On February 5, acclaimed critical race theorist and law professor Patricia Williams presented a lecture at the Philips Autograph Library. Williams is currently the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. She previously held teaching positions at Dartmouth College and the University of Wisconsin Law School and served the City of Los Angeles as a consumer advocate. Williams’ published work includes The Alchemy of Race and Rights: A Diary of a Law Professor, Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race, and Open House: Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons, and the Search for a Room of My Own. She also regularly contributes to The Nation in her column “Diary of a Mad Law Professor.”
Williams came to West Chester University as part of a lecture tour sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Women’s Studies Consortium; Jen Bacon and other members of the Women’s Studies department at WCU had arranged Williams’ visit as a way to promote the author’s work on race relations among the academic community. The focus of Williams’ lecture was titled “Seeing a Color-Blind Future,” and the author presented a critical perspective of how the vocabulary used when referring to race may change because of Barack Obama’s historic rise to the Presidency.
Williams described herself as a “Baby-boomer,” or someone who was born after World War II in the United States. The author witnessed and experienced many historic events during the Civil Rights movement that had a significant impact on her as an African-American woman: the Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the televised broadcast of the “I Have A Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few.
Williams noted that although the United States as a nation has triumphed over racial injustice over the course of time, the country still faces the culmination of disparity between racial groups that has grown since the founding of the nation. However, significant changes in government such as the passing of civil rights legislation and the election of African-Americans into public office have helped in promoting involvement with social change. The author stated that with the election of Barack Obama as president, there was a “great sense of joy” that was rarely seen in reaction to public office.
Williams also noted that pundits on news programs began to claim that with Obama’s election, the boundaries that separated Americans on the basis of race, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation would be immediately brought down. According to recent statistics and economic factors, these problems are not going to be immediately solved.
“Social divisions in housing, schools, and prisons still continue to permeate our nation, and hate crimes against non-English-speaking and religiously diverse populations are on the rise,” Williams said.
The author also emphasized that Obama would be challenged with the task of ensuring civil rights because most of the power in changing restrictive legislation lies in the Federal branch of the government. However, Williams stated that true social change begins among the citizens of the United States in their own communities. She cited the recognition of the fortieth anniversary of the Fair Housing Act and reviewing its impact on her community in New York City.
According to Williams, institutionalized discrimination in both the real estate market and lending corporations was one reason for racial separation within neighborhoods in her area, but she also questioned the roles of landlords and people living within the community in enforcing these divides. This topic led into the central point of Williams’ lecture: the role of the individual in starting social change within their communities. With the historic election of an African-American president, the author stated that it is everyone’s responsibility to begin to change the way in which we perceive each other.
“It’s time we as Americans challenge our places and build a stronger sense of unity among each other,” Williams said.
Whether we question the nature of language that divides people by race or work individually to create diversity within our communities, Patricia Williams’ message of breaking down barriers between races and social classes will continue to impact society as it enters into a new era of unity and equality.
Jen James is a second-year English major with a minor in music. She can be reached at JJ655874@wcupa.edu