Patricia J. Williams | The Nation

Patricia J. Williams

Author Bios

Patricia J. Williams

Patricia J. Williams


Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from Wellesley College and a JD from Harvard Law School.

She was a fellow in the School of Criticism and Theory at Dartmouth College and has been an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School Law School and its department of women's studies. Williams also worked as a consumer advocate in the office of the City Attorney in Los Angeles.

A member of the State Bar of California and the Federal Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Williams has served on the advisory council for the Medgar Evers Center for Law and Social Justice of the City University of New York and on the board of governors for the Society of American Law Teachers, among others.

Her publications include Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave, On Being the Object of Property, The Electronic Transformation of Law and And We Are Not Married: A Journal of Musings on Legal Language and the Ideology of Style. In 1993, Harvard University Press published Williams's The Alchemy of Race & Rights to widespread critical acclaim. She is also author of The Rooster's Egg (Harvard, 1995), Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race (Reith Lectures, 1997) (Noonday Press, 1998) and, most recently, Open House: On Family Food, Friends, Piano Lessons and The Search for a Room of My Own (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2004.)


News and Features

"Ask for a lawyer immediately upon your arrest," reads the little
informational card the ACLU hands out to citizens.

I have a friend who is the only black person living in his luxury
cooperative building. A few years back, there was a
get-to-know-your-neighbor party.

When I was in college, I joined a court-watching project in Roxbury,
Massachusetts. We observed criminal trials, then interviewed judges,
lawyers and witnesses.

Dear Dr. Madlaw,
   As a newly elected member of Congress, I am appalled at the high cost
of living in Washington. What's a hard-working public servant to do?

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

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

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.

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.

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

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
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

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.


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