Columbia law professor addresses U.S. achievement gap

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 | 11:19 p.m. CST; updated 4:21 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Patricia Williams speaks on Wednesday in Stotler Lounge in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at an MU event sponsored by the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative, Missouri School of Law and the Peace Studies Program. Williams not only addressed the academic achievement gap in the U.S. but also focused on how the media's portrayal of minorities can have a lasting and destructive influence on its viewers.

COLUMBIA – The title of her monthly column in The Nation magazine is "Diary of a Mad Law Professor," but Patricia Williams comes across as anything but mad.

Williams is the James L. Dohr professor of law at Columbia University. She has written several books on civil rights in addition to her magazine articles.

Invited as part of the 2010 MU campus Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, Williams spoke at Memorial Union's Stotler Lounge Wednesday evening. Noor Azizan-Gardner, director of diversity programming and professional development, said Williams was invited because her work and writing reflected the overall theme.

Though the State of the Union speech was competing with her own, Williams spoke to a full room about achievement gaps between African-American students and other students; Haiti; the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and what happens to people living through such events.

Addressing the achievement gap, Williams said focusing only on race as a cause is wrong. She cited figures that show many American students of all races are not performing at their level by 12th grade.

Knowing how to educate children in the U.S. is only a part of solving the achievement gap, Williams said. The difficult part is getting the community at large engaged.

"You hear black kids don't value education, but I think Americans don't value it like they should," Williams said.

There is a deeper problem that accounts for the achievement gap, she said. "The achievement gap is also a wealth gap, a respect gap."

Williams talked about the crisis in Haiti as reminiscent of post-Katrina New Orleans. She said she saw a picture of survivors passing a bag of rice above a caption that read "Haitians loot," and called it an example of profiling people who are facing desperate situations. Her impression was the writer was more concerned with the bag of rice than with the victims. 

Michael Ugarte, chair of the Peace Studies Programming Committee which co-sponsored Williams' visit, said he looked forward to this event as a time for groups of people who don’t often mix together to exchange ideas.

He also said King’s dream has not been realized. “Too many people think it’s water under the bridge. It’s not.”

Jacqueline Kelly, director of minority business development for MU, said she attended because she wanted to know Williams' take on the achievement gap. “Columbia Public Schools have spent a lot of money on closing it.” Kelly also said Columbia doesn’t often get speakers of Williams' stature.

One of King’s most famous statements was about creating a colorblind society. Asked whether people in the U.S. would ever stop defining each other by skin color, Williams said she did worry that those judgments were made out of habit. Classifying people by race is due to “habit, history, and it’s not scientific,” she said.

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allen spencer February 1, 2010 | 12:22 p.m.

Dr. williams has put a spin on things, but until education becomes personal, then there will all way be a gap. the desire to know, is not based on skin color. Spike the desire with imagination and you have the foundation for something great.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro February 1, 2010 | 3:36 p.m.

("There is a deeper problem that accounts for the achievement gap, she said. "The achievement gap is also a wealth gap, a respect gap.")
And what of the "parent gap?"

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