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Law Professor Explores Racism, Equality in America

Patricia Williams

For Columbia University law professor Patricia Williams, many of today’s societal and political problems come down to us versus them.

“Racism almost rationalizes the irrational,” said Williams, who has written several books and articles exploring racism in America and will deliver three equality related lectures this week at Washington University.

“When you factor in race, a lot of people who grew up in the United States say ‘Ah, it’s them’ — it’s not just the individual. It is this inability to distinguish the individuals in specific human encounters and instead it becomes fear of this great global overtaking other.”

The plural, them instead of him or her, makes people hyper paranoid and irrational, Williams said.

The great-granddaughter of a slave and a white southern lawyer, Williams also writes a monthly column for The Nation, "Diary of a Mad Law Professor," that covers social justice, race, ethnicity, gender and civil rights.

While race and equality conversations recently have focused on Ferguson, the problem is broader and older than the death of an unarmed teenager, Williams said.

“Lots of other countries have immense racial problems, migration problems, us/them problems,” she said. “We have a peculiar intractable form because we live in separate communities. That was the result of very specific policies — real estate policies, white flight, National Association of Realtors back in the day, covenants and so forth.

“That has been a very lasting legacy in the United States so that even poor whites and poor blacks talk to each other. We don’t just have poor neighborhoods, we have poor black neighborhoods and poor white areas and never the twain meet. It’s a conversation that has to defy geography as well.”  

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