In the clash over Robert H. Bork’s nomination, Joe Biden’s moderate instincts defined a winning strategy.
Joseph R. Biden Jr. was on the brink of victory, but he was unsatisfied.
Mr. Biden, the 44-year-old chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was poised to watch his colleagues reject President Ronald Reagan’s formidable nominee to the Supreme Court, Robert H. Bork. The vote was unlikely to be close. Yet Mr. Biden was hovering in the Senate chamber, plying Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, a Republican of modestly conservative politics and regal bearing, with arguments about Bork’s record.
Rejecting a Supreme Court nominee was an extraordinary act of defiance, and Mr. Biden did not want a narrow vote that could look like an act of raw partisan politics.
“We already had Bork beat,” said Mark Gitenstein, who was then chief counsel to Mr. Biden’s committee. “But Biden really wanted to get Warner because he had such stature.”
Mr. Biden’s entreaties prevailed: Mr. Warner became one of 58 senators to vote against Bork, and one of six Republicans.
The Senate’s resounding rejection of Judge Bork in the fall of 1987 was a turning point, the first time it spurned a nominee to the high court for primarily ideological reasons. The vote ensured that the court’s swing seat would not go to a man with a long history of criticizing rulings on the rights of African-Americans and women. It also enraged a generation of conservatives and transformed the judge’s name into an ominous verb: Fearful of getting “Borked,” no nominee would ever again speak so freely about his views as Bork did.
The Senate’s resounding rejection of Judge Robert H. Bork in the fall of 1987 was a turning point, the first time it spurned a nominee to the high court for primarily ideological reasons.
It was also a personal turning point for Mr. Biden. In the Bork debate, Mr. Biden’s political ethos found its most vivid and successful expression.
A review of Mr. Biden’s conduct in the debate — including interviews with 16 people directly involved in the nomination fight, and a review of the hearings and Mr. Biden’s speeches — yielded a portrait of Mr. Biden as an ambitious young senator determined to achieve a vital liberal goal by decidedly unradical means.
The strategy Chairman Biden deployed then is the same one he is now proposing to bring to the White House as President Biden.
In the 1980s, as today, he saw bipartisan compromise not as a version of surrender, but as a vital tool for achieving Democratic goals.
Then, as now, Mr. Biden saw the culture and traditions of the Senate not as crippling obstacles, but as instruments that could be bent to his advantage.
And in both defining moments — his leadership of the Bork hearings and his third presidential campaign — Mr. Biden made persuading moderates, rather than exciting liberals, his guiding objective.
Mr. Biden, whose campaign declined to make him available for an interview, has strained to defend this approach in the 2020 presidential primary, offering only a halting rationale for a political worldview that other Democrats see as out of date. His rivals have branded him as a timid and even reactionary figure — a creature of the Senate cloakroom who partnered with former segregationists to pass draconian anti-crime legislation and joined with the business lobby to tighten bankruptcy laws.
And Mr. Biden’s opponents point not to the Bork hearings but a different confirmation battle as proof that his instincts are flawed. Four years after Bork was defeated, Mr. Biden would again take an accommodating approach to his Republican colleagues during Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, allowing harsh and invasive questioning of Anita Hill, the law professor who accused the nominee of sexual harassment. Mr. Biden would later express “regret” for the treatment she endured.
But he has never regretted the conciliatory style that led him to triumph against Bork. In that process, every important decision Mr. Biden made was aimed at winning over conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans — men like Mr. Warner.
Now 92, Mr. Warner said in an interview that his memories of the Bork hearings had grown foggy over the years. But two impressions were indelible, he said. The first concerned Reagan’s nominee: “I never encountered a man with a shorter temper,” Mr. Warner said.
The second concerned the caliber of the Senate’s deliberations.
“It was a real, solid, good debate, led by Biden,” Mr. Warner said. “He showed extraordinary leadership.”
The outcome was not foreordained, for either Bork or Mr. Biden. The debate unfolded at a moment of humiliation for Mr. Biden, whose first campaign for president unraveled as the Bork hearings approached their climax. And the judge was no timid adversary, as the journalist Ethan Bronner wrote in a book on the nomination.
“Robert Bork,” Mr. Bronner wrote, “was a man of war.”
Mr. Biden was seated behind a desk in a spacious living room adjoining his study at his Wilmington, Del., home. A few aides sat or stood around the room, where pizza was in generous supply. Squared off against Mr. Biden was Robert H. Bork — or rather, a convincing simulacrum played by the constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe.
Mr. Tribe and Mr. Biden would spar for hours in a series of sessions that August, joined occasionally by other legal experts who would help Mr. Biden hone his queries on subjects from antitrust regulation to sexual privacy.
“Biden’s questions were really smart, and they also needed some sharpening,” Mr. Tribe said in an interview, citing Mr. Biden’s tendency to “ask one thing and mean something slightly different.”
Mr. Biden came to those training sessions by a jagged path, shaped by pressure from progressive activists and the delicate politics of the Judiciary Committee. He was arming himself to oppose Bork, but not with the methods of the left.
On the day Bork was nominated, liberals viewed Mr. Biden with suspicion. Taking over one of the Senate’s great committees at a boyish — for the Senate — age of 44, Mr. Biden had already split with progressives on the issue of busing as a means of desegregating schools. Until Bork, the authors Michael Pertschuk and Wendy Schaetzel would write, Mr. Biden “had been reluctant to challenge Reagan’s transformation of the federal judiciary.”
The previous November, the soon-to-be chairman had given liberals new reason for concern, suggesting to The Philadelphia Inquirer that he might one day vote to put Bork on the Supreme Court, should he be Reagan’s next nominee.
“I’m not Teddy Kennedy,” he told the newspaper.
When Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., a flexible conservative, resigned from the court in late June, Mr. Biden found himself in the shadow of Kennedy, the party’s leading liberal, and laboring to reconcile his own moderate instincts with a mood of alarm on the left. When the White House announced Bork’s nomination on the first day of July, Kennedy delivered a thunderous warning from the Senate floor: In “Robert Bork’s America,” Kennedy said,
- “women would be forced into back-alley abortions,
- blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters.”
The scathing address was a call to arms for the left, and it helped animate a coalition of progressives — led by feminists, civil rights activists and labor unions — that applied pressure to undecided senators throughout the summer.
“His record was so extensive, and it touched almost every issue of importance to American life,” said Nan Aron, a leading anti-Bork activist. “It wasn’t simply a single issue that caused people to be alarmed.”
Another purpose of Kennedy’s speech, his allies have said, was to ensure Mr. Biden would not cave.
“One of the reasons for ‘Robert Bork’s America’ was to freeze Biden,” Jeffrey Blattner, a Kennedy aide, would say decades later, in an oral history for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. “He’s running for president. We didn’t want to leave him any choice.”
Mr. Biden quickly aligned himself with Kennedy, and, at his liberal colleague’s urging, secured an agreement from Senator Strom Thurmond — the 84-year-old former segregationist who was the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican — to delay Bork’s hearings until September.
“Biden was under a lot of pressure, particularly from the liberal senators,” said former Senator Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, a centrist Democrat who said he began the confirmation process favorably disposed toward Bork. “At first, I was leaning strongly to vote for him.”
Even as he pledged to oppose Bork, Mr. Biden made clear to progressive leaders in a private meeting that he saw his role as sharply distinct from theirs. He would play an inside game aimed at swaying Senate moderates, starting with the four undecided members of his committee:
- Mr. DeConcini and two other Democrats,
- Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and
- Howell Heflin of Alabama, and a Republican,
- Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Ralph Neas, a civil rights activist who joined the liberals’ initial meeting with Mr. Biden, said the chairman conveyed “that he would take the lead and we would try to put together a bipartisan coalition.”
“Biden’s street cred with a lot of the centrists was quite high,” Mr. Neas said.
Mr. Biden was blunter with his aides: He would not adopt Kennedy’s rhetoric or make abortion his central cause. According to a book Mr. Gitenstein published in 1992 about the confirmation fight, Mr. Biden feared Bork would overturn Roe v. Wade but told aides he did not see the case as “great constitutional law.” More disturbing to him — and, he believed, more likely to sway undecided voters — was a Connecticut case on contraception that revealed Bork’s doubts about a broader right to privacy.
“It really concerns me more than abortion,” Mr. Biden is quoted as saying in the book.
In their sessions, Mr. Tribe said, the future vice president wrestled not just with Bork’s record but also with the idea of disqualifying nominees based on individual issues.
“I remember pushing back on Biden, saying, ‘If you think Roe v. Wade really ought to be the law of the land, shouldn’t that count?’” Mr. Tribe recalled. “He said, ‘Yes, it should count a lot, but I still don’t want to have a flat litmus test.’”
Mr. Tribe remembered thinking: “This guy’s a little bit more cautious than I am. But that’s fine, he’s playing a different role.”
Mr. Biden’s self-assigned role was readily apparent as the Bork hearings began in mid-September. Beaming down at the judge from a crowded dais, Mr. Biden praised him as man of towering achievement and “provocative” views. Flanked by Kennedy at one elbow and Thurmond at the other, Mr. Biden said the hearings should not be “clouded by strident rhetoric from the far left or the far right.”
“Anytime you feel you want to expand on an answer, you are not bound by time,” Mr. Biden encouraged Bork, adding in a tone of levity, “Go ahead and bog us down.”
In the Bork hearings, every important decision Mr. Biden made was aimed at winning over conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans.
In the Bork hearings, every important decision Mr. Biden made was aimed at winning over conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans.CreditJose
The judge, bearded and broad shouldered, did not recognize the trap.
Few men could have been more prepared to face a constitutional interrogation. A former Yale Law School professor who served as the country’s solicitor general and, amid the maelstrom of Watergate, as acting attorney general, Bork brought to the hearings a reputation for quick eloquence and utter mastery of the law.
Mr. Biden had no such reputation, and the columnist George F. Will spoke for much of Washington when he predicted Bork would be “more than a match for Biden.”
The chairman gave his colleagues wide latitude to question Bork, whose testimony consumed five days. It culminated in an unusual Saturday hearing that was dominated by an hourslong debate between Bork and Specter, a former district attorney who frequently rode the Amtrak rails with Mr. Biden, about the meaning of constitutional intent. Mr. Biden had offered Specter half an hour for his questions; when Specter balked at the time limit, Mr. Biden relented and opened the way for a crucial exchange.
“His debate with my father on constitutional law did reveal him to be not sufficiently respectful of precedent, which pushed my father against him, and pushed other swing senators against him,” said Shanin Specter, the senator’s son and a Philadelphia lawyer. “It would not have happened if Biden, as chair, hadn’t permitted the hearings to go exactly as long as they needed to go.”
Mr. Biden sought, too, to quash attacks on Bork that he saw as risking political backlash. He shot down a plan to ambush Bork with a recording of a speech he gave in 1985, insisting on sharing it with the judge before airing it in the committee. And Mr. Biden and his aides refused a request from a number of prominent activists, including Ralph Nader, to testify in opposition to Bork. The left was applying powerful pressure from outside the Senate, but Mr. Biden preferred that its leaders stay there — on the outside.
Ms. Aron, who would later clash with Mr. Biden over the nomination of Justice Thomas in 1991, said the combination of popular pressure on the Senate and Mr. Biden’s high-minded hearings doomed the nominee.
“What defeated Robert Bork was public pressure,” Ms. Aron said. “But what allowed the public to engage was a review of Bork’s record.”
And Bork did himself few favors: While he assured senators, in his rumbling voice, that he would not overturn rulings capriciously, he struggled to explain away past comments decrying “dozens” of shoddy Supreme Court decisions or deriding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or ridiculing the concept of a constitutional right to privacy. He startled even some allies by describing as “troublesome” the reasoning behind a 1954 case desegregating public schools in the nation’s capital.
In his questions, Mr. Biden posed as a mere mortal grappling with the ideas of a giant.
“Clearly, I do not want to get into a debate with a professor,” Mr. Biden stressed, prodding Mr. Bork about the Griswold v. Connecticut case that ended a state prohibition on birth control: “As I hear you, you do not believe there is a general right of privacy that is in the Constitution.”
“Not one derived in that fashion,” Bork said of the popular decision. “There may be other arguments, and I do not want to pass upon those.”
Watching Bork’s testimony, his political backers knew he was losing. He was articulate, but he was also argumentative. His knowledge of the law was powerful, his political antennae were not.
“I can’t blame Biden,” reflected Tom Korologos, the Republican lobbyist tasked with ushering Bork onto the court. “I blame Bork and Specter, and the other senators, for going on and on.”
Every swing vote on Mr. Biden’s committee swung against Bork, sending him to the floor with a negative recommendation by a vote of 9 to 5. The White House offered Bork the chance to withdraw; he chose martyrdom instead.
His supporters gave him that much, accusing Bork’s opponents of bowing to activists like Mr. Neas and Ms. Aron. “The man’s been trashed in our house,” Senator John Danforth, Republican of Missouri, lamented on the Senate floor. “Some of us helped generate the trashing. Others of us yielded to it.”
Mr. Biden called Mr. Danforth’s complaint an insult to the Senate.
“I have a higher opinion of the ability of my colleagues to do what’s right than, apparently, the senator from Missouri does,” he said.
Mr. Biden’s approach to the Bork nomination was a legislative and political success, one he experienced as personal redemption after his presidential candidacy crumbled. It brought to maturity the strategic instincts that defined him in subsequent battles — including his contested stewardship of the Thomas hearings — and that shape his candidacy today.
The fate of Mr. Biden’s campaign, and perhaps a future presidency, may hinge on whether that version of leadership, defined by collegiality and adherence to procedure, can inspire Democrats and coax cooperation from Republicans. In the presidential race, there is no Ted Kennedy to sound a trumpet for the left while Mr. Biden plays a methodical inside game. And there are no Republicans to be found in the Senate like Specter, who eventually, at Mr. Biden’s urging, quit the G.O.P. to become a Democrat before his death in 2012.
Still, Mr. Gitenstein said he had encouraged the former vice president to draw public attention to his role in the 1987 court fight. The defeat of Robert Bork averted a solidly conservative majority, handing the court’s decisive seat to the more pliant Anthony M. Kennedy, who became a decisive figure in a generation’s worth of eclectic rulings on subjects from campaign finance and union rights to abortion and the legal definition of marriage.
“I don’t think he or anyone else makes enough of the fact that, but for Biden, Roe would be dead 30 years ago, and, but for Biden, we wouldn’t have the gay marriage decision,” Mr. Gitenstein said. “I’ve talked to him about it. He’s got so much on his platter.”
Mr. DeConcini, who at 82 is a supporter of Mr. Biden’s campaign, said he hoped a strategy of moderation could prevail again.
But he admitted to having doubts.
“I’d like to think so, I really would,” Mr. DeConcini said. “I’m just not sure.”
The private school down the street from our house is very good at advertising exactly why it’s awesome. They have a beautiful, comprehensive website and a big canvas banner outside the sprawling campus that reads:
“Park Day prepares students to be informed, courageous, and compassionate people who shape a more equitable and sustainable world.”
It also has a tall 10-foot fence and a gate that opens and closes when parents drive in to drop their children off. My daughters and I sometimes catch a glimpse of the chickens wandering around inside and what looks like a super fun playground. Someone once tried to get us the code but we were told there was a crackdown after too many neighborhood kids found their way in. It costs $25,790 a year for kindergarten.
.. If you’re trying to decide where to send your kid to school, it’s pretty logical to ask yourself: what might my kid gain from going to the most highly rated school in town? That school is, very likely, really good at answering that — whether it’s public or private.
.. If you are trying to be socially-conscious, you might even ask yourself: what do other kids lose if my kid doesn’t go to the neighborhood, public school
.. Those kids lose the friendship that your kid might offer, and in a roundabout way, the whole system loses out on your family’s energy, loyalty, and resources. The “public” part of public schools gets eroded when too many parents get understandably seduced by the places with the pithy taglines and the great websites.
But let’s flip the script. Let’s explore a different question: what do white and/or economically privileged kids gain from living in diverse neighborhoods and going to their local, public schools?
.. The most critical reason to send your privileged kid to public school: integrity. If you believe in the common good, of which public schools are the most fundamental building block this country has to offer, then participating in that system makes good sense.
.. Contributing through your attention and cultural capital, offering up your most precious resource — your love for your child — and letting that love expand and benefit a bunch of kids who are also deeply loved by their parents, but quite possibly, not in a position to forgo the failing, neighborhood school — well, it’s aligned. It feels right.
The modern American culture of parenting would lead you to believe that you can’t prioritize the common good and your own child at the same time — that the only way to be an excellent parent is to get the measurable best of everything for your child, which inherently means turning a blind eye to what other people’s kids endure. What if, instead, what is healthy for your child — not “best,” but healthy — is to receive no end of love and only proportional resources, and to witness parents trying to fumble their way toward closing the gap between their values and their actions each and every exhausting day?
A related, foundational reason: equality. Our public schools perpetuate racism and classism more systematically and effectively than almost any other institution we’ve got in this country. If you want to fight white supremacy and the legacy of slavery, public schools are a decent place to start.
.. Shannan Martin and her husband both grew up in small towns, heavily influenced by their all-white Evangelical Church. “We thought our duty was to live as safe and protected a life as possible,” she explains. But when they moved to Goshen, Indiana — the RV capital of the world — they decided to enroll their three children in a Latinx-majority public school, despite their neighbors’ warning. She explains: “We sent our kids to a ‘failing’ elementary school where, they told us, there would be drugs, evolution, gay people, and gangs.”
“It is the best thing that ever happened to us. I cringe to know how much a part of the problem I once was,” she says.
“I can only hope I continue to grow in ways that grind my old paradigms into dust. We have been here long enough to wake up to the overwhelming goodness of being part of a rich and diverse community. We understand our presence here does not enhance the lives of those around us nearly as much as their presence enhances our lives.”
Your kid doesn’t just learn diversity, but lives diversity.
Minorities will be the source of all of the growth in the nation’s youth and working age population, most of the growth in its voters, and much of the growth in its consumers and tax base as far into the future as we can see.”
.. demographics are going to shift dramatically; the flow of actual power — economic and political, especially — out of white, male hands may take longer. Even so, white children raised in white dominant spaces are inherently less equipped for the workforce, not to mention world, that they are entering into
.. The rise of artificial intelligence will also mean that so-called “soft skills” — like getting along with a wide range of humanity — will become more and more critical. Our children, particularly our white children, will be deeply disserviced if they come of age in segregated enclaves that teach them about racial difference without giving them the opportunity to actually live with and among those racially and culturally different from them. They will be less effective communicators, collaborators, inventors, and artists. They will be less wise and generous citizens and neighbors. In a world increasingly intolerant of white obliviousness and fragility, they will be set up for a kind of social and emotional failure.
.. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
.. Whiteness is often treated as a default state, rather than an actual culture in and of itself.
.. Kids who grow up in multiracial environments are more likely to be aware of how white culture shapes them, and have some valuable perspective on selectively adopting or rejecting it.
You and your kid get to be part of a community with non-white values.
.. One of the dominant norms of white privileged culture, in its contemporary form, is an emphasis on independence and a very particular and narrow kind of excellence.
Our favorite parenting books are filled with advice about how we might shape our children into high achievers.
We even plaster this ideology on our bumpers: “My kid is an honors student.” The dark side of all of this opportunity and emphasis on “winning” is that a lot of kids are left feeling like losers; sometimes to the point of questioning their own intrinsic worthiness.
What if your kid isn’t an honors student? What if your kid has a learning disability, but is an awesome gymnast or the kind of person who really senses when people are upset and knows how to help them out of a funk? There are no grades or bumper stickers for that.
Schools that aren’t majority white are, according to dozens of emails I received from parents, far more welcoming of kids who don’t fit a traditional mold.
As any parent of a child with special needs will tell you, most schools with high test scores aren’t thrilled to hear that our kids will be attending their schools. They don’t like the fact that our kids bring extra work.”
.. “These are schools that don’t have the money that our schools in the suburbs have, but they promote an inclusive environment for all students, which is worth far more to us in the long run,”
.. “I’ve gotten gasps and shocked looks when I tell people where I’m sending my son to school. I just smile and say that a school that can see the value my child adds to a class and that is willing to educate him fully alongside his peers, with the accommodations he needs, is the best school for him, regardless of location.”
.. One of her children needed to get pulled out of class regularly for speech therapy. Worried, Maggi asked the counselor if she should anticipate him getting teased and what she might do to prepare him for that. The counselor didn’t skip a beat before responding: “At this school? No—there is no normal here, so there’s no teasing kids who are different. The kids are used to everybody being unique.”
.. The teachers get to explore a wider range of teaching methods, too, according to Anne Kelterborn, an educator in Red Bank, NJ. She explains: “I have taught in both urban and suburban schools, and I have found that the ‘struggling urban’ schools tend to embrace far more creative and committed educators than in suburban schools.”
.. Amy Wheedon, of the D.C. area, felt like the parent association was a gauntlet of sorts at her kids’ mostly white elementary school. “Parents competed to lead new initiatives,” she explains. At their far more multiracial middle school, things are different: “Parents come out to celebrate their kids—at games, banquets and honor roll assemblies. Their jobs are tough enough; they aren’t looking for other ones. They want to leave work and have fun and spend time with their kids.
.. The economic pressure is often lessened in less white-dominant spaces. Krista Dutt, whose white kids attend a majority-minority school in the Chicago-area, explains, “We barely make ends meet, so being in a school and a neighborhood that people are surviving, not trying to beat each other at making the best birthday party, the best Valentine’s, or trying to prove that they don’t need the village is really great.”
You and your kids get practice being uncomfortable.
A more accepting school community, of course, doesn’t mean that your kid won’t experience discomfort. In fact, they will probably experience discomfort so often that they will get better and better at not just enduring it, but learning from it.
.. MLK day went for her kindergarten-age son. During a talk about the civil rights era bus boycotts, he excitedly shouted, “I would have gotten to sit in the back of the bus?!”
.. Her daughter, one of only a handful of non-native Spanish speakers in her Spanish honors class, came home and reported that none of her peers were giving her the time of day. “They thinks I’m just a basic white girl,” she told her mom.
As any mother would, Alison felt protective, but she also recognized that this was a defining moment: “For an hour a day, she knows what it is like to be in the minority, to find the rules confusing and feel like you’re a step or two behind, perhaps being judged and laughed at,” Alison explains. “I think most parents want to avoid that situation for their kids, but I think it’s a really important one.”
Alison told her daughter: “Be friendly, be yourself, be open about your life.”
After a few weeks, she started sharing stories around the dinner table about moments in her Spanish class when she got another student to laugh. It sounds small, but it’s actually big. Alison’s daughter doesn’t have to make a big empathic leap to understand what it feels like to be the minority in a given group of people. She’s lived it. She’s coped with it. She’s less likely to take her own sense of belonging for granted or to be oblivious when someone else is feeling isolated.
.. kids who see qualities as things that can be developed, rather than traits that you either possess or don’t, tend to thrive.
.. A white kid with a growth mindset around race knows that discomfort is a good sign of learning; they don’t fall apart at the first sign of confusion or critique.
In contrast, white kids who have been educated in perfectionist, homogenous environments and rarely weathered discomfort are likely to have a fixed mindset towards race. They are more interested in winning social entrepreneurship awards, than becoming wiser within unlikely, sometimes challenging, and deeply rewarding relationships.
Parenting, as it turns out, is a fairly new framework for what those of us with kids are up to. The term didn’t even exist until the latter half of the twentieth century, when upwardly mobile Americans started living in a more atomized way, separate from grandparents and aunts and uncles. Prior to that, caring for children was something that a wide range of people did, including older siblings and cousins. There wasn’t such a sense of needing to “do it right” by reading the right books, eating the right foods, saying the right things, and yes, getting into the right schools.
.. Alison Gopnik, a psychology and philosophy professor, points out that many of us — particularly white and privileged people — now approach the role of raising humans like carpenters. In short, we try to carve them into our own image of what a successful adult looks like. Her suggestion? Think of yourself more akin to a gardener — you create the right conditions and let nature do the rest.
.. If you send your kid to a school where they are surrounded by other kids quite unlike them — racially, culturally, religiously, socio-economically — you are providing a pretty rich and interesting ecosystem within which they can grow. Gardens, like communities, are healthiest when they’re diverse. If you plant your kids in a monoculture, expect less richness.
It was a beautiful fall day. My then kindergarten-age daughter, Thea, discovered that a few of her school friends were at our neighborhood park — Chelina from Cambodia, Yosselin from Guatemala, Devina and Tazaiah, both African American. They were lost in play for nearly two hours. On our walk back home, I said to her, ‘You know, Thea, these friends at the park — your friends from school — may have been coming to the park for years, like when they were 3 and 4 years old and when you were 3 and 4, too. But you didn’t know them then because you didn’t go to school with them. Isn’t that crazy?’
My daughter, who is very nurturing and loves her friends, responded, “But I would be sad if they weren’t my friends.”
I said, “But you wouldn’t be sad, because you wouldn’t know them.”
Thea said, “But I would still be sad.”
because we are so powerfully rooted to the notion of individuality, in some ways race affronts that. But the real affront is the whole notion of individuality. Individuality, as we think of it, is actually extremely problematic.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, see — yeah, and you make this really fascinating point that — you say that there are two parents to the way we are now; the way we grapple with race, among other things. And one is slavery. Get that. And the other is the Enlightenment and that, in fact, it’s from the Enlightenment that we inherited this idea that the conscious mind could know everything; that we could be reasonable.
MR. POWELL: That’s the American exceptionalism. So the United States became extremely, extremely attached to the notion of individuality and independence. Now think about the groups who were not independent. They were the Africans. They were the Indians. They were women. They were anyone who was not a white male. So the notion, the Enlightenment project, which had this hubris that we could control everything, including the world, when we can’t even really control ourselves.
MS. TIPPETT: And yet, this condition of each of us in isolation, which you associate with whiteness, which is this culture of domination, is not sustainable, and it’s not desirable.
.. MS. TIPPETT: And we’re running into the limits of our ability to convince ourselves that it is desirable.
MR. POWELL: No, there are so many expressions that help us see it. And sometimes people talk about “We need to do things to connect.” And on one hand, that’s right, but on the other hand, it understates what it is. We are connected. What we need to do is become aware of it, to live it, to express it.
So think about segregation. Segregation is a formal way of saying, “How do I deny my connection with you?” in the physical space. Think about the notion of whiteness. So whiteness in the United States, as it came, as it took form, believed that one drop of “black blood” — whatever that is — would destroy “whiteness.” Turns out, whatever that means, most white Americans actually do have black blood. The reason that most African Americans look like me or like Gary is because white blood and black blood’s been mixing up for a long time. And so I think that as we deny the other, we deny ourselves, because there is no other. We are connected.
.. that that movement was as much for the sake of his soul as it was for the sake of people of color.
And it’s worth saying that. To me, that’s one way of talking about your point that we have to talk about whiteness.
.. I was teaching a class at the University of Minnesota, and I was talking about the taking of Native American land. And most of my students were white students, and one student objected; it’s like, “This is a such-and-such class. Why are we studying the history of Native Americans?” And I said, “We’re not. We’re studying the history of America. So, when we talk about the appropriation of Native American land, or when we talk about slavery, we’re not talking about the history of black people, we’re talking about the history of this country.”
.. I don’t care if you came here last week or ten days ago, you can’t understand this country without understanding the institution of slavery. It was pivotal.
.. MR. POWELL: The human condition is one about belonging. We simply cannot thrive unless we are in relationship. I just gave a lecture on health, and if you’re isolated, the negative health condition is worse than smoking, obesity, high blood pressure — just being isolated.
.. How do we make it infectious; how do we — people are longing for this. People are looking for community. Right now, though, we don’t have confidence in love. You mentioned love earlier. We have much more confidence in anger and hate. We believe anger is powerful. We believe hate is powerful. And we believe love is wimpy. And so, if we’re engaged in the world, we believe it’s much better to organize around anger and hate.
And yet, we see two of the most powerful expressions — certainly Gandhi, certainly the Rev. Dr. King
.. And there was a period of time when I was feeling really overwhelmed with a lot of this stuff. And I was talking to my dad, and I said, “Dad, this is just too much. I can’t do it all. I’m trying to do all of this stuff by myself.” And he looked at me; he said, “Well, john, you know you’re not alone.” And I said, “Well, what do you mean, Dad?” He said, “Well, you got God with you.” And I realized, although I don’t organize around God in the way that he does, my mistake was, I thought I had to do it; that “I” was defining it, instead of “we.” So…
MS. TIPPETT: …you were in that white mode.
MR. POWELL: Exactly, exactly.
So I think we should both get out of that white mode and do it together. [laughs]
.. today, the majority of whites today say they’d prefer to live in an integrated neighborhood and send their kids to integrated schools. What they mean by that is a different question, but also the world and demographics of the country are changing. And to live in a white enclave is not to live in the world. And I think it has” — I think you were — this is an interview — “it has a certain deadness to it. It has a certain spiritual corruption to it.”
And you said, “I think most people, white, black, Latino, and otherwise, would like to see something different. We just don’t know how to do it. And we’ve been so entrenched in the way things are. It’s hard to imagine the world being different.” You speak for me, you speak for so many people. This is what we’re up against. I feel like this is what we have to attack first — this inability to see differently.
You told one story about Oak Park, near Chicago. It was just really helpful to me. You said, when we tell stories about, “You integrate neighborhoods, and housing values go down,” and the way we always tell the story is, “Blacks moved in, African-American — people of color moved in.” And the way we could tell the story is, “Whites moved out.” But you talked about how — just this very practical measure that was taken so that the housing values didn’t change. Would you just tell that story? I feel like these little stories are really crucial, as well.
MR. POWELL: And there are really a lot of them. They’re little, and they’re big. So Oak Park is in Chicago. Chicago’s one of the most segregated areas in the country. Cook County has the largest black population of any county in the United States, and a lot of studying of segregation takes place in Chicago. So here you have Oak Park, this precious little community. And there were liberal whites there. And blacks started moving in. And they were saying, “Look, we actually don’t mind blacks moving in, but we’re concerned that we’re going to lose the value of our home. That’s the only wealth we have. And if we don’t sell now, we’re going to lose.”
And it basically said: If that’s the real concern — not that blacks are moving in, that you’re going to lose the value of your home — what if we were to ensure that you would not lose the value of your home? We’ll literally create an insurance policy that we will compensate you if the value of your home goes down.
And they put that in place.
.. Think about Katrina. So these examples are all around us, and yet, we don’t tell stories about them. Katrina — the face of Katrina, when you remember it, it was blacks stuck on roofs as the water was rising. What’s not told is that Americans, all Americans, gave to those people. It was the largest civilian giving of one population to another in the history of the United States. So here you had white Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, trying to reach out to what they saw as black Americans. They were actually saying — they were claiming: We have a shared humanity. And they actually did a poll asking people if they were willing to raise taxes to rebuild: 70 percent of Americans said, “Yes, we would tax ourselves to help those people.” The pundits and the politicians ignored it, and so that story simply didn’t get told.
.. I put something I call “targeted universalism,” and where we want to get to is not simply what whites have. We actually need to state what is our goal. And then our way of getting there will vary, based on how we’re situated. And different groups are situated differently. So if we just say, “Let’s have our proportionate share of what whites have,” that’s an improvement over where we are now, but it’s not far enough.
we’re talking about what I call a “circle of human concern” — a circle of concern for all life, human life and, I would say, non-human life as well. And in that effort, it’s important to make sure that people of color are really valued and situated and have resources and political and other power that other groups have. But it’s also important to actually continue to be in relationship to whites. I think, ultimately, a healthy world really requires not just a restructuring of what people of color have, but a restructuring of white identity.
.. in the 1960s, Bundy wrote about the “negro problem” at the Ford Foundation, but today, I would write about the white problem. We really need to come to terms with the white problem — not in a negative way, not in terms of white guilt, not in terms of beating up on whites, but really trying to help whites, because we are deeply related, give birth to a different identity.
.. one of the best school systems in the United States was the Wake County school system. That’s the Research Triangle, which has more Ph.D.’s than any other area of the country. It was actually quite interesting, because they took it to the voters, and they said, “Do you want to have this school system which is educationally and economically integrated?” And the voters said, “No.” So then they took it to the politicians, and they said, “This makes sense, which — the voters said no, but would you vote for it as a politician?” And the politicians said, “No.” And then the business community said, “Unless you do something about the school system in Wake County, we’re leaving.” It was actually the business community that pushed it through.
.. “So Dad, why do you think” — because he’s very Christian, I said, “What do you think God is keeping you here for?” And he said, “I guess my last lesson to teach the kids is, how to care for me.” So instead of seeing it as a burden, because he needs care, it’s like, “That’s my last gift to you, is to teach you how to care.” And it really is wonderful.
I went to Stanford. I was one of the co-founders of the Black Student Union at Stanford. And we had a meeting, and in that meeting, we decided that there were definitely some good white people, but not that many.
And it took a lot of energy to find them. The transaction cost of finding good white people was way too high. So we decided, “OK, let’s just stop trying to find these — let’s not relate to white people.” Actually, I didn’t support that position, but that’s where the group went. And I left the meeting. It was about noon, and I was walking across Stanford. And I don’t know if you’ve actually been to Stanford, but the center part of Stanford is very busy, especially at noon, and there’s always people teeming about. And I’m walking back across campus in this area, and there’s nobody there. It’s empty. And all the time I was at Stanford, I’ve never seen that part of the campus like that. And then, there’s this one woman walking toward me.
Again, the physical space where students hang out is actually quite small, so you see students all the time. I’d never seen this woman before, and I never saw her again. And as she’s walking toward me, I notice she’s blind. And she has a cane. And she walks into a maze of bicycles. And I said, “Oh, that’s too bad.” And as she turns, knocks down bicycles, she starts panicking. And I’m thinking, “That’s really sad, but we just made this agreement. It’s not my problem.” I keep walking. She turns again, and she knocks down more bicycles. And finally, I can’t walk past her. And I go over, and I take her out of the maze of bicycles, and then she goes on her way. And I go back to the meeting, and I say, “I can’t do it. I can’t adhere to that agreement.”
And to me, that was one of the defining moments. And I sort of — I’m not a theist, but I wonder, how did the universe send that woman to me, that she helped me to engage and claim my humanity, that took me on a different path? And I think being human is about being in the right kind of relationships. I think being human is a process. It’s not something that we just are born with. We actually learn to celebrate our connection, learn to celebrate our love. And the thing about it — if you suffer, it does not imply love. But if you love, it does imply suffering.
So part of the thing that I think what being human means — to love and to suffer; to suffer with, though, compassion, not to suffer against. So, to have a space big enough to suffer with, and if we can hold that space big enough, we also will have joy and fun, even as we suffer. And suffering will no longer divide us. And to me, that’s sort of the human journey.
“White Democrats will desert their party in droves the minute it becomes a black party.”
Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority, 1969
Thirty years ago, archconservative Rick Perry was a Democrat and liberal icon Elizabeth Warren was a Republican. Back then there were a few Republican Congressmen and Senators from Southern states, but state and local politics in the South was still dominated by Democrats. By 2014 that had changed entirely as the last of the Deep South states completed their transition from single-party Democratic rule to single party rule under Republicans.
.. Analysts often explain the great exodus of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party by referencing the Southern Strategy, a cynical campaign ploy supposedly executed by Richard Nixon in his ’68 and ’72 Presidential campaigns, but that explanation falls flat. Though the Southern backlash against the Civil Rights Acts showed up immediately at the top of the ticket, Republicans farther down the ballot gained very little ground in the South between ’68 and ’84. Democrats there occasionally chose Republican candidates for positions in Washington, but they stuck with Democrats for local offices.
.. Crediting the Nixon campaign with the flight of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party dismisses the role Southerners themselves played in that transformation. In fact, Republicans had very little organizational infrastructure on the ground in the South before 1980
.. The flight of the Dixiecrats was ultimately conceived, planned, and executed by Southerners themselves, largely independent of, and sometimes at odds with, existing Republican leadership. It was a move that had less to do with politicos than with pastors.
.. Southern churches, warped by generations of theological evolution necessary to accommodate slavery and segregation, were all too willing to offer their political assistance to a white nationalist program.
.. Forget about Goldwater, Nixon or Reagan. No one played as much of a role in turning the South red as the leaders of the Southern Baptist Church.
.. When you’ve lost the ability to mobilize supporters based on race, religion will serve as a capable proxy.
.. What was lost under the banner of “segregation forever” has been tenuously preserved through a continuing “culture war.”
.. Religion is endlessly pliable. So long as pastors or priests (or in this case, televangelists) are willing to apply their theological creativity to serve political demands, religious institutions can be bent to advance any policy goal.
.. The Southern Baptist Church was organized specifically to protect slavery and white supremacy from the influence of their brethren in the North, a role that has never ceased to distort its identity, beliefs and practices.
.. In a passage that managed to avoid explicit racism, he described what would become the primary political weapon of the culture wars:
Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision…to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. Let me build my life. Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends. Let me have my home. Let me have my family. And what you give to me, give to every man in America and keep it like our glorious forefathers made – a land of the free and the home of the brave.
.. Long after the battle over whites’ only bathrooms had been lost, evangelical communities in Houston or Charlotte can continue the war over a “bathroom bill” using a rhetorical structure Criswell and others built.
.. He had constructed a strangely circular, quasi-libertarian argument in which a right to oppress others becomes a fundamental right born of a religious imperative, protected by the First Amendment.
.. A generation later you might hear Southern Baptists mention that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Baptist minister. They are less likely to explain that King was not permitted to worship in a Southern Baptist Church. African-American Baptists had their own parallel institutions, a structure that continues today.
.. However, in public Graham was careful to keep a safe distance and avoided the kind of open displays of sympathy for civil rights that might have complicated his career.
.. King was once invited to speak at a Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville in 1961. Churches responded with a powerful backlash, slashing the seminary’s donations so steeply that it was forced to apologize for the move. Henlee Barnette, the Baptist professor responsible for King’s invitation at the seminary, nearly lost his job and became something of an outcast, a status he would retain until he was finally pressured to retire from teaching in 1977.
.. In 1967, Mississippi began offering tuition grants to white students allowing them to attend private segregated schools.
.. Battles over the status of these institutions reached a climax when the Carter Administration in 1978 signaled its intention to press for their desegregation.
.. Televangelist Jerry Falwell would unite with a broader group of politically connected conservatives to form the Moral Majority in 1979. His partner in the effort, Paul Weyrich, made clear that it was the schools issue that launched the organization, an emphasis reflected in chain events across the 1980 Presidential campaign.
.. The Southern Baptist Convention expressed support for laws liberalizing abortion access in 1971. Criswell himself expressed support for the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe, taking the traditional theological position that life began at birth, not conception. The denomination did not adopt a firm pro-life stance until 1980.
.. In August of 1980, Criswell and other Southern Baptist leaders hosted Republican Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan for a rally in Dallas. Reagan in his speech never used the word “abortion,” but he enthusiastically and explicitly supported the ministers’ position on protecting private religious schools. That was what they needed to hear.
.. The new President would not forget their support. Less than a year into his Administration, Reagan officials pressed the IRS to drop its campaign to desegregate private schools.
.. in 1981, Reagan advisor Lee Atwater let down his guard, laying bare the racial logic behind the Republican campaigns in the South:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N…r, n…r, n…r.” By 1968 you can’t say “n…r”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N…r, n…r.”
For decades, men like Atwater had been searching for the perfect “abstract” phrasing, a magic political dog whistle that could communicate that “N…r, n…r” message behind a veneer of respectable language.
.. It was religious leaders in the South who solved the puzzle on Republicans’ behalf, converting white angst over lost cultural supremacy into a fresh language of piety and “religious liberty.”
.. By the late 80’s religious activists like Stephen Hotze in Houston were beginning to cut out the middleman, going around pastors to recruit political warriors in the pews. Hotze circulated a professionally rendered video in 1990, called “Restoring America,”that included step-by-step instructions for taking control of Republican precinct and county organizations. Religious nationalists began to purge traditional Republicans from the region’s few GOP institutions.
.. A young Texas legislator, Rick Perry, spent much of 1988 campaigning for his fellow Southern Democrat, Al Gore.
.. Moore criticized those who stirred up hatred against refugees and ignored matters of racial justice. He drew sharp criticism when he denounced the Confederate Flag, explaining, “The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire.”
.. Moore drew the obvious comparison last year between Trump and Bill Clinton
.. As religious leaders lined up solidly behind Trump last fall, Moore commented, “The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about.”
.. In the end, evangelical voters backed Donald Trump by a steeper margin than their support for Romney in ‘12.
.. Today, W.A. Criswell’s Dallas megachurch is pastored by Robert Jeffress
.. Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, retooled the ministry he inherited, turning it into something a civil rights era segregationist could love without reservation. Graham, who earns more than $800,000 a year as the head of his inherited charity, has made anti-Muslim rhetoric a centerpiece of his public profile and ministry.
.. Graham explained that black people can solve the problem of police violence if they teach their children “respect for authority and obedience.”
.. For Jeffress, the heir to W.A. Criswell’s pulpit, to champion an effort to silence Moore, reflects the powerful persistence of an unacknowledged past. After being pressed into an apology for his “unnecessarily harsh” criticisms, Moore has been allowed to keep his job – for now.
.. Public perception that a “Southern strategy” conceived and initiated by clever Republicans turned the South red is worse than false. By deflecting responsibility onto some shadowy “other” it blocks us from reckoning with the past or changing our future.
.. A refusal to honestly confront our past leaves us to repeat our mistakes over and over again.
.. Texas House member Rick Perry was taking a chance in 1989, when he decided to leave the Democratic Party to become a Republican. He leaned heavily on the emerging religious right and their campaign to convert the state’s Democratic majority. His efforts were richly rewarded. Baptist mega-pastor Robert Jeffress was a major supporter along with other evangelical leaders. Now Perry, after becoming the longest-serving governor in Texas history, sits in Donald Trump’s cabinet as the Secretary of Energy.