all in the same instant, not all in that order; it happened, just not exactly that way. Then it's not true, she says, and you will have committed an act of bad scholarship. But my point is not to hold individual people or institu- tions up for ridicule, I persist. I generalized because the power of these events is precisely their generality through- out legal education and practice. The lessons lie in the principles, not in the personalities. The power of these events, says my sister the historian, is that they happened, and there is no one who is in a more ideal position to document them in detail than you. You are just afraid to do that. I promise to think about what she has said, and our conver- sation ends. And I do think about what my sister has said, long and hard, for weeks and weeks (pp.91-92). Despite the fact that Williams contemplates the issue of truth telling she never tells us how she resolves the matter. Is she telling the truth or is she fictionalizing her accounts in order to create a kind of ideal type which serves her argument better than the unvarnished, complex tale of What Actually Happened? Upon reflection this question of truth telling left me somewhat skeptical about the veracity of other stories Williams tells (how she and her sister were held at gun point as her father was questioned by a highway patrolmen in South Carolina [p.144]; how she was denied entrance to an expensive clothing store in New York because of her skin color [p.45]). My point is not that subjective modes and story telling have no place in legal analysis and scientific writing but that they have to be executed in such a way that the authenticity of the narrating voice not be questioned. Despite this criticism, which would be damning in most instances, there is much to learn from this painfully revealing book especially with regard to how the law and social relations look from the inside out. Williams is best when she explains how she FEELS about the law or how a particular event (real or imagined) triggers her acutely self-conscious awareness. Several passages in this book are filled with a depth of understanding that rivals the insight and wisdom of such writers as Albert Camus (one thinks of the narrating voice in THE FALL); Marguerite Duras, whom she quotes approvingly; and Etty Hillesum, whose intimate journals document her life as a young Jewish woman living in Holland during the holocaust years. One passage in particular reminds us how vulnerable we all are to becoming accomplices in other peoples' racism. When shopping in a clothing store she remains silent while overhearing the anti-semitic remarks of two sales persons. Why does she remain silent? Because she believes she too is vulnerable to attack. As Williams writes: I am always grateful when store keepers are polite to me; I don't expect courtesy, I value it in a way that resembles love and trust and shelter. I value it in a way that is frequently misleading, for it is neither love nor truth nor shelter. I know that this valuing is a form of fear. I am afraid of being alien and suspect, of being thrown out at any moment; I am relieved when I am not. At the same time, I am enraged by the possibility of this subsurface drama-waiting- to-happen. My rage feels dangerous, full of physical vio- lence, like something that will get me arrested. And also at the same time I am embarrassed by all these feelings, ashamed to reveal in them the truth of my insignificance. All this impermissible danger floats around in me, boiling, exhausting. I can't kill and I can't teach everyone. I can't pretend it Page 106 follows: doesn't bother me; it eats me alive. So I protect myself. Idon't venture into the market very often. I don't deal with other people if I can help it. I don't risk exposing myself to the rage that will get me arrested. The dilemma-- and the distance between the "I" on this side of the store and the me that is "them" on the other side of the store--is marked by an emptiness in myself. Frequently such emptiness is reiterated by a hole in language, a gap in the law, or a chasm of fear (p.129). Such passages reveal the complexity of human emotions in relation to individual identity and action. Should one act? Should one remain silent? In part it all depends upon the personal history we carry around--a history that is both a reflection of who we are and the society in which we live. Such insights might be banal except for the fact that Williams is able to reveal through her own experience why it is WE might feel the way WE do about a whole host of issues, including the law. In fact, Williams whole project can be said to do just that: to explain the law through an understanding of ourselves. As Williams explains to her sister early on in the book: "I would like to write in a way that reveals the intersubjectivity of legal constructions, that forces the reader both to participate in the construction of meaning and to be conscious of that process...To this end, I exploit all sorts of literary devices, including parody, parable, and poetry....What I hope will be filled in is connection; connection between my psyche and the readers', between lived experience and social perception, and between an encompass- ing historicity and a jurisprudence of generosity" (pp.7-8). Williams takes this subjective approach to the law in part because traditional legal discourse, she argues, has used the language of rationality and objectivity all the while denying those on the margins of power (namely blacks, women and other racial and ethnic minorities) a voice in the law. As Williams writes of traditional legal discourse: "[M]uch of what is spoken in so-called objective, unmediated voices is in fact mired in hidden subjectivities and unexamined claims that make property of others beyond the self, all the while denying such connections" (p.11). When Williams' method works, as it often does, I know few other books like it in terms of providing insight into the law, as exemplified by Williams' impassioned defense of affirmative action and civil rights against conservative critics on the right and Critical Legal Study theorists on the left. But when her method falters, as I believe it does in her discussion of the tactics used by defense lawyers in the arraignment of the three white youths accused of beating two black youths in Howard Beach (pp.67-69), she seems to forget that the criminal justice system with all its inherent imperfection is an adversarial system more analogous to competing subjectives than an inquisitorial search for the truth. One final observation. C.S. Lewis wrote in the concluding section of AN EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM that "Literary experience heals the wound without undermining the privilege, of individual- ity." Two friends of ours were having dinner at our home recent- ly. They asked if I had read Pat Williams THE ALCHEMY OF RACE AND RIGHTS and asked me what I thought. It was difficult to explain how I find so much that is worthwhile in a book whose methodology I am so deeply troubled by. They understood, but both said they felt Williams captured the essence of racism today. I quite agree. As in the best works of literature her words also serve to heal and transform the wounds of those who read them. That, I suspect, is the books real alchemy.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674014718
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/1992
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,405,384
  • Product dimensions: 5.95 (w) x 8.99 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Patricia J. Williams is Professor of Law, Columbia University.
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Table of Contents

PART I:

Excluding Voices: A Necklace of Thoughts on the Ideology of Style

1. The Brass Ring and the Deep Blue Sea

2. Gilded Lilies and Liberal Guilt

3. The Death of the Profane

PART II:

Trial by Text: A Sequence of Sublimation

4. Teleology on the Rocks

5. Crimes Without Passion

6. The Obliging Shell

PART III:

Ladder to the Light: A Series of Hinged Turning Points

7. Fire and Ice

8. The Pain of Word Bondage

9. Mirrors and Windows

PART IV:

The Incorruptible Simplicity of Being: A String of Crystalline Paroles

10. Owning the Self in a Disowned World

11. Arm's-Length Intimacies

12. On Being the Object of Property

Notes

A Word on Categories

Acknowledgments

Index

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