So, this week a large Southeast university made the decision to accept a $30 million dollar gift in exchange for re-naming the law school after recently deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
There have been a variety of negative responses to the decision to rename the law school, petitions have been circulated, meetings have been held, even state assembly people have weighed in. This blog is not about the decision to rename the law school, this blog is about my experiences watching two white men try to defend it, which provided a window into the deepest forms of power and privilege.
Power is often defined as the ability to make other people do things. What was on display this week is the fact that power can also be the ability to prevent people’s actions from impacting one’s own life.
Last week I watched and listened as two White, heterosexual, upper-class men defended the decision to name the law school after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. They both defended the decision using similar language which is not surprising given that they both participated in making the decision. But, I think it goes much deeper than that. They both employed a similar defense of the decision because they both occupy particular positions of power.
Let me start by saying that to the best of my knowledge both men are good men and probably have the best of intentions. But, because of their power and privilege, both could defend the decision by invoking the framework of “disagreement.” Both men acknowledged forcefully (and deliberately) that they vehemently disagreed with some of Scalia’s decisions, specifically his position on marriage equality. I use the term deliberate because prominent members of the university community identify as members of the LGBTQ community.
For men like these two, Scalia’s decisions and positions can be interpreted as nothing more than a disagreement.
For those of us with fewer privileges and less power, because of our positionality, our very human and civil rights are violated by Scalia’s decisions and positions. If Scalia had his way, members of the LGBTQ community would not be allowed to legally marry the person they love and have committed their lives to. For Black and Hispanic people, Scalia’s decisions with regards to school segregation prevented them from sending their children to the best resourced schools in their communities. If Scalia had his his way, women would not have the legal right to determine their reproductive trajectories: abortion would be completely illegal and access to other birth control measures would be limited. For thousands of incarcerated people, sitting in prison for decades, convicted of crimes they did not commit, Scalia’s pen removed their legal right to have their DNA tested. Imagine that, Scalia argued that even in cases where there is DNA evidence that would likely exonerate an inmate, he argued that the US Constitution does not guarantee the individual the right to prove their innocence and gain their freedom.
None of these people, myself included, has the power to prevent the impact of these kinds of decisions on our daily lives; our civil and human rights lay at the mercy of Supreme Court Justices like Antonin Scalia. So, it is no wonder, that for us, we cannot view his decisions and positions as merely a disagreement; his decisions and positions determine our access to the opportunity structure and pursuance of the American Dream: who we can marry, when or even if we choose to have children, where our children can attend school, and in the case of innocent people rotting in prisons, their chance for freedom.
Power is more than the ability to make others do things. Power is the ability to prevent the behavior of others from impacting the daily lives of the privileged.
The distance between those with power and those without is the difference between a “difference of opinion” and the protection of one’s civil and human rights.