Those are the words of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who sits upon the highest court in the United States-the Supreme Court. Those words are almost an understatement. As of this writing, 23 days after the murder/homicide of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, the latter still has not been detained or arrested. The protests are still ongoing in and around the city of Ferguson, MO. The country is having a discussion not just about the devaluing of black lives and racism, but also police accountability, the responsibility of the police, the militarization of the police, and gun violence. Justice Ginsburg’s comment shows that she’s paying attention to the state of race relations in the US. It’s a shame some of her fellow Justices are not:
The Supreme Court was “once a leader in the world” in combating racial discrimination, according to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “What’s amazing,” she added, “is how things have changed.”
Ginsburg, who was one of America’s top civil rights attorneysbefore President Carter appointed her to the federal bench in 1980, spoke at length with the National Law Journal‘s Marcia Coyle in an interview that was published Friday. In that interview, she lays out just how much the Court’s outlook on race has changed since she was arguing women’s equality cases before it in the 1970s.
In 1971, for example, President Nixon had begun to reshape the Supreme Court. As a presidential candidate and, later, as president, Nixon complained that the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decisions had intruded too far on local control of public schools. Yet, as Justice Ginsburg points out, Nixon’s hand-picked Chief Justice, Warren Burger, authored aunanimous Supreme Court decision recognizing what are known as “disparate impact” suits, which root out discrimination in employers with policies that disproportionately impact minorities.
Burger’s resolution of this case “was a very influential decision and it was picked up in England,” according to Ginsburg.
The Court’s present majority, by contrast, seems much more interested in using its power to thwart racial justice. In 2013, for example, the Supreme Court struck down a key prong of the Voting Rights Act, effectively ending a regime that required states with a history of racial voter discrimination to “preclear” new voting laws with officials in Washington before those laws went into effect. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts justified this decision because he claimed that racism is no longer a big enough problem in the states covered by the Act, and thus the Voting Rights Act’s longstanding framework was outdated. Permitting the federal government to apply such a check against racially discriminatory voting laws was an “extraordinary departure from the traditional course of relations between the States and the Federal Government,” and it could no longer be allowed, according to Roberts, because “things have changed dramatically” in states with a long history of racism.
Two hours after Roberts claimed that racism was too minor a problem to justify leaving America’s most important voting rights law intact, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that Roberts’ decision would allow a gerrymandered map and a recently enacted voter ID to go into effect. Federal courts had previously blocked both the map and the voting restriction because of their negative impact on minority voters. Alabama made a similar announcement about its voter ID law the same day Roberts handed down his decision. Less than two months later, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory (R) signed a comprehensive voter suppression law adopting many provisions that reduced minority turnout in other states.
It boggles my mind that Justice Ginsburg was able to anticipate the effects of gutting the Voting Rights Act, yet Justice Roberts couldn’t see that (nor could the other Justices that voted to gut the act). Or perhaps he is willfully delusional. Either way, his actions have widened the gulf of inequality between white Americans and African-Americans (not to mention Hispanic Americans and Indians), as evidenced in the decisions of the TX Attorney General and the Governor of NC. SCOTUS is out of touch with one of the biggest sources of divisiveness in the United States: racism. Many people in the United States still hold negative biases and prejudices of people who are not white. These biases and prejudices manifest everywhere: in the workplace, on our streets, in government, even in interpersonal relationships. One of the biggest problems is that many people-especially and most importantly, white people-associate racism with the use of the word ‘nigger’, mobs, lynchings, separate but equal spaces, and the lack of African-Americans in politics. Now that people don’t use the word ‘nigger’ as much (but don’t believe for one second that the word isn’t used a lot-it still is), lynchings have all but vanished, and spaces are-for the most part-integrated (unless it’s a Sundown Town), the perception by many white people is that racism is over. These people don’t realize that the entire system is stacked against African Americans. Ending the use of racial slurs or mob lynchings doesn’t change the institutionalized racism in this country. It doesn’t ensure that black people are paid the same amounts as white people (with the same qualifications in the same job). It doesn’t ensure that black people are treated the same by police. It doesn’t ensure that black people are treated fairly by the justice system. All of that (and so much more) is built into the system, and is a more subtle and insidious form of racism-because white people don’t see it. They don’t experience it firsthand. It’s hard to argue that racism is non-existent when you see images of black men and women strung up by a crowd of cheering white people. It’s hard to argue there’s no racism when you go to the beach and see a ‘whites only’ sign. But when it’s about a paycheck? Or how many more black people are ‘stopped and frisked’? It becomes more distant, more difficult for people to visualize how this is an example of racism. Somewhere along the way, the discourse on race in the US shifted. White people are blinded by their privilege to the racism in this country (as an example: according to Pew Research, only 37% of white Americans think the events in Ferguson raise important issues about race). White people need to listen to black Americans. They need to listen and empathize. They also need to stand up and speak out. Black people are often ignored. Our concerns are not always listened to. In fact, they’re often dismissed. White people have the unique ability to talk to other white people and reach them in ways that Black people cannot. Given the history of rac
ism in the United States, and the role of white people in perpetuating racism, it is imperative that White people lead the way in fighting against racism. It may result in a loss of privilege, but it would make this country a better place for millions of Americans struggling just to live. There are enough obstacles to encounter in life. Having to deal with racism shouldn’t be one of them.
On a separate note, Justice Ginsburg also said this:
In what may become the most controversial part of her interview with Coyle, Ginsburg also suggests that public acceptance of gay Americans is eclipsing our ability to relate to each other across racial lines. “Once [gay] people began to say who they were,” Ginsburg noted, “you found that it was your next-door neighbor or it could be your child, and we found people we admired.” By contrast, according to Ginsburg, “[t]hat understanding still doesn’t exist with race; you still have separation of neighborhoods, where the races are not mixed. It’s the familiarity with people who are gay that still doesn’t exist for race and will remain that way for a long time as long as where we live remains divided.”
I might quibble with her wording, but I don’t disagree with her statement. Obviously I’m glad that civil rights for gays and lesbians has advanced, and I’m happy to see that we’re more accepted by society at large. She’s right though. The discourse on race isn’t happening anywhere near to the same degree as the discourse on lesbian and gay rights. In some ways it seems like this country can only talk about one thing at a time, rather than have an ongoing discussion of multiple, important issues. This is one reason I don’t just talk about gay rights on this blog. Or civil rights for African Americans. Or civil rights for atheists. Or women’s rights. They’re all vitally important. They *all* need to be discussed. In addition, these issues are intersecting. As a gay person of color who is an atheist, that’s three axes of discrimination and oppression that affect me. I can’t separate one as more important than the others (well I guess I could, but I’m not a fan of ranking oppression): they all affect me. Millions of other people deal with multiple axes of oppression in their everyday lives as well. That’s why an understanding of intersectionality is important.
Intersectionality is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. The concept first came from legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 and is largely used in critical theories, especially Feminist theory, when discussing systematic oppression. When possible, credit Kimberlé Crenshaw for coining the term “intersectionality” and bringing the concept to wider attention.
I learned about intersectionality around the same time my interest in feminism developed (which makes sense, bc feminists talk about the intersectional nature of various forms of oppression). Coming to understand how various forms of oppression intersect and affect people helped me come to understand how peoples’ lives were affected in ways I couldn’t immediately relate to. It’s helped me become more empathetic and understanding. Due to my privilege, I’ll never know what it’s like for a woman to struggle to get people to believe her when she’s been raped. As a result of my privilege, I’ll never know the anguish a trans man goes through when denied the right to use the men’s restroom. Empathy however, and an understanding of the ways oppression affects the ability of people to just live their lives–that is enough for me to see that advocating for equal rights for all is a fight well worth engaging. I don’t just want life to be easier for me to navigate. I want that for everyone. We’re all equal and we all deserve it.