I will start by calling myself out. In 1973, the year the case Roe v. Wade determined that abortion should be decriminalized, the Supreme Court was comprised of eight white men and one black man. Thurgood Marshall was the first African-American justice to serve on the Supreme Court, over two hundred years after the Supreme Court came into existence in the United States.
So on the one hand, I feel very stupid for overlooking the fact that this important man was a justice in 1973 in an earlier column; on the other hand, my assumption that the entire court would be white is not unfounded.
Forty years after 1973, still only one black person sits on the Supreme Court. Forty plus 1973 is 2013 (I’ve thoroughly fact-checked this one), which means there is a persistent imbalance of racial representation on the court, that reflects the same type of imbalance in other leadership positions in this country.
Yesterday, Adam Johnson acknowledged this disparity in a column, saying, “Furthermore, while in the United States whites may have more power than minorities, it is obvious that whites do not control all levers of power. A black man is in the Oval Office, two minorities are serving on the Supreme Court and roughly one fifth of Fortune 500 CEOs are members of racial minority groups.”
However, these words stood as part of his larger argument that not just white people are racist, but that people of color, too, participate in racism against others. While I agree that people of color can say racist things (by the Dictionary definition of racism, indicating difference because of race), I know that this is to ignore the larger cultural context of the word, and the systems of power informing it.
I have one main objection with Adam’s column: that he failed to talk about why racism is still abundantly present as a tool of white power today, in a systemic way, and why racism perpetrated against people of color is completely different than offensive words against whiteness.
Racism is an institutional issue in America, inextricably bound to the history of slavery and racial prejudice in this country, where white people have consistently been beneficiaries.
Individual instances of “racist” remarks against white people, while maybe offensive, do not pack the punch of 200 years of institutional oppression in the United States. Higher incarceration rates, lack of access to good education and lower median incomes for some ethnic minorities are reminders of systemic racism.
The very word “minorities” acts as a reminder that people of color work from the position of less than, in opposition to a majority of white people (in the United States as a whole). As the activist and educator Paul Kivel said, “It took over 250 years to abolish slavery and 150 years from the signing of the Declaration of Independence until women won the right to vote. Prepare for a lifetime of struggle.” It’s impossible to have a productive conversation about race without acknowledging the historical reality that informs our ideas today.
Here’s another important thing: I am a white person, and while I try to understand the reality of people of color in this country and abroad, I know I will never fully understand. So I will attempt to continue learning, and to be ever vigilant of my attitudes, knowing that a lot of the time I will need to be quiet and simply listen. And with that line, I stop writing for this volume of The Daily and say thank you for reading.