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Patricia J. Williams


Patricia J. Williams is a graduate of Wellesley College and Harvard Law School. She began her career practicing law as a consumer advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and as a Deputy City Attorney for the City of Los Angeles. Upon leaving practice, she served on the faculties of the University of Wisconsin School of Law, Harvard University Women’s Studies Program, and CUNY Law School at Queen’s College. Since 1992, she has been the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University School of Law.

She is the recipient of honorary doctorates from Northeastern University School of Law, John Jay College of the City University of New York, the College of Wooster, Smith College, and Old Dominion University. She has received numerous awards, including from from her alma maters—an Outstanding Alumna Award from Latin School in Boston, an Alumnae Achievement Award from Wellesley College, and a Graduate Society Medal from Harvard.

Her book The Alchemy of Race and Rights was named one of the twenty-five best books of 1991 by the Voice Literary Supplement; one of the “feminist classics of the last twenty years” that “literally changed women’s lives” by Ms. magazine; and one of the ten best non-fiction books of the decade by Other books include The Rooster’s Egg (Harvard Press, 1995), Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1998), and Open House: On Family, Food, Piano Lessons, and The Search for a Room of My Own (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2004).

Professor Williams has appeared on radio and television shows around the world, and in 1997 delivered the annual Reith Lectures for the BBC, Radio Four. She has appeared in a number of documentary films, including “That Rush!” which she wrote and narrated. Directed by British film-maker Isaac Julien, this short study of American talk show hosts was featured as part of an installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London.

She has held fellowships at the School of Criticism and Theory at Dartmouth, the Humanities Research Institute of the University of California at Irvine, the Institute for Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. In 2000, she was named a MacArthur fellow.

  • Campaigns and Elections November 14, 2002

    Take Two Aspirin

    Well, the elephant is out of the barn now. Congress is lost and whither Congress, so will go the courts.

    Patricia J. Williams

  • Racism and Discrimination October 31, 2002

    Theories of Relativity

    During one pleasant dinner aboard the Nation cruise, one of my tablemates told an amusing story about Einstein giving a lecture in which he stated that he expected the solar system to im

    Patricia J. Williams

  • Guns and Gun Control October 17, 2002

    Home on the Range

    There's a joke circulating on the Internet: A grandmother overhears her 5-year-old granddaughter playing "wedding." The wedding vows go like this: "You have the right to remain silent.

    Patricia J. Williams

  • Politics October 3, 2002

    But Fear Itself

    It's a scary little world right now. Such wars of careless words. Such panic on every breeze. If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, we have let bloom a thousand words for fear.

    Patricia J. Williams

  • Law September 19, 2002

    Infallible Justice

    I saw a puzzling banner on the door of a restaurant the other day. It was a flag flanked by two aphorisms: God bless America and America bless God.

    Patricia J. Williams

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  • Non-fiction June 27, 2002

    ‘The Enemy Within’

    There are perfectly respectable reasons to disagree with, dislike or distrust Jesse Jackson. His flaws as a human being are pretty well-known at this point. Some feel his politics are driven by ego. He certainly is prone to poetic puffery, as much disposed to allegorical tales in which he plays Good Shepherd as was Ronald Reagan. He's cheated on his wife. Most notoriously, Jesse Jackson's credibility as leader of anything like a rainbow coalition was profoundly shaken by his "Hymietown" remark. I am among those who distrust him as a result of that one statement, profuse apologies notwithstanding. But if I distrust him, I distrust him no more or less than the legions of other politicians who have made racist, sexist or anti-Semitic comments and then apologized as though they were children playing "words can never hurt you." I distrust Jesse Jackson no more than I distrust Jesse Helms or Robert Byrd or Pat Robertson. I distrust him no more than George Bush or John Ashcroft for being so cozy with the anti-miscegenist, anti-Catholic Bob Jones University (even as I also distrust the Catholic Church for its own history of anti-Semitism). I worry about him exactly to the same extent that I worry about those members of Congress who have spent their long, complacent lives as members of country clubs that discriminate against Jews and blacks and women.

    In other words, while Jesse Jackson may have his problems, they can probably be summed up in a paragraph. Kenneth Timmerman's book Shakedown: Exposing the Real Jesse Jackson takes that one paragraph and reworks it for well over 400 pages. While it is important to document and acknowledge the shortcomings of public figures, it is also important to maintain a sense of proportion. In reality, Jackson is imperfect. In Timmerman's rendition, he is a bloated monster of evil impulses and global appetites, a "dangerous fool," "a David Duke in black skin" who "drifts off into mumbo-jumbo" "like a Halloween ghoul" while "mau-mauing" corporations that "think it is cheaper to buy protection" from the "race industry" he has purportedly milked dry.

    The distance between the real Jackson and Timmerman's gargoyle is inhabited by myth, stereotype, unsubstantiated accusation, illogic and careless innuendo. It is a world in which the least mundanity of Jackson's existence is milled into malevolent disguise. Even Martin Luther King Jr.'s death is described as an event that "set him free. With King dead, Jackson could become his own boss." If Jackson is an opportunist, he is not this heinous a one, and nothing in the substance rather than the innuendo of this book says otherwise. Yet the innuendo playsagainst a backdrop of slapdash thinking, angry talk-show hosts, thoughtless prejudice. It plays to what many in the majority of this society think they already know--how else could such a carelessly contentious book make it onto the New York Times bestseller list for more than a month?

    In the real world, Jackson is paid for his advocacy, for his attempts at conflict resolution and for his speaking. He is a skilled fundraiser for a variety of nonprofit organizations. His salary, fees and contributions are paid, quite straightforwardly, by constituents and supporters. One may honestly disagree with what he advocates or about whether he's an effective negotiator or is wise in his beliefs. To resent that he is paid at all is a tendentious and indirect way of expressing that disagreement, but that's the essence of what Timmerman seems to mean when he uses the word "shakedown." In Timmerman's world, Jackson's entire relation to money is one of "profiting," "profiting-at-the-expense-of" and "profiteering."

    Yes, Jackson has been investigated a number of times for mishandling funds, particularly during the setup years of Operation PUSH and Operation Breadbasket. But despite numerous FBI investigations, despite frequent IRS audits and despite intense media scrutiny, none of his enterprises have ever been implicated in anything beyond the usual scope--promptly corrected--of what all businesses, including nonprofits, face in the course of accounting for their poor investment decisions, particularly when those decisions are made by inexperienced and disorganized administrators like Jackson. Nevertheless, even after Jackson hires good accountants and smart financial counselors, Timmerman refers to him as "still just a street hustler" who benefited from the "most friendly of audits" and whose "scandalous" accounting practices would surely have resulted in some sort of criminal action had not the FBI's investigation of him been "shut down during the early months of the Carter administration." That Timmerman is referring to the notorious COINTELPRO operation, which disparaged the reputations and disrupted the lives of so many civil rights leaders, is never made explicit.

    To Timmerman, Jackson's every last tic is a deceit. Jesse Jackson is wrong when he wears shorts and sandals--too déclassé and inappropriate. He's wrong when he wears suits--too expensive and self-indulgent. He's a fraud because his "black buddies" give him a nice, large house in which to raise his family--a "fifteen room Tudor," mentioned so many times that to say Timmerman is obsessed with it might be too kind. The house is in a nice neighborhood--how inauthentic! His children go to private schools, graduate from college and turn out well--how hypocritical of him to complain about opportunity for blacks! His son is elected to Congress--what "dynastic" pretension!

    There is a deep streak of class resentment running through this book. Jackson is disparaged in the classic language of resentment toward the bourgeoisie or the nouveau riche: He is demeaned for his grammar, for his manners, for his conspicuous consumption. I think this class bias accounts for Timmerman's irrational anger whenever Jackson moves beyond what Timmerman deems his place in the social order. Jackson is painted as too ignorant and lower class to play with the big boys; yet too flashy and profligate to make political claims on behalf of the poor. When Newsweek praises his children as "poised, proud and living antidotes to inner-city despair," Timmerman snorts that "Jesse Jackson with his three houses, his flush bank accounts, his first-class travel, his lucrative friendships with foreign dictators...was as close to inner city despair as the Beverly Hillbillies were to poverty."

    Similarly, any use of economic leverage, including boycotts, is seen as nothing more than "bullying," the surest sign of someone who'd rather be staging a riot. Jackson's attempts to convince businesses to "provide jobs and award contracts" to minorities is redescribed as making them "pony up." Peaceful boycotts become racial extortion--as though African-Americans have an obligation to shop till they drop, as though free enterprise did not include the choice of taking one's business elsewhere. It is an oddly unbalanced insistence, particularly since Timmerman seems to feel that free enterprise includes the right of businesses not to hire or serve any of those supposedly extortionist brown bodies.

    When Jackson joins the board of General Motors, he's not working within the system, heaven forbid, he's just "working" it. Indeed, General Motors itself is indicted for putting him on its board, for being in craven complicity with his "plundering." "For the scare-muffins who still dominate many Fortune 500 companies, it has become cheaper to toss bones to Jesse than to contest him in the court of public opinion," writes Timmerman, and quotes T.J. Rogers, CEO of Cypress Semiconductor, who refused to "pony up" to Jackson's concerns about hiring patterns: "My advice to other CEO's? Why don't you grow a pair of balls? Or if you're a female, whatever is the female equivalent."

    Shakedown is flawed even more by racialized animus than by class bias, however. "Uncle Jessie," as Timmerman calls him on several occasions, wants "not just equal opportunity, but equal results." Shakedown purports to be filled with proof that Jackson and his "cohorts" have "more than." They are described not merely as lying, cheating and stealing but as possessing much more than they deserve, however they came by it. Every last car any member of the Jackson family ever owned--his son's wife's BMW, for heaven's sake--is listed and ridiculed, every last exotic make, size of engine, price paid, with a rundown of features including vanity plates and whether the tires were radial or whitewall.

    There is nowhere offered in this book a chance that Jackson has a humanitarian bone in his body, no chance that he adheres to principles or beliefs. Jackson is not even a real minister, according to Shakedown, but a "seminary drop-out" whose "church" (always in quotes) is nothing more than a front for his "poverty pimping."

    Anything Jackson is associated with becomes just too stupid or too dangerous to respond to or take seriously. And so Jackson is described as drawing up a "hit list" of corporations. In a passage astonishing for its old-style Confederate paranoia, Timmerman worries that Jackson's "inflammatory words" protesting the outcome of the 2000 election "were dangerously close to a call for insurrection." Even Al Gore is depicted as plotting with Jackson in hopes of "unleashing a massive outpouring of 'rage' in black communities across America." (Rage, too, is always in quotes.)

    Whether one likes Jackson or not, reading Shakedown one gets the sense that Timmerman dislikes him for much more than his bad traits--and that's where the popularity of this book becomes truly troubling. Timmerman can't stand anyone who's ever shaken Jackson's hand. He despises the civil rights "establishment." He hates Bill Clinton, the Chicago Theological Seminary, African and African-American leaders of every political stripe, hippies, bleeding hearts and the NAACP. Just for extra wallop, every chapter or so he lumps them all together with Lenin, Castro, Hitler, Stalin, socialist "plants," radical "functionaries," card-carrying members of the Communist party as well as motley others "who are, unquestionably, enemies of the United States."

    Jackson's closest friends are, according to Timmerman, members of the Arab League, Louis Farrakhan, Yasir Arafat and Chicago street-gang members. No matter that some of those gang members bullied Jackson, engaging in true extortionary tactics; or, more poignantly, were kids to whom Jackson tried to extend his ministry of social action. The fact that some gang members were neighbors and family members, or the fact that numbers of them ended up in jail, including Jackson's own half-brother, is never evidence of the stresses, the sad scripts, the human loss of ghetto life; in this book, they're all just part of "Jesse's World." Based on association alone, street toughs become his accomplices, his cohorts, his henchmen. Timmerman writes that Jackson "boasted of his ties to the gangs: 'I get a lot of them to go to church.'" Boast it may be, but it is not the ordinary or fair understanding of "ties" to gangs. To describe it so implies something more sinister, suggests much more.

    Indeed, Jackson's mere family relation to Noah Robinson, his half-brother and a gang member doing hard time, is like a bone that Timmerman can't stop gnawing. It gets told and retold every few pages. His no-good, murderous, jailed gang member of a brother. Ten paragraphs later, Robinson is resurrected, still murderous, still jailed and still working overtime as Jackson's "link" to gang life.

    Similarly troubling is Timmerman's description of Jackson's association with Jeff Fort, the jailed head of the Blackstone Rangers--none other than the same Jeff Fort who recently made news as leader of the gang with which the FBI says José Padilla, the alleged "dirty bomb" conspirator, once hung. Indeed, Shakedown's appendix contains a 1983 wanted poster of Fort, then on the run from a narcotics charge. The sarcastic caption reads: "The 'Reverend' Jackson's Best Pupil." Beneath Fort's picture is the following legend: "Jackson--a seminarian dropout who never even had his own church or congregation--" (perhaps the twentieth time Timmerman repeats that) "claims to have 'baptized' Jeff Fort in their early days together. Perhaps Fort should have sought the services of a real 'Reverend.'"

    This kind of indictment by suggestion occurs in almost every sentence of the book. In one particularly troubling chapter, Timmerman tries to implicate Jackson in funding Al Qaeda by something resembling "six degrees of separation": In early 1999 Jackson negotiated a settlement between Deutsche Bank and Kevin Ingram, one of the bank's top five executives, who claimed he'd been fired because of his race. Ingram, who never saw Jackson again, was arrested two years later for brokering a sale of weapons on behalf of an Egyptian neighbor of his. The would-be buyer was a Pakistani national, who, Timmerman implies, represented the Pakistani military. Since September 11, "federal investigators have been interrogating Ingram...about possible ties between the ultimate buyers of the weapons in Pakistan and renegade Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden." Why? Apparently Ingram was once spotted in Sierra Leone by a Florida diamond dealer who said as much while he was being questioned by federal investigators regarding unrelated fraud charges. What's that got to do with anything? Well, Libyan, Hezbollah and bin Laden operatives are known to have traded diamonds in Liberia. Liberia, you ask? Hey, Sierra Leone and Liberia are right next door to each other... What has this got to do with Jesse Jackson? Ah. That goes back to President Clinton (who, as the spawn of Satan and first American President ever to have traveled to any part of sub-Saharan Africa, is dismissed by Timmerman as having gone "on safari"). Clinton sent Jackson along as part of a State Department team that tried and ultimately failed to negotiate a peace in the diamond wars between Liberia and Sierra Leone.

    As Timmerman leads readers down this tortured trail, Jackson's "race-baiting tactics" in Ingram's case against Deutsche Bank give the illusion of him being directly tied to Al Qaeda's illicit trade in diamonds, a trade that has "flourished under the Lomé Accord Jackson negotiated on behalf of the State Department."

    In an era when our vast, unspecified war against terror has been used to justify detaining José Padilla, an American citizen arrested on American soil, in a military brig with no charges and no lawyer, one does begin to worry about what those vague Al Qaeda and Blackstone Ranger "links" will bring down upon inner-city Chicago and other communities already so beleaguered by careless suspect profiling. At a time when due process is fast being shelved as quaint and improvident, one only hopes that criminality and political heresy will be measured in some other forum than Timmerman's overwrought court of public opinion. In an era when politicians and talk-show hosts speak openly of assassinating a broad range of America's enemies by way of "pre-emptive" strategy, one worries about Timmerman's recurring theme of Jackson's alignment with those enemies; of Jackson's affairs being a matter of national security; of Jackson as threat to the stability of America's political and corporate culture. Indeed, Timmerman notes ominously, "No flags or patriotic banners are found at Jackson's PUSH meeting held September 15, 2001, just four days after the terrorist attack on the United States. But there was room for a gigantic portrait of himself."

    John Ashcroft recently asked us to trust that the days of J. Edgar Hoover are gone forever; I would like to imagine that he means it. But who needs Hoover if Timmerman's book reflects a national backlash rushing to fill the breach? If Shakedown represents anything like a popular or dominant view not just in the country but specifically in the intelligence community (and Timmerman does thank "many" in academia, law enforcement and intelligence "who have asked not to be named"), we are in deep, deep trouble. This is a paranoid book, an ignorant book, a book that posits aggressive disrespect for an immense spectrum of African-American concerns as some sort of brave moral stance. It is a book that takes us right back to the 1950s and argues, in effect, that the South was right about that Negro problem. Indeed, I suppose there's really no need to read this book at all--one could just go see Birth of a Nation and wallow in all that panic about insurrection and uppity, overdressed black politicians who, as D.W. Griffith put it, "know nothing of the incidents of power."

    Call me a Nervous Nellie, but will FBI and CIA agents, with their expansive new powers, be as subject to mocking and stereotyping black people as the careless Mr. Kenneth R. Timmerman? To put it another way, if the FBI and CIA see each other as enemies, do testy, overdressed, big-spending people of African descent even stand a chance against a popular culture so racially freighted?

    If this book were not selling like hotcakes and if we were not at war, I might just feel sorry for Timmerman. I'd tell him to get out and make a few more black friends, maybe take a Democrat to lunch. Let him find out for himself that we're not as scary as all that. I'd urge that course, I guess, even for those white Americans whose sympathies are ostensibly closer to my own--perhaps people like Ward Just, a novelist who in reviewing Stephen Carter's new book, The Emperor of Ocean Park, in The New York Times Book Review wrote about his discomfort in attending a birthday party that Vernon Jordan gave for President Clinton on Martha's Vineyard:

    More than half were African-American, not one of them known to me by sight; I mean to say, no entertainers or sports figures. They were lawyers and business supremos and academics, and many of them had houses on the island.... Introductions were made, but the names flew by. I had never been in an American living room where the paler nation was in the minority, but that did not seem to matter on this occasion, everyone jolly and conversational, very much at ease. But I was inhibited, in the way a civilian is inhibited in a room full of professional soldiers, listening instead of talking, trying to see beneath the skin of things--the uniform.

    This fear of black social life, the perceived unknowability of it, has, I worry, become one more blind spot that endangers our national security, to say nothing of our national unity. There are so many white people who have still never been to a black home and have never had a black person to theirs. Of course, there are lots of black people who have never been much beyond the ghetto. But in general, I think black people have an overwhelmingly better sense of white people as just plain old human beings than the reverse. It's impossible not to: Black people work in white homes, white stores, white offices. If we are professionals, we can go days without even seeing another black person. I'd never be able to say at a cocktail party, "Who's that wonderful white entertainer? Oh, you know the one." And everyone there would have such a narrow range of reference that they'd all answer in unison, "Oh yeah, Steve Martin. He's great."

    And so I keep wondering about who is reading Shakedown in such energetic numbers. Who finds it necessary to buy into the frisson of such hyperbole? Is it possible that the ability to maintain such a fevered sense of besiegement about Jesse Jackson, of all people, is related to the gibberishly panicked response of the police officers who shot Amadou Diallo in that frenzy of bullets in 1999? Are Timmerman's readers challenged to reflect upon the blind righteousness of the officers who assaulted Abner Louima two years before that--do they wonder where Louima would be if he were assaulted now? It should be remembered that Louima, a noncitizen, was initially mistaken for someone who had committed a minor crime. Would we ever have known of his plight if he'd been whisked into a detention center with no trial, no charge and no lawyer?

    Do Timmerman's readers really write off all the disparities of black and brown life in America--from housing to healthcare, from schooling to employment--as simple market choices? Do they have a clue of the social resentment so many blacks endure--yes, even well-educated and wealthy black people? Sometimes it is in the little things: I do not fully understand, for example, why Vanity Fair felt it necessary, in a recent interview, to describe black philosopher Cornel West as not just extremely knowledgeable but rather "besotted" with knowledge. Sometimes it's in the large things. When Bill Cosby's son Ennis was murdered while changing a flat tire on his Mercedes some years ago, Camille Cosby wondered aloud where his killer, a vehemently racist young Ukranian immigrant, had learned to so hate the sight of a black man driving an expensive car.

    Does Timmerman's book bring us any closer to acknowledging how many times more dangerous those traditions of resentment have become when political approval ratings soar with talk of ultimate control, of official secrecy, of necessity, of accident and of disappearance?

    How terrifying for black and brown people when a highly dangerous but nevertheless very small network of terrorists are to be hunted down based not only on specific information but by employing broadly inaccurate assumptions about our race, our religion, our national origin. Who betrays whom when sweepingly invasive surveillance guidelines are embraced by commentators across the political spectrum--from Alan Dershowitz to George Will, from Charles Krauthammer to Nicholas Kristof. Who betrays whom when Timmerman's brand of vulgar overgeneralization spreads like a poison across the globe, insuring that whatever the final shape of our brave new world, some of us are doomed to catch hell from all sides, consigned to a parallel universe, figured as the enemy within--indeed, the enemy "wherever."

    There is a fable about the lion that eats the lamb because the lamb has offended him with some imagined trespass. "But I didn't do it," protests the lamb. "Well," sighs the lion, "it must have been your brother"--and digs into his dinner.

    Patricia J. Williams

  • Racial Privacy

    Ward Connerly, figurehead for California's anti-affirmative action Proposition 209, is up to more mischief. This time it's a push to prevent California's public agencies from classifying "any individual by race, ethnicity, color or national origin in the operation of public education, public contracting or public employment." Classification is defined as any "act of separating, sorting or organizing by race, ethnicity, color or national origin including, but not limited to, inquiring, profiling, or collecting such data on government forms."

    Shrewdly titled the Racial Privacy Initiative, it sounds like a plan to protect us from the manipulative purview of Big Brother, or perhaps an act to prohibit police profiling or to protect medical records from being misused or to prevent consumer credit and employment histories from being revealed in ways that discriminate against minorities. "Racial privacy" beguiles with the promise of removing race and all its contentiousness from public view, keeping its secrets in a vault for only the rightful owner to know. A kind of "don't ask, don't tell" stance of racial revelation.

    In fact, the proposed enactment contains a series of crucial exceptions that quickly turn such rosily "color-blind" expectations completely upside down. First, in a blatant concession to Big Brother writ large, there is an exemption for police. Sociologists Troy Duster and Andy Barlow have worried that this exemption will allow police alone to collect racial data: "What about the concern of many citizens that police practices need to be monitored for racial profiling? The racial privacy initiative would not allow such data to be kept."

    Similarly, while permitting racial and ethnic classification of "medical research subjects and patients," the initiative bars the collection of data for population-based surveys that are the cornerstone of public health administration. And while there is a superficially charitable exemption for the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, that much of a given is rather severely constrained in that the department "shall not impute a race, color, ethnicity or national origin to any individual." In any event, this particular exemption "shall expire ten years after the effective date of this measure."

    In fact, the Racial Privacy Initiative is not about protecting data from being misused; instead it effectively eliminates data collection at all. If enacted, it would continue a trend begun by Ronald Reagan and pursued by every Republican administration since: limiting the accountability of public institutions by making vital public information unavailable. In such a world, there can be no easy way to know whether Native American women are being sterilized at higher rates in public hospitals than other groups. One would not be able to determine whether public schools were tracking black students into remedial classes and white students into advanced placement. Documentation of ghettoization and other patterns of residential segregation would be magically wiped from census data.

    With no impartial public archive of such data, the burden of compiling such statistics would fall either upon independent academics who would have to find funding for their studies on a project-by-project basis; or upon a cacophony of competing interest groups--a competition that no doubt will be more than skewed by better-funded conservative think tanks like the Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute.

    Indeed, this initiative is not about "privacy" as most laypeople think of it. It is actually about privatizing racially based behavior. And privatized racism has been a dream of the far right since the first whites-only private schools sprang up in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Segregation is "private choice," a "social" problem, not a legal one, according to this logic. You can't force people to love you. Suing over discrimination is victimology. As long as the government doesn't force you to drink out of a separate water fountain or go to a separate school, then that is the limit of equal opportunity.

    Eliminating official knowledge of race and ethnicity in the public sphere at first sounds like part of the same enterprise as eliminating Jim Crow laws. (Indeed, many California voters seem as confused about the meaning of the initiative as they were about Prop 209, which sounded to many as though it would lead to more inclusion rather than less.) In fact, however, "racial privacy" accomplishes little more than institutionalizing an official stance of denial and, in the process, eviscerates essential civil rights enforcement mechanisms. Californians may as well put those three little moral idiots, Hear-no-evil, See-no-evil and Speak-no-evil, in charge of remediation for discrimination.

    In what has been one of the most effective manuevers of the right in recent years, defenders of the initiative have co-opted a good deal of the vocabulary of the civil rights community in a blizzard of definitional inversions. Ward Connerly insists that this measure will keep the state from "profiling" its citizens. If one accepts that to most Americans "profiling" connotes the unethical use of data to discriminate (as in Driving While Black), this conflation with the neutral act of data collection itself is tremendously misleading. By the same token, the name of Connerly's group, the American Civil Rights Coalition, would seem to imply a greater measure of protection for civil rights rather than lesser. I do worry that such studied reversals of terms will come to overtake the discourse as much as the term "quota" has displaced any public understanding of the actual meaning of affirmative action.

    The publicly collected statistics we take for granted today show undisputed racial and ethnic disparities in every realm of American life. Any proposition that this gap is either not worth documenting--or, even more insidiously, is aggravated by the gathering of such knowledge--consigns us to a world in which "intelligence" is the exclusive preserve of unrestrained police surveillance. The collective ignorance with which we will be left will quite literally keep us from ever speaking truth to power.

    Patricia J. Williams

  • Health and Disease May 16, 2002

    Racial Prescriptions

    A recent front-page story in the Boston Globe proclaimed that New England leads the nation in Ritalin prescription levels. Somewhat to my surprise, the prevalence of Ritalin ingestion was generally hailed as a good thing--as indeed it may be in cases of children with ADHD. But to me the most startling aspect of the Globe's analysis was the seeming embrace in many places of Ritalin as a "performance enhancer." Prescription rates are highest in wealthy suburbs.

    While the reasons for such a statistical skewing need more exploration than this article revealed, what I found particularly interesting was the speculation that New Englanders have a greater investment in academic achievement: "'Our income is higher than in other states, and we value education,' said Gene E. Harkless, director of the family nurse-practitioner program at the University of New Hampshire. 'We have families that are seeking above-average children.'"

    Aren't we all. (And by "all," I mean all--wouldn't it be nice if everyone understood that those decades of lawsuits over affirmative action and school integration meant that poor and inner-city families also "value education" and are "seeking above- average children"?) But Ritalin, after all, works on the body as the pharmacological equivalent of cocaine or amphetamines. It does seem a little ironic that poor inner-city African-Americans, who from time to time do tend to get a little down about the mouth despite the joys of welfare reform, are so much more likely than richer suburban whites to be incarcerated for self-medicating with home-brewed, nonprescription cocaine derivatives. If in white neighborhoods Ritalin is being prescribed as a psychological "fix" no different from reading glasses or hearing aids, it's no wonder the property values are higher. Clearly the way up for ghettos is to sweep those drugs off the street and into the hands of drug companies that can scientifically ladle the stuff into underprivileged young black children. I'll bet that within a single generation, the number of African-Americans taking Ritalin--to say nothing of Prozac and Viagra--will equal rates among whites. Income and property values will rise accordingly. Dopamine for the masses!

    Another potential reason for the disparity is, of course, the matter of access to medical care. Prescriptions for just about anything are likely to be higher where people can afford to see doctors on a regular basis--or where access to doctors is relatively greater: New England has one of the highest concentrations of doctors in the country. But access isn't everything. Dr. Sally Satel, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says that when she prescribes Prozac to her lucky African-American patients, "I start at a lower dose, 5 or 10 milligrams instead of the usual 10-to-20-milligram dose" because "blacks metabolize antidepressants more slowly than Caucasians and Asians." Her bottom line is that the practice of medicine should not be "colorblind" and that race is a rough guide to "the reality" of biological differences. Indeed, her book, PC, M.D.: How Political Correctness Is Corrupting Medicine, is filled with broad assertions like "Asians tend to have a greater sensitivity to narcotics" and "Caucasians are far more likely to carry the gene mutations that cause multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis." Unfortunately for her patients, Dr. Satel confuses a shifting political designation with a biological one. Take, for example, her statement that "many human genetic variations tend to cluster by racial groups--that is, by people whose ancestors came from a particular geographic region." But what we call race does not reflect geographic ancestry with any kind of medical accuracy. While "black" or "white" may have sociological, economic and political consequence as reflected in how someone "looks" in the job market or "appears" while driving or "seems" when trying to rent an apartment, race is not a biological category. Color may have very real social significance, in other words, but it is not the same as demographic epidemiology.

    It is one thing to acknowledge that people from certain regions of Central Europe may have a predisposition to Tay-Sachs, particularly Ashkenazi (but not Sephardic or Middle Eastern) Jews. This is a reality that reflects extended kinship resulting from geographic or social isolation, not racial difference. It reflects a difference at the mitochondrial level, yes, but certainly not a difference that can be detected by looking at someone when they come into the examining room. For that matter, the very term "Caucasian"--at least as Americans use it, i.e., to mean "white"--is ridiculously unscientific. Any given one of Dr. Satel's "Asian" patients could probably more reliably claim affinity with the peoples of the Caucasus mountains than the English-, Irish- and Scandinavian-descended population of which the gene pool of "white" Americans is largely composed. In any event, a group's predisposition to a given disease or lack of it can mislead in making individual diagnoses--as a black friend of mine found out to his detriment when his doctor put off doing a biopsy on a mole because "blacks aren't prone to skin cancer."

    To be fair, Dr. Satel admits that "a black American may have dark skin--but her genes may well be a complex mix of ancestors from West Africa, Europe and Asia." Still, she insists that racial profiling is of use because "an imprecise clue is better than no clue at all." But let us consider a parallel truth: A white American may have light skin, but her genes may well be a complex mix of ancestors from West Africa, Europe and Asia. Given the complexly libidinous history of the United States of America, I worry that unless doctors take the time to talk to their patients, to ask, to develop nuanced family histories or, if circumstances warrant, to perform detailed genomic analyses, it would be safer if they assumed that, as a matter of fact, they haven't a clue.

    We live in a world where race is so buried in our language and habits of thought that unconscious prejudgments too easily channel us into empirical inconsistency; it is time we ceased allowing anyone, even scientists, to rationalize that consistent inconsistency as "difference."

    Patricia J. Williams

  • Sensation

    A friend and I were sitting around commiserating about the things that get to us: unloading small indignities, comparing thorns. "So there I was," she said, "sitting on the bus and this man across the aisle starts waving a copy of law professor Randall Kennedy's new book Nigger. He's got this mean-looking face with little raisiny eyes, and a pointy head, and he's taking this book in and out of his backpack. He's not reading it, mind you. He's just flashing it at black people."

    "Don't be so touchy," I responded. "Professor Kennedy says that the N-word is just another word for 'pal' these days. So your guy was probably one of those muted souls you hear about on Fox cable, one of the ones who's been totally silenced by too much political correctness. I'd assume he was just trying to sign 'Have a nice day.'"

    "Maybe so," she said, digging through her purse and pulling out a copy of Michael Moore's bestselling Stupid White Men. "But if I see him again, I'm armed with a 'nice day' of my own."

    "That's not nice," I tell her. "Besides, I've decided to get in on the publishing boom myself. My next book will be called Penis. I had been going to title it Civil Claims That Shaped the Evidentiary History of Primogeniture: Paternity and Inheritance Rights in Anglo-American Jurisprudence, 1883-1956, but somehow Penis seems so much more concise. We lawyers love concision."

    She raised one eyebrow. "And the mere fact that hordes of sweaty-palmed adolescents might line up to sneak home a copy, or that Howard Stern would pant over it all the way to the top of the bestseller list, or that college kids would make it the one book they take on spring break----"

    " the last thing on my mind," I assured her. "Really, I'm just trying to engage in a scholarly debate about some of the more nuanced aspects of statutory interpretation under Rule 861, subsection (c), paragraph 2... And besides, now that South Park has made the word so much a part of popular culture, I fail to see what all the fuss is about. When I hear young people singing lyrics that use the P-word, I just hum along. After all, there are no bad words, just ungood hermeneutics."

    "No wonder Oprah canceled her book club," she muttered.

    Seriously. We do seem to have entered a weird season in which the exercise of First Amendment rights has become a kind of XXX-treme Sport, with people taking the concept of free speech for an Olympic workout, as though to build up that constitutional muscle. People speak not just freely but wantonly, thoughtlessly, mainlined from their hormones. We live in a minefield of scorched-earth, who-me-a-diplomat?, let's-see-if-this-hurts words. As my young son twirls the radio dial in search of whatever pop music his friends are listening to, it is less the lyrics that alarm me than the disc jockeys, all of whom speak as though they were crashing cars. It makes me very grateful to have been part of the "love generation," because for today's youth, the spoken word seems governed by people from whom sticks and stones had to be wrested when they were children--truly unpleasant people who've spent years perfecting their remaining weapon: the words that can supposedly never hurt you.

    The flight from the imagined horrors of political correctness seems to have overtaken common sense. Or is it possible that we have come perilously close to a state where hate speech is the common sense? In a bar in Dorchester, Massachusetts, recently, a black man was surrounded by a group of white patrons and taunted with a series of escalatingly hostile racial epithets. The bartender refused to intervene despite being begged to do something by a white friend of the man. The taunting continued until the black man tried to leave, whereupon the crowd followed him outside and beat him severely. In Los Angeles, the head of the police commission publicly called Congresswoman Maxine Waters a "bitch"--to the glee of Log Cabin Republicans, who published an editorial gloating about how good it felt to hear him say that. And in San Jose, California, a judge allowed a white high school student to escape punishment after the student, angry at an African-American teacher who had suspended his best friend, scrawled "Thanks, Nigga" on a school wall. The judge was swayed by an argument that "nigga" is not the same as "nigger" but rather an inoffensive rap music term of endearment common among soul brothers.

    Frankly, if Harvard president Lawrence Summers is going to be calling professors to account for generating controversy not befitting that venerable institution, the disingenuous Professor Kennedy would be my first choice. Kennedy's argument that the word "nigger" has lost its sting because black entertainers like Eddie Murphy have popularized it, either dehistoricizes the word to a boneheaded extent or ignores the basic capaciousness of all language. The dictionary is filled with words that have multiple meanings, depending on context. "Obsession" is "the perfume," but it can also be the basis for a harassment suit. Nigger, The Book, is an appeal to pure sensation. It's fine to recognize that ironic reversals of meaning are invaluable survival tools. But what's selling this book is not the hail-fellow-well-met banality of "nigger" but rather the ongoing liveliness of its negativity: It hits in the gut, catches the eye, knots the stomach, jerks the knee, grabs the arm. Kennedy milks this phenomenon only to ask with an entirely straight face: "So what's the big deal?"

    The New Yorker recently featured a cartoon by Art Spiegelman that captures my concern: A young skinhead furtively spray-paints a swastika on a wall. In the last panel, someone has put the wall up in a museum and the skinhead is shown sipping champagne with glittery fashionistas and art critics. I do not doubt that hateful or shocking speech can be "mainstreamed" through overuse; I am alarmed that we want to. But my greater concern is whether this gratuitous nonsense should be the most visible test of political speech in an era when government officials tell us to watch our words--even words spoken in confidence to one's lawyer--and leave us to sort out precisely what that means.

    Patricia J. Williams