On November 19, 2021, Damian Williams was sworn in as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. At 41, Williams is an impressive figure: A.B. from Harvard, M.Phil. from University of Cambridge, and J.D. from Yale Law School, followed by a prestigious clerkship with then-Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and Justice John Paul Stevens of the U.S. Supreme Court. He then served in the same office he now leads, rising to head its Securities and Commodities Fraud Task Force.
Williams is also black, which was evidently a key qualification for New York senator Chuck Schumer, who recommended that President Biden nominate Williams and two other black lawyers as U.S. Attorneys for Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, respectively, “to ensure this state—and this country—deliver a fairer, more inclusive and just future for each and every one of us.”
Though Williams has made history as Manhattan’s first black U.S. attorney, he is now off to an inauspicious start, for reasons having to do with the racial politics behind his appointment. At his investiture, Williams said that he was “proud to announce today that I have created a brand-new civil-rights unit in the criminal division of my office.” This is not controversial in and of itself, though it bears noting that the U.S. Department of Justice already houses the Civil Rights Division, which has a Criminal Section that “investigates and prosecutes cases throughout the United States involving the interference with liberties and deprivation of rights defined in the Constitution or federal law.” The concerning issue is that Williams justified the creation of this unit, in part, on a fiction.
“You know and I know we are living in troubled times,” Williams declared at his swearing in at the Harlem Armory. “White supremacist groups are on the march. Anti-Semitism is on the march. Anti-Asian bias is on the march. Abuse of the most vulnerable in our society is on the march.”
Williams’s office has federal jurisdiction over Manhattan and the Bronx, as well as Westchester, Rockland, Sullivan, Orange, Putnam, and Dutchess counties. Where are the white supremacists on the march in progressive Manhattan or the crime-plagued streets of the South Bronx? Are they meeting secretly in Scarsdale, Cold Spring, Hastings-on-Hudson, or Kiryas Joel? Where are the neo-Nazis and unreconstructed Confederates harassing fellow New Yorkers in Midtown? Have they gone underground? What does Williams know that the NYPD, New York State Police, and the FBI do not?
Williams knows that he is playing to the peculiar imaginations of the woke New York Times, elite universities, and the general well-to-do progressive milieu in which his pedigree and new position places him. That he would herald the announcement of his new civil rights outfit with such a fantastical claim does not speak well of his willingness to dispense fair and impartial justice. It shows, instead, his enthusiasm to play progressive politics with the most powerful prosecutor’s office in New York State.
As chief prosecutor in what’s arguably the most important federal district in the country, Williams carries an awesome burden of responsibility. As Justice George Sutherland explained in Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, 88 (1935):
The United States Attorney is the representative not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done. . . . While he may strike hard blows, he is not at liberty to strike foul ones. It is as much his duty to refrain from improper methods calculated to produce a wrongful conviction as it is to use every legitimate means to bring about a just one.
It’s one thing to acknowledge the political climate that allowed for one’s career advancement; it’s another to incorporate those politics into prosecutorial decision-making. Modern progressives see white supremacists hiding under their bed at night, and they often associate these bogeymen with political conservatism. In a 1940 speech, then-Attorney General Robert Jackson warned his U.S. attorneys of the dangers of falling under the influence of such politically motivated paranoias:
In times of fear or hysteria, political, racial, religious, social, and economic groups often from the best of motives, cry for the scalps of individuals or groups because they do not like their views. . . . Therein is the most dangerous power of the prosecutor: that he will pick people that he thinks he should get, rather than pick cases that need to be prosecuted. . . . It is in this realm—in which the prosecutor picks some person whom he dislikes or desires to embarrass, or selects some group of unpopular persons and then looks for an offense, that the greatest danger of abuse of prosecuting power lies. It is here that law enforcement becomes personal, and the real crime becomes that of being unpopular with the predominant or governing group, being attached to the wrong political views, or being personally obnoxious to or in the way of the prosecutor himself.
This hysteria was on full display among the liberal media and progressive Twitter after the jury in Kenosha, Wisconsin, handed down its not-guilty verdict to Kyle Rittenhouse—who was accused, in full Orwellian fashion, of being a white supremacist for shooting three white men in self-defense during a riot.
Williams was right, however, about the other three items on his list of prosecutorial priorities: anti-Semitism, anti-Asian bias, and abuse of the most vulnerable. According to the New York Times, “most of the anti-Semitic incidents in New York have not been perpetrated by jihadist or far-right extremists, but by young African-American men.” Voice of America reported that, in New York City, “anti-Asian hate crime soared nearly nine-fold in 2020 over the year before, [and] only two of the 20 people arrested last year in connection with these attacks were white,” while “11 were African Americans, six were white Hispanics and one was a Black Hispanic.” At the time of this writing, NYPD data revealed that shooting incidents were up 98.1 percent, shooting victims were up 100.1 percent from two years ago, and murder was up 42.3 percent from the same period. This violence is overwhelmingly concentrated in the black community; vulnerable New Yorkers are indeed the ones victimized by the carnage.
Williams should reject what Heather Mac Donald has called “the elite consensus”—namely, that “the only problem worth paying attention to in the black community is the lethal effects of white bigotry”—and focus instead on the violent felons terrorizing New York, regardless of their motivations (or their race). If he can buck the racial fantasies of his political patrons, he may prove to be, in the words of Robert Jackson, “a good prosecutor” who “seeks truth and not victims, [and] who serves the law and not factional purposes.” This would be a distinction worthy of history’s attention.