Antiracist author and educator sees hope in this dark moment — if white liberals can overcome their complacency
Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away last Friday. She was 87 years old. Ginsburg was only the second woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. She was a trailblazing feminist who lived and fought for the principle that women should be equal to men in all areas of life — social, political and economic. For more than five decades, she proved herself to be a defender of the rights not just of women but of marginalized and disenfranchised people more generally.
Ginsburg was keenly aware of her status as a cultural icon, as made clear by the recent biopic "On the Basis of Sex" and the documentary "RBG." In her status as Ruth Bader Ginsburg the human being, and RBG the icon, she was a role model for girls and women who are navigating an American society where sexism and misogyny remain all too powerful limitations on their life goals and life chances.
Ginsburg's passing has left many liberals, progressives and other people of conscience in a pained state, shocked at another loss in what is already season of death and suffering from the coronavirus pandemic and a country under siege from within (and abroad) by Donald Trump and his neofascist authoritarian movement. In so many ways, the year 2020 specifically, and the Age of Trump more generally, feels like karmic punishment for the United States, a once great nation made into a pariah before the world because it has never atoned for its many sins. Trumpism is the afterbirth of those moral failures.
The loss of Ginsburg and the reality that Trump and Mitch McConnell will be able to add another Supreme Court justice to advance the cause of right-wing extremism and its war on human and civil rights should terrify all Americans who believe in the rule of law, the Constitution and democracy. Ultimately, Ginsburg's death and its implications for women's reproductive rights and freedoms is an extreme reminder of how the personal truly is the political.
Writing at The Cut, Irin Carmon reflects on this:
The feminist with a fundamentally optimistic vision, who believed that people, especially men, could be better, might be soon replaced by the rankest misogynist. The litigator and jurist who long subordinated her own immediate desires to the good and legitimacy of institutions, who had preached that slow change would stave off backlash, lived long enough to see Trump and the Federalist Society tear off the Court's thin veneer of legitimacy anyway. In the 2013 voting-rights dissent that earned her the Notorious RBG nickname, Ginsburg offered an addendum to Martin Luther King's suggestion that the arc of history eventually bent toward justice: "if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion." She was thus committed. Still, today she leaves the work not only unfinished but at risk of being undone.
Also writing at The Cut, Rebecca Traister offers much-needed context for Ginsburg's tenure on the Supreme Court and what comes next:
Ruth Bader Ginsburg matters, now as much as she ever has, but her survival alone couldn't have saved us, any more than getting rid of Donald Trump will save us. We are facing something far larger: a desperate, life-or-death fight to rebuild, reimagine, reform (and in some cases raze) enormous apparatuses, including our criminal justice, electoral, health-care, and education systems, labor and capitalism, education, housing, the courts themselves, and, most urgently, the health of our planet. It will call on us to fight as fiercely and with as much determination as Ginsburg herself fought, through her life and career.
How will her passing impact America's multiracial democracy? Why does white privilege and "racial innocence" leave many white liberals and progressives in a perpetual state of shock and surprise when confronted by the latest evil from Trump and his regime?
In an effort to answer these questions I spoke with Tim Wise. He is one of the country's and the world's leading anti-racism authors and thinkers. Wise is the author of such bestselling books as "White Like Me," "Dear White America" and "Under the Affluence." His forthcoming book, to be published in December, is "Dispatches from the Race War."
Toward the end of this conversation, Wise also warns the American people that to wallow in despair and hopelessness amid our current predicament is to betray all those who have struggled (and sometimes died), under far more challenging circumstances, while trying to make this country a more equal and just society.
You can also listen to my conversation with Tim Wise on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
There are still too many public voices, especially among journalists, who respond to the Trump regime's latest offense with some version of, "How can he do such a thing! How can the Republicans support this!" Such reactions are naïve and, in many ways, pitiful. What role does white racial innocence play in such denial, shock and weakness before the Trump regime?
Working-class white folks and poor white folks at least know that American society is not fair. At least they know not to trust the political system in an uncritical way.
They at least don't trust the political system. They may mistrust it for the wrong reasons — for example, because of QAnon and Fox News and other lies and nonsense.
But if you are middle class or above in this country the system has worked out for you in many ways. And if you are white, the country's political and social system has largely benefited you.
There is a kind of privilege in the form of an obliviousness and lack of self-reflection that comes with that outcome: "Well, surely this system must work, because look, I've done OK. It's more or less worked out OK for me." This is one of the reasons not to immediately trust white liberals just because they may have the political sense to know that the American right wing is very dangerous. But those same white liberals are also invested in whiteness and white privilege. That white privilege blinds many white liberals to the dangers of whiteness and conservatism together.
Ultimately, whiteness allows many white people to claim innocence and the luxury to be naïve. Being a white liberal can also encourage a type of thinking where everything is somehow going to work out in the end.
From Ruth Bader Ginsburg's passing to the pandemic and a season of death, how are you making sense of this onslaught of events?
This year has been quite a disaster for this country and the world. The idea that matters cannot get worse is obviously wrong. But the idea that matters in America are only now getting bad, or really awful, is also obviously wrong. The United States has been in a horrible state for many people for a very long time, in some cases centuries. I do hope that the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a clarifying moment for white liberals.
Black and brown folks knew how absolutely wretched the Trump administration would be and is. Folks who are marginalized on the basis of race, class, sexuality and other identities know how bad Trumpism is and likely are not at all surprised by it.
But nice white liberals are people who only get upset and care when they are being directly impacted. It's only when their rights and the things that they care deeply about are imperiled that they suddenly they become really upset.
Maybe with the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, white liberals and especially moderate white women will now realize that it is not just brown women and children at the border who are being put in concentration camps and deported and otherwise abused by the Trump administration. "Now they are coming after us!"
Too often it does take white folks actually seeing themselves as the ones who are imperiled for them to actually become invested in a given issue. For poor women, and poor women of color in particular, reproductive freedom, reproductive justice and reproductive autonomy are all intertwined with other issues.
A whistleblower is reporting that nonwhite women in ICE imprisonment have apparently being sterilized through involuntary hysterectomies. Where is the broad outrage and mobilization among white liberals?
There is a massive disconnect. There is a mythology that has been built up around the notion that "sisterhood is global." Such a sisterhood is pretty conditional, actually. Black women and brown women have always known that. There is an alliance among women on some things, but not on issues where the targets of oppression are disproportionately Black and brown. Let me be clear: That observation is not taking anything away from the white women who have been good allies.
But the facts undercut and expose any assumption that such alliances and being good allies to nonwhite people, especially women, is the norm.
The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be an opportunity for the Trump regime and American right to further assault the reproductive rights and freedoms of women. But her death is also an opportunity for the right to advance its plutocratic anti-human agenda more generally. These issues are all connected. How can we better communicate that fact?
But Trump's pick for the court is not just going to harm women's reproductive autonomy. It is going to be LGBTQ rights. It is going to be the civil rights of nonwhite people. It is not just going to be voting rights. If Republicans get to create that huge majority on the Supreme Court, they will enact a right-wing libertarian nightmare that will attack the things that any good liberal or progressive cares about.
There will not be a Green New Deal. There will not be universal health care. The court will invalidate it. With Ginsburg passing away, Trump and the right wing, through the Federalist Society and other such groups, are going to be able to stack the court and then overturn the policies that liberals care about. The Supreme Court is a class issue as well as a race issue and a gender issue.
The Trump regime and the right are a movement, a type of religious politics with a clear set of strategies and goals. By comparison Democrats, liberals and progressives in this country lack a coherent strategy and are easily distracted by the latest outrage of the day.
Many people on the so-called left in America have a hard time staying focused. They get distracted by every shiny object. Everything that Trump does and says becomes something to focus on and get distracted by. The Republican Party and the Trump movement are very focused and clear about what they want. The right-wing militias are very clear in their plans. The "boogaloo boys" are very clear. The far right, generally, is very clear about what they want. The goal of the right wing in America is to invalidate and then end democracy in this country. As a group they are committed to an authoritarian, pseudo-fascist project. Too many liberals and progressives and Democrats find it very difficult to believe that human beings can be that awful. That is a very precious and naïve way of thinking about the world and politics.
You have spoken a great deal about how white supremacy and white racism, working through white privilege, are a type of narcotic — an opiate for the white people and others addicted to it. What are some recent examples which you find particularly noteworthy?
There are so many. For example, do any of these right-wingers who are attacking critical race theory even know what it really is? No. Did the people criticizing The 1619 Project even know what it actually is? No. Did they read it? And if they did read it, do these critics consider the arguments and evidence in a serious way? Most certainly not.
So why are the Trump administration and his supporters and the Republican Party and Fox News and the other usual subjects so obsessed with The 1619 Project and critical race theory? Obviously, the real purpose is to distract the public from the fact that 200,000 people are dead from the coronavirus in this country.
Moreover, these people are dead because of the horrific mismanagement of the COVID crisis by the Trump administration. These attacks on critical race theory and The 1619 Project are also designed to distract the public from a ruined economy.
They are designed to distract the American people from the fact that everything Donald Trump touches is destroyed, turned into human waste. That is not just the economy, but the country as a whole. The right's attacks on The 1619 Project and critical race theory are part of a culture-war strategy of racist distraction. So if Trump and his agents can tell white people, "Well, these awful leftist and Black Lives Matter protesters and antifa are trying to hurt you — and they're doing it by indoctrinating your children to hate America," it then becomes a culture-war issue.
Right-wing culture-war politics are a perfect opiate of white supremacy and racism. It is about numbing the pain of the white folks who buy into such narratives by giving them an enemy to focus on: "These are the people who are hurting you. They're hurting your children. They're trying to brainwash your children." That also plays into the themes of childhood innocence that QAnon is so fixated on. On one level, these QAnon people are obsessed with sexual molestation. What Donald Trump and the right wing are really doing is claiming that critical race theory and The 1619 Project are forms of intellectual molestation.
And of course, the Trump administration and its allies are enemies of telling the truth in general, and specifically about the country's origins and its connections to slavery and genocide.
What role does the opiate of whiteness play in Trump's enduring support among white Americans, even when they are confronted with evidence of his likely criminal behavior?
If I am white and I live in a society which has told me for centuries that I have a social and a cultural status that is above anyone who is not "white," then you can do damn near anything to me as long as I get to keep that label. Whiteness is a type of currency in America and around the world. White people who vote for Donald Trump are not voting against their interests — that is a narrative which those on the American left really like to believe in.
White Trumpists and other right-wing voters just define their interests differently than the way many liberals and progressives who are obsessed with "material interests" believe they should. Almost the whole history of America is a history of white working-class people not believing that class is more important than race.
Hopefully, in the 2020 presidential election, there will be just enough white folks who can get off the opiates of racism and whiteness to make the difference in the outcome for Joe Biden to win.
Clearly, there is something about whiteness that has led the majority of those of us so-called white people into believing that being labeled as "white" is the most important thing in the world for our existence.
How does Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death impact America's multiracial democracy?
It means that America's multiracial democracy has been put into a temporary coma and suspended animation. Let us not forget, however, that the United States is still in the midst, quantitatively speaking, of the largest racial justice movement in the country's history. There are now indications that there could be a critical mass of Americans who are ready to advance the cause of racial justice in this country in ways that they were not a year ago, never mind 10 years ago
Even with all the horrible things that have happened in such a short time this year, I will tell you that the outcome of this moment is not preordained. If the people in this country who have been ignoring the crises finally wake up and get out of bed and do the moral and good thing, then America's multiracial democracy has a chance of surviving. The problem is that too many of us have been waiting around and not being engaged in the struggle, because they believed that the long march of progress was something guaranteed in America.
What advice do you have for those Americans who are in despair right now from Ginsburg's passing?
Again, there are so many people who have experienced greater despair and risk in this country than all the horrible things that are happening under Donald Trump's administration.
We have to stop the crying and the whining and the bellyaching and sentiments such as "Oh my God! Let's go cower in the corner!" People need to organize. Black folks in this country never gave up. So who the hell are these people who are preaching and wallowing in defeatism and cynicism, to give up now? What is happening in the Age of Trump is just a different iteration of the business as usual that has been going on for hundreds of years in this country.
People need to take their place in the long chain of history and do what is required and necessary to make things better.
Do what James Baldwin said to do: Earn your death. Earn your death by confronting with fortitude and honesty the conundrums of life. Earn your death by the way you live. And that means people need to get off their behinds and do what is necessary to save the United States and the world and the planet from Donald Trump, the Republican Party and the broader right-wing movement.