Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.
‘What,” Malcolm X once asked, “do you call a Black man with a Ph.D.?”
Answer? You call him n****r.
High above the bench, on the north and south walls of the Supreme Court’s courtroom, are two 40-foot-long sculpted friezes each containing the images of nine “great lawgivers of history,” many of whom are non-white, non-Christian.
The one American represented is John Marshall, the Supreme Court’s fourth chief justice, often idolized as a towering icon of American jurisprudence. Indeed, his 1803 opinion in Marbury v. Madison, established the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review.
Absent from those walls and little noted in American history, is the fact that Marshall was a notorious trader and owner of hundreds of enslaved beings and a white supremacist who even opposed the presence of free Black people in his state. In 1831, after Nat Turner’s rebellion, he petitioned the Virginia state legislature to appropriate funds for the “urgent expedience of getting rid in some way, of the free coloured(sic) population of the Union.”
America, to this very day, has never been colorblind!
What, I wonder, would Marshall have thought of Edward Alexander Bouchet who, in 1876 at Yale, became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from any American university.
What, I wonder, would he have thought of Georgiana Rose Simpson who, in 1921 at the University of Chicago, became the first Black woman in America to receive a Ph.D.
What, I wonder, would he have thought of professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University professor and the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, who was arrested in 2009 after entering his own home on suspicion of being a burglar.
I believe Marshall would have called them all “n*****s.”
Last month, 404 years after the first enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown, 220 years after Marbury v. Madison, and 13 chief justices later, the John Roberts’ court acted to re-bind us, not free us, to a pernicious history of racism, exclusion and oppression, the Roberts’ court decided that American institutions and businesses were free to re-exploit and re-victimize, the marginalized and disenfranchised.
Last month, I believe, SCOTUS once again became complicit with racism.
Seemingly unburdened by the revealed history of America’s genocides of Indigenous peoples, of land theft, of exclusion acts and internment camps, and an unending, unrelenting, unrepentant narrative of racial injustice, torture, and lynchings, SCOTUS has re-bound us to a false narrative that embraces the supremacy of power and privilege over justice and equal rights.
The power and privilege of once again reimagining America in their own image.
Last week, on the Fourth of July, in the wake of the most recent SCOTUS reaffirmations of white supremacist theology I observed the day by watching Just Mercy and rereading “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” within which Frederick Douglass answers, “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
Let’s be clear — our world changed last week when the Supreme Court, especially in its recent decisions on affirmative action and LGBTQIA+ rights, signaled triumph to white nationalists and supremacists where previously White Citizens’ Councils, Orval Faubus, George Wallace, Lester Maddox, Strom Thurmond, Lee Atwater, and so many others had failed.
America wasn’t surprised. From the day SCOTUS accepted the cases we knew what the outcome would be. The only question was would the margin be 6-3 or 5-4.
What has surprised me was America’s response. What surprised me is the number of people who think America will come to its senses. That if we all get together, Kumbaya- like, on some mythical common ground, and vote in 2024, we can take it all back.
That’s not going to happen.
Being colorblind is a myth. This is about white privilege and power.
This is today’s reality, and if Americans think these are battles just about affirmative action and LGBTQIA+ rights then they have already lost a critical battle.
We are in a war between Americans who believe in a pluralistic and diverse nation where all people are created equal, and Americans who advocate for a theologically-inspired authoritarian state created in their own image.
A war where Barack Obama was denied an opportunity to appoint Merrick Garland as justice, a war where Amy Coney Barrett was rushed to the Supreme Court as a last-minute Trump appointment.
Opponents of affirmative action have been filing challenges and lawsuits for ages, not just to challenge affirmative action but to challenge the very concept of a representative democracy based upon the principle that all people are created equal.
It’s happening in libraries, legislatures, schools, and the Supreme Court.
This is not about who bakes a cake for whom, who gets to go to an elite Ivy League school, who gets to carry a gun, pollute waterways, employ child labor, or whether women have reproductive rights to their own bodies.
Those are settled issues and it happened mostly on the watch of privileged white people who may gnash their teeth and wring their hands but who themselves will be relatively untouched by injustice.
They will continue to go to their country clubs, serve on corporate boards, volunteer for worthy causes, preach in their pulpits, and enjoy summer vacations unburdened by concerns over where their children or grandchildren may someday matriculate, or how to pay for it.
They will have little proximity to justice, little proximity to communities of color and minority communities oppressed still by systemic and institutional racism, oppressed still by undrinkable water, unbreathable air, and broadband out of reach of too many students.
No one has ever asked them, “What do you call a white person with a Ph.D.?”
This is an existential war for America’s survival as a representative democracy. There are no do-overs.
“There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good,” William Sloane Coffin said. “The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with all the world.”
Please, God, may we have a lover’s quarrel with all the world?