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The Rooster's Egg: On the Persistence of Prejudice.

Reviewed by

Adrien Katherine Wing University of Iowa College of Law

When a Jamaican is born of a black woman and some English or Scotsman, the black mother is literally and figuratively kept out of sight as far as possible. . . . You get the impression that these virile Englishmen do not require women to reproduce. They just come out to Jamaica, scratch out a nest and lay eggs that hatch out into "pink" Jamaicans.

Zora Neale Hurston's powerful image of the expungement of black, especially black female, existence provides the title and theme for Columbia law professor Patricia Williams's second book The Rooster's Egg: On the Persistence of Prejudice. Expanding upon her first effort, the much acclaimed The Alchemy of Race and Rights, Williams, in this more recent volume, joins public intellectuals such as Cornel West, Henry "Skip" Gates, and bell hooks, who all have followed in the footsteps of W. E. B. Du Bois - tackling the color line as the central problem of twentieth-century America. Williams delves deep into the very psyche of racism and its resilience as we mark nearly a century since Du Bois uttered his prophetic words in The Souls of Black Folk.

Williams writes from the perspective of critical race theory, a jurisprudential innovation which critiques both conservative and liberal views on race matters. A foremother of the movement, she joins legal scholars such as Derrick Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, Harlon Dalton, Chuck Lawrence, and Mari Matusda, all of whom have transcended the typically turgid law review article format to present their views on the persistence of prejudice and its many manifestations, one of the central themes of critical race theory. Williams evocatively displays the narrative or storytelling technique of the Crits in her powerful social commentary on the racial significance of popular imagery.

Each of the thirteen chapters centers loosely around a subject, with provocative titles such as "Scarlet - The Sequel," "Black-Power Dream Barbie," "Clarence X," and "Quayle Has a Cow." While each essay could stand alone, together their impact leaves the reader breathless from the pain of confronting societal demons. In her stories of the lives of black women, poor women, immigrants, Latinos, and Asians, Williams makes visible that which is invisible to many white males - the pain, anguish, fear, degradation, and even self-loathing of some people of color that is dismissed by many white males as paranoia or weakness.

Throughout the book, Williams peels back and exposes a central reality of racism. Many white males, whether they be in government, media, the academy, or the private sector, refuse to acknowledge their own continued privileged status and that this status exists as they stand oppressively on the backs of their own women, and people of color. In the chapter "White Men Can't Count," Williams provides a perfect example of this racial blindness. She overhears a white male colleague make the kind of remark that many Affirmative Action babies have undoubtedly heard countless times. At an almost lily-white commercial law conference he says, "Nobody's hiring white guys anymore." The author notes that such ignorance blissfully flies in the face of the Glass Ceiling Report, issued by a bipartisan federal commission that was initiated by Elizabeth Dole and sponsored by then-Senator Bob Dole. Despite the finding that 95 percent of all senior management positions are still held by white men, Senator and later presidential candidate Dole called for the dismantling of all Affirmative Action programs. No doubt such roosters continue to think they built and are building America by themselves through immaculate conceptions. A more recent anecdote proving Williams's point after the book's publication would be the Texaco tapes incident, which shows pervasive racism in the upper echelons of corporate America making a mockery of limited though highly publicized Affirmative Action efforts.

In another central theme of the book, Williams plucks apart the role of popular descriptive language in perpetuating the racial status quo. The author, who is a single black female mother, explodes the myth of the black "welfare queen" as both a symptom and cause of current grotesque views of the welfare "problem." The fact that the majority of people receiving welfare are white women (many of whom have received the short end of a divorce settlement or are fugitives from abusive husbands) means nothing to those who "indulge in their masturbatory mulling about black welfare queens who purportedly reproduce like rabbits" in order to gain an extra two dollars a week from the government.

Other examples of destructive, media-backed idioms, Williams suggests, include the dubbing of Lani Guinier as "Quota Queen," with all its tired associations and ascription of evil intent, and the present interpretation of "Affirmative Action" as reverse discrimination rather than restorative inclusion. The author likens the feelings induced by such language to being strapped to a "linguistic treadmill that has gradually but unmistakenly increased its speed."

Despite the bleak portrayal of race relations, Williams's personal strength, resilience, and wit remain evident throughout. She demands that society "press on to a conversation that takes into account the devastating legacy of slavery," suggesting that this alone "might be the source of a genuinely revivifying, rather than a false optimism." Her hopefulness is indicated in that, amidst retrenchment and regression, she finds that some progress has in fact been made by "those thousands of busy people working hard . . . thinking about how it could be different, dreaming big yet surprised most by the smallest increments, the little things that stun with the realization of the profundity of what has not yet been thought about."

If there is a problem with The Rooster's Egg, it does not lie in the book's message, but rather in the fact that the ears most sorely in need will not hear, much less heed, its message.
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Author:Wing, Adrien Katherine
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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