Looking Outside and In: Patricia Williams Closes Her Time At Smith with Poignant Talk On Race

Anne Berman ’15
Contributing Writer

In a 2003 study of students who attended Berkeley, sociologist Troy Duster found that white students tended to view race as an individual experience, often citing personal anecdotes, like “I have a best friend who is black!”  in order to suggest that racism was not a problem at the university, whereas black students were more likely to define racism as definitely present and definitely structural, as well as built into the institution itself.

At her third and final talk at Smith, Patricia Williams, the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University, described this difference of perception as a manifestation of the way language in law has slowly evolved, becoming privatized and centered around the individual and the contracts (s)he makes with other members of society.  Lawyers, judges and scholars of law have less and less of a vocabulary to talk about the social significance of citizen’s behaviors, or how citizens have a right to be “free from the gaze of others who would limit our opportunities.”

This spring, as the 2012-13 William Allan Neilson Professor, Williams has given three public lectures about the “narratives that underwrite both unity and discord in recent elections,” reflections on home, belonging, and displacement, and this last one on personhood in the eyes of the law. Williams, who holds a BA from Wellesley and a JD from Harvard Law School, has published works on race, gender and law as well as on other issues of legal theory and legal writing. She writes a monthly column for The National called “Diary of a Mad Law Professor,” which covers issues of social justice, including the rhetoric of the war on terror, race, ethnicity and gender.

For audience members not well-versed in the language of law, Williams began the lecture by helpfully laying out the six realms of law: the first, the self; the second, contract law (private relationships of mutually agreed upon obligation); the third, property (you feel you are allowed to exclude); the fourth, “tort” is the first category to no longer be a matter of private concern – social weight is imposed not chosen; the fifth is crimes against a social order (in murder cases, it’s the state vs. the accused – it’s not the victim’s rights being defended), and the sixth and final realm is a matter of civil rights, or the right to be free from the gaze of others who would limit our opportunities.

Williams then played a clip of a man whose house burned down as firefighters refused to come to his rescue because he had forgotten to pay a required monthly firefighter’s fee to his town. Was this a case that fell solely into the second realm, contract law? Are firefighters’ relationships to American citizens purely contractual? Radio commentator Glenn Beck’s opinion on the matter is representative of the shift in the language of law that Williams has observed: “This man didn’t pay the fee.  We have to take our feelings out of it! What does compassion have to do with anything?”

Like Beck, many lawyers and politicians forget that it is oftentimes important to analyze a case like this in a more careful, encompassing way, to look at the case as more than just an issue of a contract that was broken. Is the right to firefighter protection a basic right? What structural problems might have resulted in the man not remembering/being able to pay his monthly fee? Williams urges her public interest law students to ask questions of their clients that allow them to talk about the social context for crime and law, saying that the “increasing use of law to speak only at the privatized center of moral order” is taking over law and leaving so much out of the picture.

Williams concluded her talk with a call to those in the field of law to never remove historical and social context from their vocabularies to avoid speaking like the students from the Berkeley study, who believed that if they didn’t notice racism at a personal level, it wasn’t happening.

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