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Patricia J. Williams | The Nation

Patricia J. Williams

Author Bios

Patricia J. Williams

Patricia J. Williams

Columnist

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.)

Articles

News and Features

This presidential race leaves an odd sensation among those of us not having a television. Like the much-cited Kennedy-Nixon race, in which the camera was generally thought to have given Kennedy the visual edge, the Gore-Bush debates played very differently with the visuals suppressed. Listening to them, Gore sounded stilted, yes, and Bush sounded unbelievably evasive, no surprises there.

What's more interesting, however, is that the day after the first debate, I found myself unable to understand any of the follow-up commentary in the rest of the media. Matching suits? Jerking? Smirking? Orange lighting? Had Al Gore really been made up to look like Ronald Reagan? Even the now-famous sigh was mostly a visual event--a camera angle, a gesture of exasperation; it hadn't come across at all on radio.

I felt as though I'd missed out on some weird national Halloween party. Who had the best costume? Who won the monster mash dance contest? And who in the world was all this playing to?

I suppose that's why the candidates ended their campaign playing to undecided Missourians. You can't get more middle than that. No one in Harlem, where Gore started his campaign, is undecided. No one at Bob Jones University, where Bush began his, is undecided. And so the race ended with the contestants sashaying down the runway in a mock Mr. America contest, attired like the Blues Brothers in identical suits and ties, each spouting platitudes about education and the moral fortress that is marriage, each playing down differences so as to appeal to the kind of centrist whose taste runs no further to the right or left than boiled as opposed to mashed potatoes.

But as someone who listened rather than watched, I am really shaken by how little attention has been paid to what substantive disagreements there are between Gore and Bush. There was, for example, that revealing moment when Bush was pushed about affirmative action--not the right-wing version that equates affirmative action with quotas, but the actual, conservative version permitted by the Supreme Court. Bush responded with some nonsense about what he called "affirmative access," which as Gore pointed out, has no legal or political meaning. When Bush was asked directly whether he would support affirmative action without quotas, he retorted, "If affirmative action means what I just described, what I'm for, then I'm for it." This was the kind of repeated evasion at which Bush is very practiced, but the kind of evasion that in fact speaks volumes. There are, I repeat, big differences between Bush and Gore when it comes to the issues about which most people are rarely undecided: race, gender, labor and environmental issues.

I suppose that most everyone except undecided Missourians understood that such games were being played in the debates. What worries me is the degree to which the recognition of this as masquerade has made some forget that it is also a game with high stakes. Impatience with the game-playing leads some to want to opt for someone who speaks passionately. But let's face it: Neither Nader nor Buchanan nor any other third party candidate has a prayer of winning this election. That's a mathematical certainty, folks. It's not the world I like--I wanted Bradley. But for now there are two choices given, and one will rule our lives.

We are choosing the world's most powerful leader. It is not an opinion poll, it is not a popularity contest and it is unlikely ever to be the vehicle for launching a progressive revolution. I find it distressing to see polls predicting that Nader voters will help Bush take Washington and Oregon. And I think voters in New York and Massachusetts are naïtve when they say they will vote for Nader because they feel their states are overwhelmingly Democratic anyway, so nothing will be lost if they register a protest vote for Nader. This is an election, not a market survey.

I get alarmed when I hear people say that maybe it will be better for progressives if Bush is elected. What kind of progressive wants a Bush appointee heading up the Office of Civil Rights? A Bush appointee deciding the fate of habeas corpus? A Bush appointee delivering the FDA to biotech companies? And will the progressive revolution occur before or after Bush hands over the last American wilderness to loggers and oil companies?

None of this means that I don't wish we had a wider range of pragmatic options. But I'll express that dissatisfaction by working for campaign finance reform. I'll work to see the infamous case of Buckley v. Valeo reversed (that's the decision that equated speech with money, thus making campaign spending a form of expression protected by the First Amendment). I'll work to see the inclusion of third party candidates in future debates. (And speaking of barring third party candidates from the debates, wouldn't it have been more interesting to have given Missourians who support Nader and Buchanan the chance to grill Gore and Bush?)

I wish all kinds of things were different--that we had more cumulative voting in the United States, that we entertained adopting certain features of parliamentary systems. I too find this offend-no-one, appeal-to-the-middle of a race infuriating. But it's also true that this campaign has been waged like the Gulf War. We the citizenry watch a big screen filled with talking heads holed up in the Baghdad Hilton--or a school auditorium in Iowa--but we must know that real missiles are exploding on the Rush Limbaugh Show or in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post or through the Christian Coalition's televangelized appeals. Within those forums, Republicans are not at all evasive, but mounting a frontal assault that equates public service with corruption, diversity with lowered standards, public schools with race wars, private schools with free enterprise, free enterprise with civil liberty, choice with self-segregation and the segregation of whites from blacks with opportunity. In the end, Pat Buchanan represents very little threat to George Bush because the right is smart enough to know which side its bread is buttered on. This is one heck of a moment for what's left of the left to allow itself to be divided and conquered by wasting a vote.

I'm surprised at how many otherwise thoughtful people seem convinced that this election "makes no difference." In my very first Nation column, I quoted Justice Antonin Scalia, who, during a 1997 visit to Columbia Law School, stated publicly that if Brown v. Board of Education came to him as a case of first impression, he would vote against the majority. Most of the federal judiciary are Reagan/Bush appointees. There are an unprecedented number of judicial openings right now because of the unprecedented blocking of Clinton appointees maneuvered by the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee. A sense of urgency thus prompted me to cull an unscientific sampling of lawyers, writers and human rights activists--all of whom feel that this is an important election in which to make one's voice heard.

Charles Ogletree Jr., professor, Harvard Law School: "The most important election in recent memory will occur on November 7, 2000. George W. Bush, who favors Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and Al Gore, who favors someone in the mold of Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, have radically different views of the next Supreme Court appointments. With Roe v. Wade, affirmative action and majority-minority districts at stake, there is no graver choice facing the nation than a progressive Gore Court or a reactionary Bush Court."

Reva Siegel, professor, Yale Law School: "Last term, the Court invalidated provisions of two different civil rights laws, holding that Congress lacked power to enact the antidiscrimination statutes--something the Court has not done since the nineteenth century. After these rulings, it is no longer clear how statutes like the Family and Medical Leave Act or the Pregnancy Discrimination Act can be enforced against state employers, or what kind of hate crimes legislation the Congress can enact. But more is at stake than the particular provisions of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act or the Violence Against Women Act, which the Court struck down last term, or the provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which the Court is considering this term. The question is whether the Court continues to recognize and respect the federal government's power to prohibit discrimination as that power has been exercised by Congress in the decades since passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

Richard Matasar, dean, New York Law School: "Judicial appointment is the stealth issue of every national election. While abortion and crime occupy the attention of the press, the judiciary can also carry on a quiet revolution in its allocation of authority between state and federal government. The Republican judiciary has already significantly shifted the distribution of power between governments; this election can break or solidify that shift."

Maivan Clech Lam, professor, City University of New York Law School at Queens College: "The Supreme Court's rulings on state and federal power are very likely in the next years to determine issues of sovereignty important to indigenous Hawaiians and possibly all tribes in general."

Bob Wing, editor, ColorLines: "The prospect of an entrenched reactionary Supreme Court majority is awful.... However, I wish that I was more confident that Al Gore, who is associated with the Democratic Leadership Council's center-right wing of the Democratic Party, would reverse that trend."

Peter Gabel, president, New College School of Law: "I'm not sharply critical of those who want to vote for Gore to protect the Court, but I do think they overestimate the Court's role as an active progressive power and fail to see its essential commitment to maintaining a center (whether center-right or center-left). It is movements in society that motivate the Court to move. A real left needs to do the opposite of defending the empty center, which is perpetually self-erasing and actually blocks the development of a progressive movement. Instead, we must try to emerge into public visibility--visibility to one another!--by voting for Ralph Nader."

Jill Nelson, writer: "I've been thinking that it's the height of the ever-growing class-based disconnect in this society for people who consider themselves left or progressive or liberal to run the 'I'm going to vote for Nader because there's no difference between Gore and Bush.' Rest assured, I'm not happy with any of 'em, but I'm very clear about the importance of Supreme Court appointments and for that reason will vote for the lesser evil, which is the real, disappointing, difficult nature, it seems, of democracy as we know it. The alternative is for me to delude myself that an abstract notion of principle trumps class privilege, which it doesn't. Sure, no matter who's on the Court, me and mine can have abortions and hire top attorneys and otherwise have the possibility of buying ourselves out of whatever mess we're in, but that's not enough. For me, democracy is fundamentally about community, and to paraphrase Reagan in that movie, what about the rest of us?"

Sydelle Pittas, attorney: "In the course of work on a television series I produced for the Women's Bar Association on 'Your Legal Rights,' I interviewed almost all of Massachusetts' sitting federal judges. From them I learned a few things that showed me how important it is to have Justices who understand the experiences of real women. Justices are human beings, and while they are impressive in how mightily they strive to find the law rather than make it, how they make those findings necessarily comes from their own understanding, based at least in some part on their experience."

Bill Ong Hing, professor of Law and Asian-American Studies, University of California, Davis: "People of color and other traditionally subordinated groups have few institutions upon which they can rely. Their skepticism of the judicial system's desire to respond to their plight has reached a new high point, as the Court molded by Nixon-Ford-Reagan-Bush (Carter made no appointments) has come to dominate the nation's jurisprudence.... Whether and to what extent, if any, the Supreme Court serves as an agent or ally of social change is debatable. But a progressive voice of a Supreme Court majority--open to the views and experiences of those who have been marginalized--would foster a culture (and hope) for change in other mainstream institutions."

We don't have a TV at home, so we've missed the much-drubbed NBC Olympics coverage. So when a little friend of my son's said she'd been watching, I asked her if any of the events had inspired her to want to be an Olympic athlete when she grew older.

"Yeah!" she raved. "Just wait! I'm gonna be a rock star and I'll ride onto the field with my helmet on my head and my crossbow on my back and I'm gonna have a band and six backup singers, and then when they light the torch, all the soldiers I've been saving in my disk drive are gonna burst onto the screen and do a dance and then there'll be fireworks, fireworks, fireworks, boom, boom, kaBOOM! Like you've never seen before!"

Flushed from such imaginative exertions, this dangerous little person ran off with my precious son, she humming a tune by Britney Spears, he shouting a song by the Backstreet Boys. (It was a perfect fugue, by the way. Has anyone else noticed that Britney is just Lance hung upside down and played backwards?)

Each culture develops its own sense of sport, I suppose. When I travel, I confess I make up for the deprivation at home by watching a lot of hotel-room television. I am always fascinated to see the kinds of competitive sports that people will sit up late for in other parts of the world. I've been to Edinburgh during sheepherding finals (sort of a par course for sheepdogs grafted onto a running of the bulls, except with large shaggy rams. Like Babe, but vicious). I've spent time with friends in Minnesota where ice fishing--which is, I assure you, one of the slower sports known to mankind--took up Real Time in dinner party conversation.

Once I spent five days in a small German town in a university dormitory built on the site of what had been a Nazi bank vault. This being truly the belly of the beast, I was not at all surprised when the heat went out the moment I got there. Within hours, I fell sick with a raging fever, my body temperature rising with each degree the room temperature fell. As I lay shivering beneath the thin cotton blanket, I used my last ounce of strength to flick through the channels on the steel television set (which was bolted to a fixed rod hanging from the ceiling, like the ones in hospitals or prisons). Aside from the ubiquitous CNN, all the available stations were displaying the same sporting event--in German, Swiss German, Farsi, Turkish and Basque. The event in question appeared to be a particularly formal version of Austrian dressage: horses with knotted manes and beribboned tails prancing rigidly through backbreakingly unnatural placements and postures, two-stepping, then waltzing to martial music. The riders, who wore high hats and polished boots, put the animals through their paces with the reins tightened so as to hold the horses' necks upright, the bits so tight the horses looked as though they were leering. The riders were tense and ferocious. The horses were precise, wild-eyed, slobbering with foam.

In happier times, I've been to the far north, up around the Arctic Circle, where Icelandic log-tossing is what in other climes might be called "hot." These are not little logs we're talking about, if the broadcast I saw is any measure--contestants trained by hoisting Yugo minivans on their backs. Indeed, in a side event to the log-toss, they ran a course where every thirty feet or so they stopped to pick up a 350-pound block of stone and chuck it in a rain barrel. "These Icelandic strong men" the voiceover explained, "consume from eight thousand to ten thousand calories a day"--a conceivable goal if, like me, you're thinking of the energizing properties of Ring Dings and marshmallow fluff, but an impressively ambitious one when you learn that a professional log-tosser's diet is fat- and sugar-free.

In South Africa, I once watched a spoofy (I think) combat in which a white gladiator and a black gladiator battled each other up the sheer face of a wall, the goal being not just to reach the top first but to dislodge your opponent so that he has no chance of ever making it up.

Then there's Wisconsin, where, back in the eighties, I lived through three deer-hunting seasons. The season was only nine days long but with more than 600,000 licensed hunters on the prowl, around 260,000 deer could expect to meet their maker within that time. "I guess they have bad aim," said my sister dryly when she heard this bit of data, but the truth is they did indeed have exceedingly bad aim. If memory serves me, Wisconsin was the only state that actually gave blind people a license to shoot. I was told they had to wear a neon-red sign that said: blind hunter (thus giving other blind hunters the chance to duck, I suppose).

Not only did more deer die at that time of year than at any other, more Wisconsiners did too. So the real suspense of the daily television tally was always the human toll, not the animal. Lost bullets seeking their mark took shortcuts through people's breakfast nooks and open bathroom windows and attic hideaways. Stray bullets always caught people by surprise in the middle of some intensely private act. Not that every such death was a complete surprise: One year the sheriffs and game wardens got worried about hunters who shot across busy highways at deer on the other side. So they set up lots of deer decoys by the sides of lots of busy highways to catch the sort of people who would do such a thing. Many of us just hid in the basement until they thought the logic of that one over.

I'm optimistic that we humans will always express our sporting instincts in locally interesting and richly varied ways. Indeed, a recurring criticism of the NBC coverage has been precisely its homogenization of the Olympics--the sappy human interest, the weepy mood music, the breathlessly overdramatized replays. But when I think about what the youngest consumers of American sports culture are exposed to as routine athletic fare, I guess it's no wonder some of them would opt for the halftime song-and-dance act. They already know that too often the real action is played out in culturally revealing games like the Bobby Knight Memorial chair-tossing competition, Hide and Seek the Steroids, the Million Dollar Endorsement Dash, Soccer Mom Slugfest and Hockey Dad Death Match.

The month of June always makes me wistful. School's out. A half-liberated, half-sad seasonal sensation settles over me, a feeling I associate with childhood and summer vacation.

I was wandering around Harlem recently, late on a warm Sunday afternoon: I saw Dominican families chatting on stoops. I saw African-American families walking home from church.

Section 10-131, subparagraph (g)1, of the administrative code of the City of New York provides that: "It shall be unlawful for any person to sell or offer for sale, possess or use or attempt to u

It may be my imagination, but this year Black History Month has seemed to present a more complicated range of memorials than in the recent past.

Patricia Williams will be on leave for the remainder of the year, returning to this space in January 2000.

"Why do you care so much?" said a white friend to me during a debate about suspect profiling. "Don't take it so personally--the police aren't after you in the black middle class.

I know I'm not supposed to read too much into a movie like Episode I: The Phantom Menace, but when you're living with a 6-year-old whose entire generation role-plays and reiterates each an

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