In Defense of Ekow Yankah

It’s not surprising that Ekow Yankah’s op-ed titled “Can My Children Be Friends With White People?” has generated some controversy. My initial reaction to the piece was a mixture of contempt and bewilderment. Some of the controversy is probably because of the provocative headline, which Yankah likely did not even write. But the content of the article is quite provocative, too:

As against our gauzy national hopes, I will teach my boys to have profound doubts that friendship with white people is possible. When they ask, I will teach my sons that their beautiful hue is a fault line. Spare me platitudes of how we are all the same on the inside. I first have to keep my boys safe, and so I will teach them before the world shows them this particular brand of rending, violent, often fatal betrayal.

As someone who is skeptical of the postmodern race cult that has gained so much visibility in recent years, I find myself put on the defensive when I read this paragraph. How could anyone teach his children not to trust people on the basis of their skin color? It seems like another one of those critical race theory novices claiming that all white people are racist, that “whiteness” is toxic.

As the title of this post suggests, I don’t think this is actually what Yankah is trying to say. I’m going to try to explain what I think his point is in a way that might be less provocative. Perhaps I won’t get it quite right. But I want to do my best to take what is helpful from what Yankah is saying and make it accessible to people who are put off by the apparent similarity between his op-ed and Tariq Nasheed’s Twitter feed.

I’ll start with what should be an uncontroversial claim: Americans are woefully under-educated about the history of institutionalized racism against African-American communities. We have attempted to rehabilitate the image of the Confederacy, despite the fact that it was founded specifically to protect the institution of slavery. We remember the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but we don’t remember the one that was passed nearly a century earlier and struck down by the Supreme Court, leading to the rise of Jim Crow. We point to the end of de jure segregation in public schools as a sign of racial progress, but forget that de facto segregation of public schools is often a direct result of systemic discrimination in housing. Racism has profoundly shaped the world we live in today, and we often do not see it.

And this, I think, is the crux of Yankah’s argument. The effects of racism are not always obvious. And white Americans have an interest in being oblivious to them. African-Americans should not assume that white Americans will want to understand the ways that racism has afflicted, and continues to afflict, our country. We have an interest in being blind that can only be overcome if we are intentional about loving our African-American neighbors as ourselves. Generally speaking, people are not very good at that.

What Yankah is not teaching his children is that white people are out to get them. That’s a Tariq Nasheed way to approach racism in America, and it’s stupid. Instead, Yankah is teaching his children to recognize that most white Americans, even if they’re not “racist,” will turn a blind eye to racism as long as it’s convenient for them to do so. And this is, tragically, true.

The more universal formulation of this principle, which is less likely to provoke objections from white people, is that people are willing to overlook injustice when it is expedient for them to do so. This is our sinful nature at work. It’s why people who weren’t particularly evil were able to administer the mass-execution of Jews during the Holocaust, it’s why as great a man as George Washington was able to own slaves, and it’s why the revolutionary power of the Reconstruction Amendments lay dormant for almost a century, effectively neutered by the Supreme Court, as conditions worsened for African-Americans in the Jim Crow South.

I think this is the most productive way to read Yankah’s op-ed. The takeaway for white Americans is that we really do need to listen to African-Americans. That doesn’t necessarily mean we need to agree with our African-American neighbors about every detail of every issue. But we can’t assume that we have all the facts right, especially when it comes to issues that we have an incentive to see a certain way, or an incentive not to see at all. Just because a certain instance of racism is not immediately apparent to me doesn’t mean that it isn’t real. For me to effectively love my neighbors as myself requires me to keep that in mind at all times.


Why Bother with an Op-Ed?

Laurence Tribe has an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that the Supreme Court should strike down the death penalty as unconstitutional. His argument is that the death penalty “violates human dignity and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.” I actually agree with him, in part, and I think that we should abolish the death penalty. However, the mechanism for doing so is through state legislatures or a constitutional amendment, not through the Supreme Court.

It’s odd to me that Tribe chooses to set forth his case in an op-ed at all, given that he obviously isn’t counting on ordinary legislative means to put an end to the death penalty in America. If all you need to do is convince the Court, then why care about convincing the public?

I suppose it makes some sense. If people continue to lose regard for the Supreme Court, viewing it as just another political branch of our government whose rulings are determined by the party that picks the judges, then trying to sway popular opinion is rational, as that will ultimately determine who sits on the Court. And of course, Tribe, like many other progressives, wants the Court to function as a policy-making instrument to advance progressive ends like the abolition of the death penalty, gay rights, and abortion.

But beyond that, if the Court oversteps its bounds too much, it will undermine its own legitimacy. It is the Constitution of the United States that created the Supreme Court and provided the Court with its judicial powers. If the Supreme Court flagrantly disregards the meaning of the Constitution, then it effectively saws off the branch on which it sits. As Justice Scalia said in his dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges:

With each decision of ours that takes from the People a question properly left to them—with each decision that is unabashedly based not on law, but on the “reasoned judgment” of a bare majority of this Court—we move one step closer to being reminded of our impotence.

The Court cannot enforce its own judgments.  It can only go so far in reinterpreting the Constitution before someone will say “no.” Indeed, this is already happening on the fringes. Roy Moore, a former Alabama judge, was removed from his seat for disobeying a federal court order. He is now the Republican nominee for Alabama’s seat in the Senate.

I don’t like Roy Moore. I consider him and people who support him a threat to the rule of law in this country. But it’s unsurprising that figures like him would pop up, given the Supreme Court’s lawless advocacy of progressive causes. If the Court doesn’t start to hold itself back from resolving all the most controversial political issues on the basis of Anthony Kennedy’s moral philosophy, Moore will start to become mainstream, no matter how many op-eds Larry Tribe writes.