Skip to content

Patricia Williams

University Distinguished Professor of Law and Humanities

Patricia Williams, one of the most provocative intellectuals in American law and a pioneer of both the law and literature and critical race theory movements in American legal theory, serves as University Distinguished Professor of Law and Humanities, with a joint appointment between the School of Law and the Department of Philosophy and Religion in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. She is also director of Law, Technology and Ethics Initiatives in the School of Law and the College of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Professor Williams has published widely in the areas of race, gender, literature and law. Her books, including The Alchemy of Race and Rights: A Diary of a Law Professor (Harvard University Press, 1991), illustrate some of America’s most complex societal problems and challenge our ideas about socio-legal constructs of race and gender. Her work remains at the cutting edge of legal scholarship. Drawing on her prior interrogation of race, gender and personhood, Professor Williams’ current research raises core questions of individual autonomy and identity in the context of legal and ethical debates on science and technology. Her work in the area of health and genetics, for example, questions how racial formation is shaped by the legal regulation of private industry and government. Her work on algorithms grapples with the auditing function of technology in our everyday lives — shaping how we understand who we are.

Professor Williams has authored hundreds of essays, book reviews and articles for leading journals, popular magazines and newspapers, including the Guardian, Ms., The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Washington Post. She authors a widely read monthly column in The Nation. She has appeared on such radio and television shows as “All Things Considered,” “Fresh Air,” “Talk of the Nation” and “Today.” She has appeared in a number of documentary films, including “That Rush!” (1995), which she wrote and narrated. Directed by British film-maker Isaac Julien, this short study of American talk show hosts was featured as part of an installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London.

The Alchemy of Race and Rights was named one of the 25 best books of 1991 by the Voice Literary Supplement; one of the “feminist classics of the last 20 years” that “literally changed women’s lives” by Ms. magazine; and one of the 10 best non-fiction books of the decade by Professor Williams’ other books include The Rooster’s Egg (Harvard Press, 1995), Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1998) and Open House: On Family, Food, Piano Lessons, and The Search for a Room of My Own (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2004).

Professor Williams has held fellowships at the School of Criticism and Theory at Dartmouth, the Humanities Research Institute of the University of California at Irvine, the Institute for Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies at Harvard. She has received awards from the American Educational Studies Association and the National Organization for Women, among others. In 2019, she was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society. In 2000, Professor Williams was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship.

Professor Williams’ current research agenda includes three books in progress: The Complete Mad Law Professor (compilation of The Nation columns) (forthcoming 2019); The Talking Helix (focused on bioethics and genetics) (forthcoming 2020); and Gathering the Ghosts (a literary and historical text based on Professor Williams’ family archival materials) (draft manuscript). In addition, she is working on a documentary film that knits together a narratively linked series of video images about the deaths of unarmed citizens beginning with Trayvon Martin.

Professor Williams previously served as the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. She received her BA from Wellesley College and a JD from Harvard University.

  • Education

    J.D. Harvard Law School