I came across this Mother Jones article today, which lays out the number of federal judicial nominees from the Trump administration who refuse to acknowledge whether Brown v. Board of Education was correctly decided (there’s at least ten). Brown, you may remember, was the landmark 1954 Supreme Court unanimous decision that abolished segregation in schools. What could be an easier question? Even Brett Kavanaugh knew enough to acknowledge Brown is settled law. His replacement on the D.C. court of appeals apparently could not do the same.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights, which is a remarkable journey through the key moments of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It is a powerful reminder of the terrible currents of segregation, hate and violence that existed in the 20th century. You can see the politicians that fought for segregation; read the Jim Crow laws that were in effect throughout the southern states; experience what it might have been like to sit in protest at a segregated lunch counter; understand the heroism and bravery of the Freedom Riders in 1961; learn more about the march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the acts of violence that followed it, such as the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four girls, the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwermer, and more. We hear about the legacy of Dr. King and his unflinching truthtelling in pursuit of economic and social justice. I walked out feeling more committed than ever to try to uphold that legacy in whatever small or large way I can. Two of people I was touring with - an industry colleague and her friend - are Black, and we exited the Center together, feeling like we had experienced a profound and moving place.
We encountered on the sidewalk just outside the Center a group of white street-preacher families, wearing matching t-shirts and smiles, everyone with genteel politeness and glossy brochures. These were not your doom-sayer corner screechers, just a bunch of folksy sounding families with some southern accents. A young girl with braces, probably around thirteen, with bright blue eyes and a big smile came up to the three of us and handed us a weighty metal coin. What I presumed was her family was sitting behind her, also with huge smiles. Me being me, I politely accepted the coin and I was super-curious about what this young lady had to say. The coin, by the way, had five Christian fish on it with various colors - gold, black, red, white and blue, along with some other attractive decorations.
The girl began her story by telling us about the story of Christ, and her joy about the knowledge that she going to heaven. All good and fine so far. She then asked me what I thought of the gold colored fish, what feelings did the color gold have for me. So natch, I said something like, “I suppose money or material things”. She approved of that answer and talked about the dangers of materialism as one might expect. Okay, again fine, no big deal.
Then she asked me what feelings I had about the color black, what it represents. I hesitated - I was pretty sure where she was going with this, and I had to take a moment to compose myself and figure out my response, especially given where we just came from. However, my colleague had no such hesitation when she said “Beautiful. Black is beautiful.” This young lady had zero idea of how to respond to this, I could see her processing how to deal with it. So she repeats the question to me, the white guy. “Yeah ok what do you think of the color black?” And I said “Me too, Black is beautiful.” The young lady at this point had recovered her composure and said, “Well yes but the color black represents darkness and sin, do you know what sin is? I mean black is darkness in the way Disney is, it represents sin.”
I said I had a pretty good idea of what she was talking about, and my two colleagues and I laughed and walked away. Afterwards, we talked about it for a bit, the fact that this girl had no clue that her words - in particular just outside of the Center for Civil and Human Rights - might be contributing to the concept that “black” = “sin” or “bad” could be construed to also be applied to Black people. It certainly was a very awkward and weird moment for all of us.
This seemingly small interaction happens every day all over the country. I’m not sure I would have thought much of it myself had we not just come out of the Center and I was with two Black colleagues who felt the same impact I did, assuredly much more so than me. And the mission creep of small, insensitive interactions is very deeply linked to the larger, more systemic attacks on civil rights that continues to happen in this country, and particularly under this so-called President. And so it is no accident that judicial nominees from the Trump administration are not validating Brown, thus accelerating the mission creep of systemic and institutional racism, across all people of color, religions, places of origin, gender identity, undermining the very concept of empathy and humanity.
So what do we do? The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said something about it:
Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” Letter from Birmingham Jail Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. April 16, 1963
I was on a plane this week sitting next to a very wealthy (white) man who was surprised I took the time to blog, tweet and speak out about what ails us today. My reply to him was “Why would I be afraid of talking about it? Why would you be? If we cannot talk to each other then where are we as people?” We too often let fear put us to inaction and silence. Donald Trump and his GOP enablers - and yes I am calling out the GOP - are what happens when inaction and silence occur. We cannot be silent any longer.