HOW WHITE SUPREMACY AFFLICTS U.S. NOTIONS ABOUT EQUALITY
©Wendell Griffen, 2017
Justice Is a Verb!
August 3, 2017
The New York Times has exposed a new initiative of the U.S. Justice Department. At the apparent behest of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department is recruiting and intends to hire lawyers to investigate whether affirmative action programs in higher education institutions discriminate against white applicants. Those investigations will likely lead to “possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.” According to the front-page Times article that appeared in its August 2, 2017, national edition, [“s]upporters and critics of the project said it was clearly targeting admissions programs that can give members of generally disadvantaged groups, like black and Latino students, an edge over other applicants with comparable or higher test scores.”
This initiative is the latest evidence of the way white supremacy affects how people in the United States understand equality. The American myth about equality has always been contaminated with and by white supremacy. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, the men who signed their names to its assertion about a “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” were (1) white and (2) convinced of their right to rule over all other persons, including white women and all other persons. White men viewed other persons as fractional beings. Blacks were counted as three-fifths of a person for tax purposes, but were non-persons in the eyes of society and the law otherwise. Women were denied any voice (vote) in this society for more than a century.
The U.S. Civil War claimed the lives of over 600,000 combatants. Their deaths were the military price our society paid for white supremacy; but it was not the only, nor even the highest, price. Millions of black persons were enslaved, traded, robbed of the monetary value of their work, raped, beaten, and otherwise brutalized under a system that was declared legal from the birth of the nation until the Civil War ended in 1865. Meanwhile, the manifest destiny mindset that drove white politicians and captains of commerce to invade and steal land on which Native Americans had lived for generations – if not for centuries – drove them to encroach on, steal, and otherwise wrongfully appropriate land owned by Mexican Americans. Again, this was called legal.
Attorney General Sessions personifies the white supremacist mindset that has afflicted U.S. legal thought about equality. According to that perspective, any measures that work to benefit people who are the descendants of race-based injustice must not disadvantage white persons who are the beneficiaries of the legalized oppression and inequality set up and operated by white men throughout U.S. history. Equality means whatever white men are willing to tolerate, not what is required to redress centuries of legalized white male privilege.
Whenever people insist that equality requires “color-blind” approaches to social justice, we should remember that this society has never been “color-blind.” From its birth, notions of social justice have been driven by white supremacy and white supremacists. Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were white supremacists. The same must be said about almost all of the members of the U.S. Supreme Court whose case decisions are studied by law students, pondered by law professors, and applied by state and federal judges. The body of law produced by those jurists, scholars, and practitioners contains a white supremacist mindset that views policies and practices which benefit persons whose lives and histories are traceable to the victims of white supremacy as “reverse discrimination.” The pervasiveness of white supremacy has seldom been admitted, let alone challenged, by most of the legal profession. The profession has rarely, if ever, admitted its complicity with white supremacy.
White supremacists scored a major victory in the 2016 presidential election when white supremacy nationalists and white evangelical religionists combined forces to elect President Trump. However, white supremacy is not undergoing resurgence under President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Rather, we are witnessing the latest mutation of the white supremacy affliction.
We should not be surprised when the legal profession and judiciary embrace the white supremacist initiative Attorney General Sessions has created for the Justice Department. Mr. Sessions, like the president who nominated him, is a white supremacist. The legal profession is dominated by persons who, knowingly or not, hold white supremacist perspectives about law and equality. Unless those perspectives are exposed, confronted, and challenged, we will continue to fumble and stumble about equality based on the illogical and historically unfounded notion that justice in the United States is “color-blind.”
Whether we admit it or not (and most observers do not admit it), the only way to correct centuries of race-based injustice is to employ race-conscious remedies. The U.S. is now led by some of the worst thinkers about racial justice in recent memory. It is unlikely that we will be led to becoming more just. Rather, we are about to go deeper down into the white supremacy rabbit hole.