Document Type


Publication Date



Patricia Williams' The Alchemy of Race and Rights: The Diary of a Law Professor, is an eloquent, profoundly original, and often brilliant collection of interdisciplinary essays and stories concerning the impact of racism and poverty on the human spirit; the historic and continuing role of law and legal institutions in defining, facilitating, and perpetuating those harms; and the possibilities and dangers imminent in the attempt to use law to effect a remedy for them. This is a book that we should celebrate: it reminds us that books are occasionally very, very important, that reading can be transformative, and that writing sometimes can be and should always strive to be a moral act of the highest order.

In the first Part of this review, I will briefly discuss just three of the substantive and disciplinary accomplishments of this book, and then I will present two possible objections (and possible responses) to some of the implicit and explicit theses the book defends. It is my view, however, that the greatness of this book lies neither in its disciplinary breakthroughs nor in its explicit analysis of race and law. The book's importance and uniqueness is in what it shows about the nature of private racism, which Williams provocatively calls a form of "spirit-murder" -- the generic "disregard for others whose lives qualitatively depend on our regard." Much of Williams' book is given over to rich personal depictions of both the nature of the act of spirit murder thus defined and, more importantly, perhaps, the nature of the injury its victims experience. Thus, in the second and major Part of this review, I will try to describe "spirit-murder," the depiction of which I take to be the heart of Williams' contribution to our modem understanding of race relations in this country.

In the concluding Part, I will review the two possible legal paths toward compensating or correcting the multiple injuries of spirit-murder that Williams describes. The first, toward which Williams is deeply ambivalent, consists in the related worlds of commerce and contract. If spirit-murder is, in its legal sense, that injury that results from being the "object" rather than the subject of property, contract, and commerce -- a legal "disregard" felt most dramatically by the slave -- then inclusion as subjects rather than objects in the world of commerce might be thought an adequate remedy. The promise, however, that the injuries sustained from the legacy of slavery would be eradicated simply through the legally mandated inclusion of African Americans in this country's commerce has turned out to be at least somewhat illusory. Consequently, both commerce and the law of commercial relations play a pivotal but deeply ambiguous role in Williams' book. The second route of recovery, about which Williams is less equivocal and far more hopeful, is through an expansive and avowedly utopian conception of rights.

Publication Citation

90 Mich. L. Rev. 1771 (1992)