“Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
A wise Latina once said, before she stepped up to sit down on the bench in the United States Supreme Court, that a person who’s life experience (specifically a female person of color) is fraught with navigation of racial, gender and cultural mazes will render a decision regarding justice that is more just than a person who’s life experience encounters few cultural, racial, gender or economic obstacles. Time and again in the past two years, her words and observations (as well as the words and observations of thousands of others) have been borne true by the elected leaders of the United States government.
Senator Jeff Sessions’ assertions that Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor “shouldn’t bring her personal background into the courtroom” even as he is bringing his is an assertion of rich white male normalcy that he is offended is being questioned. The entire tenor of her confirmation hearings, and those of Professor Leonard Liu who followed her into that Senate chamber, was the questioning of a distinct, colored perspective and American experience because it did not match his.
2012 Republican presidential hopeful, Governor Haley Barbour, recently harkened back to his idyllic boyhood, praising the White Citizen’s Council of Yahzoo, Mississippi where he grew up. Not only did he romanticize a terrorist organization, he sought to negate (because it didn’t match his) the experiences of millions of black, white and brown Americans even while he tried to claim part of it. He recalled attending a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, yet belittled the experience because “he couldn’t hear very well,” and “[he] paid more attention to the girls than to King.”
His privilege, both white and economic, allowed him to bypass the turbulent growth of the United States during the Civil Rights Movement. He attended segregated schools through high school, and the “business community” made sure that the KKK (populated by economically disenfranchised whites) didn’t cause any problems that he could see. His dismissal of integration, segregation, lynchings and the struggle for civil rights as “not that bad” is a perspective that few people in the United States can honestly attest to, and one even fewer experienced.
It’s not his statements, though, which are problematic. It’s his experience (or lack thereof). The rich, white, male, heterosexual cocoon in which he has existed his entire life allows him to negate the experience of black, brown, red, yellow, female, poor, homosexual American experiences that more people than not live in each day.
Senator Lindsey Graham is a study in the absurdity of white, male, wealthy privilege. He has actually taken to the floor of the United States Senate to apologize to his fellow rich, white, male Senator Jon Kyl for having to take the time to work. It isn’t clear what Senator Kyl is supposed to be doing with his time, whether it is leisure or the pursuit of wealth or the accumulation of power, instead of working to negotiate the strategic arms reduction treaty; or voting on unemployment insurance for the 9.8% of Americans who are without work; or having his voice heard in favor of discrimination against gay and lesbian service members; or pushing the button to insure that the most wealthy citizens of the United States are not discriminated against by having to pay their commensurate share of taxes to fund to the government; or denying the opportunity to attain higher education or serve in the armed forces of the United States to adults whose lives are marred by having been brought to the land of opportunity illegally as children; or arguing to prevent the federal government from inspecting and insuring the safety of the food citizens consume. Both Senator Graham and Senator Kyl find it an affront to their experience to be forced to work for their paycheck, to meet their responsibilities to serve citizens (whom their actions show) they believe to be beneath them and unworthy of their efforts or their concerns.
And finally, a study in all of these expressions of domination, Senator John McCain. Himself a heterosexual veteran of the armed forces, he would deny that honor to homosexual Americans without cause. Having stated he would consider ending segregation if the leaders of the military indicated it was warranted, he capitulated to his own homophobia when they did so. Having stated he needed to see a report detailing the military’s ability to incorporate the (already serving) aforementioned soldiers, he then changed his mind after service members were surveyed, sighting “literally thousands” of soldiers he said told him they had a problem with homosexuals. Amazingly, he then stood on the floor of the Senate and proclaimed the end of discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military to be “a sad day.” Spoken like a man who had not for one day of his life, including his incarceration in a North Vietnamese prison, existed in a position of anything less than white, rich, male, heterosexual privilege. Even in his incarceration, he was accorded a position of privilege, according to his own accounts.
These five rich, white, heterosexual men have failed in their responsibilities as leaders because they have perpetuated a system of domination, codified into law what is calcified in their experience, and refuse, stubbornly refuse, to acknowledge that there is more than one American experience. They would rather dance together on their island of privilege than give life to the words and ideals which gave birth to this nation.
What is more amazing (or frightening for those of us who take the spirit of Thomas Jefferson’s poetry to heart) is that in struggling to ascertain their place in American society, there are many who learn the wrong lessons from what Justice Sotomayor has said, who feel that their struggles have given them the only clear interpretation of the the American experience, and attempt to join the landed (rich), white, male, educated class without any realization that their entrance into the “old boys club” is impossible, and that it is indeed the dismantling of that club which needs to occur.
Black men like Michael Steele, who find themselves in possession of some male and/or economic privilege, attempt to stand a few rungs up and climb higher by stepping on the heads and backs of other Americans. White women like Sarah Palin, who realize that by speaking to white, poor fears, they can garner some acclaim, but find that they are still marginalized (both in terms of validation of their experience or longevity of accumulated power) when their fifteen minutes are over. Women of color like Michelle Malkin, who find that they can exist at the fringes but never reach the acceptance of Anne Coulter, or Sean Hannity, or Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck.
The paradigm through which the American experience is viewed continues to be rich, elite, white, male, and heterosexual. That individuals who grow up with all of these privileges have them is not problematic. That they fail to understand them as privileges, or that there are other American experiences that they must take into account in order to be leaders in the United States of America, is egregious and a moral failing on par with knotting a noose, or lighting a cross, or voting to maintain segregation of gay and straight, rich and poor, male and female, or black and white.
- Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour Criticized for Downplaying ’60 Racial Tensions (politicsdaily.com)
- Why Haley Barbour whitewashes history (salon.com)