In the weeks since the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, people far and wide have been calling for all Americans ― President Donald Trump, other politicians and ordinary citizens ― to condemn neo-Nazis and white supremacists. But some say that’s not enough.
Several public figures ― including religious leaders, journalists and lawyers ― have noted on Twitter that as Americans condemn white supremacy in its most extreme forms in rallies and protests, they should also be condemning white supremacy as it is manifest in public policy.
In listing examples of how racism shows up in policy, people pointed to everything from voter ID laws that restrict voting rights of people of color to Trump’s pardoning of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was found to have illegally targeted Latinos in immigration enforcement efforts.
HuffPost spoke with Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, about what it means to stand up to white supremacy in public policy. As a leading civil rights law firm, the NAACP LDF has fought seminal cases in defense of minority voting rights, against racial bias in the criminal justice system, and for affirmative action in education.
“Calling out extremists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis is an important but very low bar for where we should be as a society at this stage in our democracy,” Nelson told HuffPost. “What we should be [having] is a much more nuanced and deepened understanding of how those ‘isms’ manifest in policy, in systems, in a cloak of oppression that still lives with us.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
After Charlottesville, many people took to Twitter to express their outrage at neo-Nazis marching openly in America in 2017. But others still ― largely people of color ― noted folks should be equally outraged by white supremacy as it manifests in public policy. Where do you see the connections there?
Charlottesville ― for anyone still in denial about what this administration means for this country and race relations, that ripped the Band-Aid off. Now it’s up to us to determine how we heal. Are we really looking to examine policies and practices and individual players that support an ethos of white supremacy ― or are we going to just be satisfied with taking a vocal stand against what is a very, very easy thing to condemn?
It should be a no-brainer that white supremacy and anti-Semitism and vehement xenophobia have no place in our country. I hope that this resurgence of energy against the most vile forms of discrimination and bias and bigotry doesn’t divert us from the deeper reckoning that we need to really move past this once and for all.
Calling out extremists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis is an important but very low bar for where we should be as a society at this stage in our democracy. Janai Nelson
You mention white supremacy is embedded in most of the institutions and policies in our country today. Could you point to some examples?
There really is virtually no aspect of society that hasn’t been touched by the white supremacist roots of our country. You see it just looking at our current executive branch. The individuals leading policy and agencies of the government are people who never in the last 50 years would have been put in any position of power of such import.
I think one of the people who poses one of the greatest threats is Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is intent on diverting resources from beleaguered public school systems to private and religious schools, taking resources out of the effort to bring real integration and quality education to students of all backgrounds ― most public school students are children of color ― and siphoning it off to fund segregated schools. That’s a clear manifestation of white supremacy in action.
I hope that this resurgence of energy against the most vile forms of discrimination and bias and bigotry doesn’t divert us from the deeper reckoning that we need to really move past this once and for all. Janai Nelson
[Another] one of the most palpable examples is in the area of voting and the way in which black and brown voters have been villainized under a myth of voter fraud that has been used to limit the right to vote.
We [at the NAACP LDF] have been fighting a racially discriminatory photo ID law in Texas since 2011, and we’ve been successful every step of the way. The decisions have pointed out how black and brown voters have been discriminated against. Texas has spent millions defending a policy that is blatantly racist. The fact that we are fighting that battle still shows you how entrenched the issues are, how difficult they are to uproot ― even with the force of the judiciary behind you.
For Americans angered at seeing neo-Nazis marching, there seem to be clear actions to take in response: counterprotesting, tweeting. But for folks who are outraged by white supremacy in public policy, what are steps they can take to stand up to it?
Ordinary citizens should impose a cost on any elected official who supports a white supremacist agenda. There are easy ways to identify that. Senators confirmed John Bush to the circuit [as a federal judge] last month ― every Republican senator except John McCain, who was ill, voted to confirm ― and his record is replete with sexist, racist, homophobic comments.
People chose party over principle. They stand up and condemn Trump’s statements on Charlottesville, but I assure you that having a federal judge on the bench, a lifetime appointment, can do even more lasting damage than someone just walking on the street. [It] is far more dangerous than a day protester.
Anyone who calls themselves a patriot should be worried about the slippery slope we’re headed down. Janai Nelson
What do you think are the consequences for America if people turn a blind eye to white supremacy, not in its most extreme manifestations as neo-Nazis marching, but in its more mundane, but perhaps equally nefarious form in public policy and institutions?
I think Arpaio is the best exemplar: White supremacy is destructive not just for racial minorities but for white Americans and society as a whole. You can see that in the way in which it incited this president to use his vast powers to pardon a person who had defied an order of the court ― not just any person, one who was sworn to uphold the law ― and to pardon that person for racially discriminatory conduct.
It shows you there’s an erosion of principle, an abuse of power that supports this agenda of white supremacy that could unravel the rule of law. Even if you don’t care about anything else, anyone who calls themselves a patriot should be worried about the slippery slope we’re headed down.
America does not do a good job of tracking incidents of hate and bias. We need your help to create a database of such incidents across the country, so we all know what’s going on. Tell us your story.