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The Core Curriculum

Patricia Williams

1951 CE –

 Patricia J. Williams (Columbia Law School) Patricia J. Williams (Columbia Law School) Patricia J. Williams earned a bachelor’s from Wellesley College and a JD from Harvard Law School.  She began her legal career as a consumer advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty.  Williams then worked as a deputy city attorney for Los Angeles.  She has been on the faculty of the Wisconsin School of Law, CUNY Law School at Queens College and has taught in the Women’s Studies department at Harvard University.  Williams has been the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia Law School since 1992.  In 2000 she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.

Williams is a regular contributor to The Nation, writing on topics from immigration policy to school shootings.  She has published several books including The Alchemy of Race and Rights (1992), The Rooster's Egg (1995), Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race (1998) and Open House: On Family, Food, Piano Lessons and the Search for a Room of My Own (2004).

Williams is one of the early proponents of Critical Race Theory (CRT), along with such other legal scholars as Derrick Bell, Charles Lawrence, Lani Guinier, Richard Delgado, Mari Matsuda and Kimberle Crenshaw.   CRT is a broad theoretical framework for thinking through the relationship between race and the law.  It grew out of the critical legal studies movement of the 1970s, which was heavily influenced by economic and neo-Marxist analyses of social problems.  Both schools of thought are responses to liberal legal theory's failure to account for structural inequalities that produce disparate legal outcomes depending on such criteria as race, gender and class.  In a more historically specific sense, CRT was a response to the failure of traditional civil rights litigation to meaningfully change the lives of African Americans. 

Critical legal theory has sought to demonstrate that, far from providing a solution to social problems, the legal and juridical apparatus of American society serves the interests of a dominant class and has therefore maintained and reproduced unequal class and race relations.  Cornel West has written that the movement’s approach to the law “compels us to confront critically the most explosive issue in American civilization: the historical centrality and complicity of law in upholding white supremacy.”  CRT holds that race and racial inequality is a fundamental aspect of American society rather than an aberration and that it cannot be corrected by a liberal belief in racial equality or a legal system that treats racism as an exception. 

Critical race theorists maintain that the mainstream, liberal legal establishment falsely assumes that the problem of race will disappearance as social mores change.   On the contrary, they argue, this unwarranted faith in a "color blind" future is itself an ideological symptom of a racist society uninterested in changing the status quo.  By ignoring difference, Williams and other CRT thinkers argue, the liberal assumption of equality among subjects actually privileges a very particular type of person—white, male and upper class—who has the luxury of lacking a specifically marked identity.  This universal and ostensibly neutral, liberal subject, in turn, functions as a normative standard that grounds legal theory and practice.   By contrast, CRT emphasizes the historical context of various classes of legal subjects and underscores the continuity between current inequalities and more overt racial policies of the past.  As Williams puts it: “The very notion of blindness about color constitutes an ideological confusion at best and a denial at worst,” a way of “imagining inclusiveness by imagining away any obstacles.”   In recent years, the framework developed by critical race theorists has gained traction beyond legal scholarship in such fields as sociology, education and gender studies.


Written by Rebecca H. Lossin, Ph.D. candidate in Communications, Columbia Journalism School, Columbia University


Works Consulted: 

Edward Taylor, “A Primer on Critical Race Theory” The Journal of Blacks in Higher EducationNo. 19 (Spring, 1998), pp. 122-124 

Gerardo R. López, Chezare Warren, “Critical Race Theory,” Oxford Bibliographies

Patricia J. Williams, Columnist. The Nation

Patricia J. Williams, Seeing a Color Blind Future: The Paradox of Race, New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux (1998)