I see you, Thurgood Marshall

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.

About Annie Graham

Annie Graham is a junior from Phoenix, Arizona majoring in English. She is a member of the women’s club soccer team, a founding member of Stanford Athletes and Allies Together, a farming SPOT leader, and she tries to call her grandparents often.
  • Jason Wright

    Why are there no “Anti-Racists” in Japan, China, or Korea pushing for more diversity?
    Why are there no “Anti-Racists” in Nigeria, Haiti, Kenya, Mali pushing for more diversity?

    Why is it “Anti-Racists” are only looking at WHITE children and demanding that THEY look beyond skin color and embrace hundreds of millions of non-whites flooding into their country and forcibly assimilating with them?

    The TRUE GOAL of “Anti-Racism” is to brainwash white children into believing that it’s immoral to oppose the obvious program of genocide targeted against them.

    Anti-Racist is a codeword for Anti-White

  • Disagree (sorry)

    “Higher incarceration rates, lack of access to good education and lower median incomes for some ethnic minorities are reminders of systemic racism.”

    “Some ethnic minorities” = not all. Because NOT ALL ethnic minorities need or want other people to make excuses for them. Am I being inflammatory? Sure, but someone needs to say it.

    And also, how is one black person (out of NINE) on the Supreme Court evidence of under-representation? It’s barely less than the percentage of blacks in the US (12.8% roughly). Two blacks on the Supreme Court, in fact, would be considerable OVER-representation. If you’re going to talk about imbalance in positions of leadership, fine, just use examples that actually support your point.

    “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.”

    If I read Adam’s column correctly, he objected to the phrase that only whites can be racist because, in part, it created a division between whites and everyone else. I agree with him. It reminds non-whites (use whatever word you want) that they are different than whites, that they have less power. But then YOU call him out for using language that creates division!? You can’t eat your cake and have it too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cherries1 Christopher Herries

    Just to point out, African-Americans comprise around 12.6% of the US population, making them well-represented in the Supreme Court. Now, are all minority groups represented on this nation’s highest court? No, but your assertion that African-Americans are underrepresented on today’s sitting court is false.

  • Supporter

    Hey Annie, just letting you know that I’m applauding you for writing this column! It’s very important to debunk false equivalences, no matter how obvious they may be, and to not let mealy-mouthed pedants believe they got the last word in!

  • I’m with Annie

    Are you including the 1 in every 8 black men who can’t vote due to felony laws? Or the 1 in every 15 black men currently incarcerated, compared to 1 in every 106 white men?

    Two percent of Americans don’t have the right to vote, but just take black men and it becomes 13%. Unless you’re proposing black men commit more crimes than white men because they are somehow inherently worse, it stands to reason there’s a systemic problem with the structure of our justice/housing/education system that puts african americans at a disadvantage.

    If you know these statistics, and you fully internalize them, you should see the difference between this type of institutional racism and someone calling you a dirty word or making an assumption based on your skin color in a social setting. While bad, and prejudiced, its not the same type of racism.

    Adam was making a silly, semantic argument about what we call “racism”. Yes, academics have moved on and recognized that being called a racist word is prejudiced, but a distinctly different category than a form of oppression based on skin color, and so they stopped calling the former “racism’ in many cases. This does not mean its OK. It just means its different and gets a different word.

  • Hi

    Racism is racism no matter what. It’s not any less bad if it’s directed at white people. Saying that racism against minorities is worse than racism against whites is in itself a racist statement.

  • Hi

    The reason why black men are in jail more often is more related to socioeconomics than racism.

  • Gods do not Answer Letters

    You of course fail to point out that in fact the Court is comprised of many minorities who are very much overrepresented on the court. Three Jewish people serve on our nations highest Court (Breyer, Ginsburg, and Kagan), along with six Catholics (Scalia, Sotomayor, Kennedy, Thomas, Roberts, Alito). As we can see in fact WASP’s are the most underrepresented group on the court, while Jews who make up 2% of the population are by far the most overrepresented group with 33% of the courts seats! I guess my point is that trying to diversify the court is a fruitless task America is to diverse a nation to be wholely and adequately represented in nine seats on the court. We should generally try to elevate people to the Supreme Court who are the most qualified with due consideration of ensuring diverse backgrounds. Could this give us a court with say three African-Americans one day? It could and that would be a good thing. It could also give us one with none, and that would be equally as good. I think we should all look back upon the story of Louis Brandeis when it comes to diversifying the court he held what would colloquially come to be known as the “Jewish Seat” as Brandeis briefly served with Cardozo who was then succeeded by Frankfurter, who seat was taken by Fortas. Then in ’69 Fortas resigned, and we didn’t have a Jewish person on the Court until ’93, and absolutely no one thought much of it. In fact Ronald Reagan tried to nominate Douglas Ginsburg to succeed Lewis Powell, who nomination was killed due him enjoying marijuana a little longer than culturally accepted at the time. But the fact he was Jewish had nothing to do with his nomination or his rejection I like to think, and that’s something we can be proud of, and strive to achieve with every group of people who make up The United States of America.

  • Still with annie

    That legitimately doesn’t make sense. I assume you are trying to say “Black people are poorer and thus go to jail more.” Yes. I agree, that poverty in african american communities is a huge problem. To somehow separate the current “socioeconomic” situation of african americans from the institutional racism of – as I listed above – the justice, housing and education systems is absurd.

    Black people aren’t poorer because they’re lazy. They’re poorer because their communities receive less tax dollars, more drug arrests and have worse schools. This doesn’t mean institutions are responsible for all the evil in this country, but when you have that kind of racial disparity it becomes clear the system is flawed.

  • Hi

    Keep in mind the unequal results does not necessarily mean unequal opportunity…