America is engaged in a longtime, painful power struggle. Thurgood Marshall, our first African-American Supreme Court Justice, was sworn in by Justice Hugo Black, a former member of the KKK. We elevated a Klan member to the highest court in the land almost 30 years before we offered the position to a black man. And the black man’s road to confirmation was rockier. Those who opposed Marshall’s nomination to the court complained about his activist tendencies. It was okay, I suppose, to light crosses in the dark of night and to string men from trees, but not to file Civil Rights briefs on behalf of black defendants seeking equal pay and the right to vote. Because the thing that set Marshall apart from the other activists in the 1950s and 60s was his absolute determination to work within the law. He didn’t sanction disobedience, civil or otherwise, but worked instead to change the law from within the system. It was slow-going and he lost quite a few battles, though he won some big ones. By the time Marshall was sworn in to the Supreme Court, Black had denounced his own criminal, racist history and embraced progressive and mostly inclusive ideals. He’d voted in favor of school desegregation, a fight Marshall had led by arguing in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. It’s great that Black evolved in his thinking as so many people did during that era, but imagine if the roles were reversed. Imagine if it were Marshall who’d had the shady affiliation with a hate group operating outside the law. Would there have been any hope for his nomination? I doubt it. Because Black was a white man, he didn’t have to do much to gain power in America. Marshall, on the other hand, had to be damn near perfect. Not much has changed.
Like him or not, President Obama served eight years under the harsh White House microscope without a hint of scandal. His resume before taking office was impeccable. Even if you disagree with him as a politician, it’s hard to find fault with the man. Our current occupant of the Oval Office seems to be nothing but fault. Every day brings a new and different scandal. None of this is surprising. Trump’s public misdeeds date back to his prep school days, back when his father was working hard to keep black people out of the Trump-owned apartment complexes. Even today, a black man needs to be damn near perfect to take power in America, while a white man only needs to be rich. I won’t even delve into what it takes to be a powerful woman in this country. It makes me tired to think about it.
The real problem with this power structure is that it is self-perpetuating. Trump rose to power on a stream of vulgarity, race-baiting, and outlandish promises, and he promptly used that power to elevate others like him. Take Jeff Sessions (please!). Sessions is a modern day racist, soft-spoken and well-groomed. I’ll bet he has impeccable table manners. But he is no different from the Klansmen of the 1920s or the White Citizens’ Council members of the 1950s or the Tiki-torch Nazis of today. Sessions was born with the great gift of white skin and he believes that skin makes him superior to anyone darker. It’s what allows him to argue that young people brought to America as children should be escorted from our country the way black protestors were escorted from lunch counters during the Civil Rights movement. He’d like to show them the door with a smile, but he’s not opposed to pulling out the water cannons. It’s a dangerous mindset, but Sessions would be just one more racist with stupid ideas if Americans hadn’t repeatedly elevated him to positions of power. Shame on him, sure; but shame on all of us.
Kris Kobach, Kansas gubernatorial candidate, vice-chair of the ill-advised Election Integrity Commission and Breitbart shill, said beneficiaries of DACA should “go home and get in line” to attain legal immigration status in the United States. The problem with this, of course, is that the people he’s talking to are already home. They were brought here as young children. They didn’t make the decision to come here any more than the ancestors of those lunch counter protestors did. And while Kobach would like to convince you that these people are criminals, it simply isn’t true. They are mostly high-achieving, college educated, tax-paying, law-abiding, hard-working contributors to American society. Most of them know they’ll have to be damn near perfect to succeed here. They’ve seen what it takes to attain power in America. They, more than anyone born into wealth or even just into white skin, are the embodiment of the American Dream.
I believe men like Sessions and Kobach and Trump and so many others, are taking one final public gasp before disintegrating into the irrelevance they deserve. I surely hope so. We’ve lived with their kind in power for far too long. It’s time for new voices, new faces, and new ideas. It’s time for a real power shift.