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


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

30 review for The Alchemy of Race and Rights

  1. 4 out of 5

    Tracy

    Strong discussion against objectivity of race in legal arguments. Williams explores the power of language and context in law through personal experience and knowledge. "What is “impersonal” writing but denial of self? If withholding is an ideology worth teaching, we should be clearer about that as the bottom line of the enterprise. We should also acknowledge the extent to which denial of one’s authority in authorship is not the same as elimination of oneself; it is ruse, not reality. And the obje Strong discussion against objectivity of race in legal arguments. Williams explores the power of language and context in law through personal experience and knowledge. "What is “impersonal” writing but denial of self? If withholding is an ideology worth teaching, we should be clearer about that as the bottom line of the enterprise. We should also acknowledge the extent to which denial of one’s authority in authorship is not the same as elimination of oneself; it is ruse, not reality. And the object of such ruse is to empower still further; to empower beyond the self, by appealing to neutral, shared, even universal understandings. In a vacuum, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that attempt to empower: it generates respect and distance and a certain obeisance to the sleekness of a product that has been skinned of its personalized complication. But in a world of real others, the cost of such exclusive forms of discourse is empowerment at the expense of one’s relation to those others; empowerment without communion. And as the comfort of such false power becomes habitual, it is easy to forget that the source of one’s power is quite limited, not the fiat of a heavenly mandate. It is easy to forget how much that grandiosity of power depends on the courtesy and restraint of a society of others no less equally endowed that you. The other thing contained in assumption of neutral, impersonal writing styles is the lack of risk. It is not only a ruse, but a warm protective hole to crawl in, as if you were to throw your shoe out the front door while insisting that no one’s home. I also believe that the personal is not the same as “private”: the personal is merely highly particular. I think the personal has fallen into disrepute as sloppy because we have lost the courage and the vocabulary to describe it in the face of the enormous social pressure to “keep it to ourselves”—but this is where our most idealistic and our deadliest politics are lodged, and are revealed." (92-93)

  2. 4 out of 5

    Crystal

    I've read and re-read this book a million times... just finished re-reading it... what can I say besides that Pat Williams is a genius? Her anecdotes connect legal theory with practice, and in a broader sense, she is able to concretely relay what it means to be a person-of-color navigating through a network of elite, WASP communities and institutions. Also, she's one of my professors at the moment, so I can say with complete confidence that she is brilliant and equally humble. I've read and re-read this book a million times... just finished re-reading it... what can I say besides that Pat Williams is a genius? Her anecdotes connect legal theory with practice, and in a broader sense, she is able to concretely relay what it means to be a person-of-color navigating through a network of elite, WASP communities and institutions. Also, she's one of my professors at the moment, so I can say with complete confidence that she is brilliant and equally humble.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    in the midst of law school, some 18 years ago, i read this book. it made me feel less alone in that oft alienating environment. it reminded me why i was there and why i was doing what i was doing. patricia williams is brilliant!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Marjorie

    The most inspiring book for lawyers who went into the profession as idealists and now wonder what the hell they're doing. Law is a powerful field, but the sheer force of its conservatism (i.e. love of status quo) can make it a difficult career choice for activists and agents of social change. Patricia Williams, in her scholarly but oh-so-approachable style, illuminates both the promise of law and its failures. She is not a cynic. She is not a "realist" (one who opts to "take life as it comes"). The most inspiring book for lawyers who went into the profession as idealists and now wonder what the hell they're doing. Law is a powerful field, but the sheer force of its conservatism (i.e. love of status quo) can make it a difficult career choice for activists and agents of social change. Patricia Williams, in her scholarly but oh-so-approachable style, illuminates both the promise of law and its failures. She is not a cynic. She is not a "realist" (one who opts to "take life as it comes"). Patricia Williams is no less than a true visionary who has been tested in the crucible. Her work reminds me why I chose to become a lawyer--even in the moments when I too stand on the pile of rubble that were once my dreams for the profession and wonder "what now?"

  5. 4 out of 5

    Isa

    I learned that the deeply nuanced complexity of racial identity can drive an intelligent person mad, if she lets it. A worthwhile read.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    Wherein a law professor meditates on being the object of property. I read portions of this in law school. I’m glad I did. It is, to no small extent, a critical reflection on being The Other in the academy. The author was one of the first African American professors at Harvard and she was very much alone. Among the things that reinforced her aloneness were gratuitously racist factual scenarios on exams. E.g. 84 (what are “the tax implications for Kunta Kinte’s master when the slavecatchers cut of Wherein a law professor meditates on being the object of property. I read portions of this in law school. I’m glad I did. It is, to no small extent, a critical reflection on being The Other in the academy. The author was one of the first African American professors at Harvard and she was very much alone. Among the things that reinforced her aloneness were gratuitously racist factual scenarios on exams. E.g. 84 (what are “the tax implications for Kunta Kinte’s master when the slavecatchers cut off his foot”?). She has quite a list. When she pushed back, the academy responded defensively and childishly. 91. My vague dislike of Harvard continues unabated. She also recounts the story of one of her students who transitioned while in law school. 122. When the student started using the women’s restroom, some members of the student body totally lost their tiny normative minds: There was an enormous outcry from women students of all political persuasions, who ‘felt raped’ in addition to the more academic assertions of some who ‘feared rape.’ In a complicated storm of homophobia, the men of the student body let it be known that they too ‘feared rape’ and vowed to chase her out of any and all men’s rooms. The oppositional forces of men and women reached a compromise: S. should use the dean’s bathroom. Alas, in the dean’s bathroom no resolution was to be found, for the suggestion had not been an honest one but merely an integration of the fears of each side. Then, in his turn of the dean, circumspection having gotten him this far in life, expressed polite, well-modulated fears about the appearance of impropriety in having students visit his inner sanctum, and many other things most likely related to his fear of a real compromise of hierarchy. 122-23. I’m watching this same fight go on right now and I’m horrified that in 25 years, we couldn’t see our way to just letting people pee in peace. This book is agonizing in a lot of ways. Professor Williams is a real product of our country, our moral triumphs and our moral defeats. She is also the descendent of a lawyer. As she recounts, “My great-great-grandfather Austin Miller, a thirty-five-year-old lawyer, impregnated my eleven-year-old great-great-grandmother Sophie, making her the mother of Mary, my great-grandmother, by the time she was twelve.” 155. Professor Williams’ mother told her she “had nothing to fear in law school, that law was ‘in my blood.’” 217. As a book, it’s a little disjointed; felt like a bunch of essays strung together rather than a long form piece. But as individual pieces, they are powerful. The last essay, “On Being the Object of Property” is both a gut punch and incredibly generous. Well worth the time.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Claudia

    Brilliantly written. I read a few times. Professor Patricia Williams is vibrant and through her personal experience and depth of her research I saw much of my own. One of the best in the intersectionality of law and race. Do read it. it takes 5 stars but I wish I had more to give!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Avatara Smith carrington

    I honestly love her manipulation of prose to convey legal jargon in a manner that is not off putting but instead very inviting for those who might not be familiar with heavy concepts related to this country's racial relationship to the formation of laws and how they are carried out in a modern context. It was breathtaking to see the personal interwoven with legal theory, I was honestly unsure of if I would like this book because I thought it would be weighted down by inaccessible language and co I honestly love her manipulation of prose to convey legal jargon in a manner that is not off putting but instead very inviting for those who might not be familiar with heavy concepts related to this country's racial relationship to the formation of laws and how they are carried out in a modern context. It was breathtaking to see the personal interwoven with legal theory, I was honestly unsure of if I would like this book because I thought it would be weighted down by inaccessible language and concepts but the author really made this piece not only digestible but also a literary delight. In the end I have walked away from this book with a wealth of knowledge and more comfort in my plans to pursue law... it's definitely a must read for racially marginalized folks thinking about law school and academia.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Flora

    I first read this book as an earnest, politically-correcting-myself undergrad, but took another look as a post-grad cynic and was blown away yet again. It's not so much her arguments, which are familiar, as her rhetorical style, which is, simply, mad. And brilliantly so. She is an utterly unique writer, and while her baroque language and often counter-intuitive argumentation tend to read in her later work as incoherence, here she pulls it off. Worth checking out especially for her chapter on the I first read this book as an earnest, politically-correcting-myself undergrad, but took another look as a post-grad cynic and was blown away yet again. It's not so much her arguments, which are familiar, as her rhetorical style, which is, simply, mad. And brilliantly so. She is an utterly unique writer, and while her baroque language and often counter-intuitive argumentation tend to read in her later work as incoherence, here she pulls it off. Worth checking out especially for her chapter on the Tawana Brawley case.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Malcolm

    This is a simply superb collection of essays Columbia University law prof and columnist for The Nation who brings the well trained eye of a Critical Legal Theorist to the social and political struggles of the contemporary USA. She has an astounding ability to blend legal thinking, literary theory and historical analysis with everyday politics and life.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Ali

    I can't speak about Williams' ideas because her overly-affected, wouldbe-poet style obscures any real thought. No wonder this book cost me only $.50. I can't speak about Williams' ideas because her overly-affected, wouldbe-poet style obscures any real thought. No wonder this book cost me only $.50.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jessica Lu

    This belongs on all our bookshelves. I'll read this many times over. This belongs on all our bookshelves. I'll read this many times over.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Julian

    This is the best book I've read in a while. I am so obsessed with Williams' writing and voice; I want to be friends with her. Her writing is rich with humor interlaced with memoir and legal theory. All law students should read this book but it's certainly accessible to others. Some thoughts: p. 72 - "No one existed for well-intentioned white people who could not be governed by their intentions." p. 87 - racist law school exams require law students to indulge in rationalizing racial hatred or to This is the best book I've read in a while. I am so obsessed with Williams' writing and voice; I want to be friends with her. Her writing is rich with humor interlaced with memoir and legal theory. All law students should read this book but it's certainly accessible to others. Some thoughts: p. 72 - "No one existed for well-intentioned white people who could not be governed by their intentions." p. 87 - racist law school exams require law students to indulge in rationalizing racial hatred or to suppress any sense of social conscious!! p. 94 - "Misery may love company but I trust none of us particularly loves misery." p. 107 - the sausage rotfl - Williams excerpts a closing argument that she made when she was arguing a suit against a sausage manufacturer. But of course Williams seamlessly transitions from this humorous example to "rediscovering those injuries made invisible by the bounds of legal discourse." p. 164 - the analogy to sorcery in her critique of rights critique is ingenious. Audibly said "wow" when reading. The final essay "On Being the Object of Property (a gift of intelligent rage)," opens on Williams' positionality as the descendant of her great-great-grandmother Sophie, who was enslaved and impregnated at 11 years old by a white lawyer. On the cusp of her entry to Harvard Law school, Williams discusses the "troubling paradox" of "[r]eclaiming that from which one has been disinherited." In all, I was blown away by every essay and I really hope I get to learn more from her (in reading or in class). I look forward to reading her next work.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Michael David Cobb

    At the age of 29 it was... "Probably the most influential book I have read in my life. It linked me absolutely and affirmatively to the pursuit of the historical societal constructs and the force applied behind them to maintain the sense of the people's ability to draw hard and fast rules for themselves and others. " At the age of 29 it was... "Probably the most influential book I have read in my life. It linked me absolutely and affirmatively to the pursuit of the historical societal constructs and the force applied behind them to maintain the sense of the people's ability to draw hard and fast rules for themselves and others. "

  15. 4 out of 5

    Adrien

    Moving, expressive -- both emotionally and intellectually. The style meshes cohesively with the subtext, which probably makes it so effective. Does get a little one-note. Otherwise this would've been 5 stars. Moving, expressive -- both emotionally and intellectually. The style meshes cohesively with the subtext, which probably makes it so effective. Does get a little one-note. Otherwise this would've been 5 stars.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    Personal and relevant, Williams offers a human viewpoint into critical race theory and law.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Bailey

    Read for Intro to GWS. I did not get the polar bear metaphor at all (this isn't a spoiler...I don't think) but otherwise really great! Read for Intro to GWS. I did not get the polar bear metaphor at all (this isn't a spoiler...I don't think) but otherwise really great!

  18. 5 out of 5

    Eric

    Possibly one of the most essential books for understanding how race functions in modern America.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Lee B

    This book is a glimpse into what is missing from law. Ideas of justice are absent is most applications of the law, especially regarding women, children, people of color, queer folks and prisoners. Weaving personal narrative and story-telling into an examination in legal theory, Williams accurately captures a picture of what we need for a more restorative form of justice. What I find difficult, not only in reading this but other CLS/CRS works, is how do we move towards a better application of law This book is a glimpse into what is missing from law. Ideas of justice are absent is most applications of the law, especially regarding women, children, people of color, queer folks and prisoners. Weaving personal narrative and story-telling into an examination in legal theory, Williams accurately captures a picture of what we need for a more restorative form of justice. What I find difficult, not only in reading this but other CLS/CRS works, is how do we move towards a better application of law when it so mis-used. How can we remedy a system to which has caused this injustice? Is it even possible? I found this quote particularly moving, especially when looking at human rights as a tool for a more comprehensive form of justice: "In the law, rights are islands of empowerment. To be unrighted is to be dis-empowered, and the line between rights and no-rights is most often the line between dominators and oppressed. Rights contain images of power, and manipulating those images, either visually or linguistically, is central in the making and maintenance of rights. In principle, therefore, the more dizzingly diverse the images that are propagated, the more empowered we will be as a society," (233-234)

  20. 4 out of 5

    Dave Schaafsma

    After James Baldwin and before Ta-Nehisi Coates there was Patricia Williams, a lawyer and professor of commercial law, the great-great-granddaughter of a slave and a white southern lawyer. The Alchemy of Race and Rights is a fascinating and beautifully written autobiographical essay about her experiences with the intersections of race, gender, and class. She looks at some current events of the late eighties and early nineties, such as Howard Beach, Tawana Brawley, and Bernhard Goetz. She writes After James Baldwin and before Ta-Nehisi Coates there was Patricia Williams, a lawyer and professor of commercial law, the great-great-granddaughter of a slave and a white southern lawyer. The Alchemy of Race and Rights is a fascinating and beautifully written autobiographical essay about her experiences with the intersections of race, gender, and class. She looks at some current events of the late eighties and early nineties, such as Howard Beach, Tawana Brawley, and Bernhard Goetz. She writes very anecdotally, conversationally, not blaming so much as trying to see how inextricable racism is from popular culture and contemporary life. It's a kind of moving meditation on the law. I liked it a lot.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Alisa

    I love the anecdotes of this book, the easy and compelling glimpse it gives into modern racism. Society has a tendency to dismiss current racism as it is somewhat veiled in comparison to the formalized and legalized racism of our not-so-distant past. This book sweeps away the curtain. My only complaint is that sometimes I got lost in Patricia William's baroque language, but I found the book fascinating, and I wished that we had this take on some famous constitutional law cases when I took the cl I love the anecdotes of this book, the easy and compelling glimpse it gives into modern racism. Society has a tendency to dismiss current racism as it is somewhat veiled in comparison to the formalized and legalized racism of our not-so-distant past. This book sweeps away the curtain. My only complaint is that sometimes I got lost in Patricia William's baroque language, but I found the book fascinating, and I wished that we had this take on some famous constitutional law cases when I took the class last year.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Vanessa

    I absolutely loved this book, and I don't care if that makes me a raving, feminist wellesley-graduating cliche. I've heard that she is less pissed off in some of her later books, but I just dig this one. Get mad! I absolutely loved this book, and I don't care if that makes me a raving, feminist wellesley-graduating cliche. I've heard that she is less pissed off in some of her later books, but I just dig this one. Get mad!

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    Dr. Williams is also a contributor to The Nation magazine. Great mind.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Tatiana

    possibly the only nonfiction that is on my top shelf. patricia williams is amazing. everyone should read everything she has ever written.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Julia

    Patricia Williams has a way of weaving real-life stories together with a cogent theoretical analyses in a way that is both compelling and enlightening. This is a brilliant book.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    Great read for any future lawyers.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Risa

    Alchemy of Race and Rights by Patricia J. Williams (1992)

  28. 5 out of 5

    Mia

    This is one of the best books I've ever read. It's also, I believe, one of the most important, especially now, when a lot of (white) people's eyes are being opened to systemic racism in this country. This is one of the best books I've ever read. It's also, I believe, one of the most important, especially now, when a lot of (white) people's eyes are being opened to systemic racism in this country.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sherry Lee

    Incredible. A combination of creative and professional writing.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Joan Mueller

    Excellent biographical novel interspersed with thoughts, ideas, and reflections. I have read and reread this book coming up with more understandings of myself and my place in life.

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