Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor

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9780674014718: Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor
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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.

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In a personal and profound examination of the United States legal system and its effect on African Americans, Patricia J. Williams uses the term alchemy--the medieval, mysterious practice of turning base metal into gold--as a haunting metaphor for the nearly mystical process by which United States law emboldens and endangers blacks through arcane interpretation, as well as the heroic will of a people to make those laws manifest. "I'm interested in the way in which the legal language flattens and confines in absolutes the complexity of meaning inherent in any given problem," she writes. "I am trying to challenge the usual limits of commercial discourse by using an intentionally double-voiced and relational, rather than a traditionally legal black letter, vocabulary."

With an authorial voice that draws upon Williams's perspective as teacher, lawyer, black American, and woman, The Alchemy of Race and Rights uses a palette of court cases, educational encounters, and personal experiences--including her discovery of her slave ancestor and her interactions with school deans over how to teach law--to create a literary cubist portrait detailing the rhetoric and reality that color the complexion of American justice. --Eugene Holley Jr.

About the Author:

Patricia J. Williams is James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia Law School.

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