It’s started. From the moment Joe Biden affirmed that yes, he’d follow through on his campaign-trail pledge and nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, it was only a matter of time before some Republican mocked the idea, thus introducing into the coming nomination fight the concept that the nominee will be unqualified and chosen simply because of her race. It’s who they are. It’s what they do. And it was as predictable as some idiot school board deciding that Maus promotes nudity.
In a radio interview last Friday, Mississippi GOP Senator Roger Wicker observed the supposed irony that the Supreme Court “is at the very time hearing cases about this sort of affirmative racial discrimination, while adding someone who is the beneficiary of this sort of quota.”
Let’s break this statement down. First, we don’t even know who the nominee will be, so Wicker has no basis to refer to Biden’s choice as an affirmative action beneficiary. Second, it was a specific and inflammatory choice on his part to drop in the word “quota.”
That word has a long and grim history in the annals of American right-wing propaganda. Republicans have sometimes positioned themselves as saying that they can live with voluntary efforts by businesses and universities to make up for discrimination and increase diversity by hiring more women and people of color, but they draw the line at quotas. It’s a tier-one right-wing buzzword. Older readers will recall that the right dubbed Lani Guinier, who was nominated for a civil rights post by Bill Clinton (and who passed away just recently), the “Quota Queen.”
We can fairly presume that Wicker knew exactly what he was doing with his choice of words. That’s how this sort of thing starts. We’ve seen it many times. One legislator vocalizes what everyone on the right is thinking. Usually, it’s a half-tethered, backbenching member of the House. It’s rare that it’s a senator, and a longtime senator at that, someone with a little stature who isn’t regarded as a crazy racist or rigid reactionary. Wicker seems to have, for a Mississippi Republican of his generation, a comparatively nonextreme racial history. In 2015, for example, he came around to supporting changing the Mississippi state flag after initially opposing it; while doing so, however, he did refer to the “brave Americans” who fought for the Confederacy. “Brave,” I can live with, I guess. There were individual brave Wehrmacht soldiers, for that matter, who were just following the orders they were given. But “Americans”? Sorry. They were fighting the Americans.
So a senior senator from the state with the nation’s most deplorable civil rights record of all has now sent the signal: We’re making this racial. Those on the right would respond by saying that it was Biden who made it racial in the first place by saying he’d choose a Black woman. But that’s like saying that Lyndon Johnson made American politics “racial” by passing the civil rights bill. No—American politics was racial since before the beginning of the republic. Why should it be “racial” only when politicians try to address and make up for this country’s history of racial discrimination? It’s absurd and offensive.
Elite law schools weren’t accepting Black students in largeish numbers until the 1970s. Was that admissions shift “racial,” while the prior exclusion of qualified Black students was not? Even now, Black students make up just under 8 percent of all U.S. law school students. Biden is right that having a Black woman on the court is long overdue.
It’s not hard to map out what the Republicans and the right-wing media are going to do from here. Let’s say, for instance, that Ketanji Brown Jackson is the nominee. She grew up in Miami, though not poor—solidly middle class. So they’ll call her a child of privilege and compare her unfavorably to Clarence Thomas and his hardscrabble upbringing, with the implication that Thomas “earned” everything he got and she did not.
It’s necessary to take a short digression here on the topic of Thomas and affirmative action. He is an implacable foe of it these days and will surely vote to end it. He’s been arguing from the bench for an end to affirmative action for years. Earlier in his career, though, he sang from a different hymnal. In a 1983 speech, he said of affirmative action laws: “But for them, God only knows where I would be today. These laws and their proper application are all that stand between the first 17 years of my life and the second 17 years.” So he’s not just corrupt, in the ways Jane Mayer cataloged last week. He’s a raging hypocrite, as well, to no one’s surprise.
Let us return to Brown Jackson. She went to Harvard undergrad and Harvard law. They’ll imply—no; some, especially in the right-wing media, will just say outright that she didn’t really earn her spot in either school. They’ll comb through her decisions and come up with some vaguely (or perhaps not vaguely) racist moniker.
And a take a look at the list of Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee. A pretty hardened assemblage. Some come from very white states (Chairman Chuck Grassley, Mike Lee, Ben Sasse). Others come from states that do have large Black populations, but they’re deep-red states, meaning that these senators don’t have to give a thought to Black voter sentiment (Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, Marsha Blackburn). Only one, North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, comes from a purpleish state with a large Black population. We might see Tillis be a little more careful with respect to how he deals with race. The others, forget it.
We’re a long way from Southern politicians openly using the n-word. Remember Lee Atwater’s famous early 1980s interview, when he discussed how they had to start being more subtle in the late 1960s, using code words like “busing.” I’m not sure where we are on that scale today. On the one hand, social mores have changed in such a way that racists must be even more subtle. On the other, the rise of Donald Trump and the power of the right-wing media have taken us backward—not to the point where it’s acceptable to drop the n-word in idle talk, but to the point where Republicans know they’ll pay little to no penalty for unsubtle racial attacks.
So hold on to your hats. Expecting Republicans not to racialize a political controversy with a Black Democrat at its center, particularly if it’s a woman, is like expecting a lion not to attack an antelope. Again: It’s who they are. It’s what they do.