Last week’s racist and misogynist murder spree targeting Asian American women in Georgia marks yet another episode in an ongoing string of violent manifestations of white supremacy in America.
As I’ve written about previously in the pages of PoliticusUsa, these acts of white supremacist violence, powerfully exemplified by the assault on the Capitol last January 6, are assaults upon democracy itself; or, more properly put, they are efforts to maintain racial inequality and injustice, to thwart the achievement of democracy in our nation long hobbled by white supremacy.
Indeed, we need to recognize that racism isn’t just a defect in democracy that needs to be tinkered with; it’s a complete negation of democracy. The January 6 storming of the Capitol wasn’t an insurrection, or a rebellion, against our established system; it was an attempt to preserve the status quo of white rule that the surge in African American suffrage in particular threatened.
Some of our political leaders called January 6 a humiliating day for America. We should ask why January 6 was such a humiliating day, and not so much January 5 when it the Kenosha County District Attorney announced that the police officer who shot Jacob Blake, an African American, in the back would not be indicted; or not so much the day George Floyd was murdered; or any number of days when people of color have been victims of murder linked to America’s deeply-rooted racism.
Last Tuesday’s assault on Atlanta-area spas, leaving eight dead, including six women of Asian descent, is just such another humiliating day, highlighting that racial terror continues to undermine democracy and justice in America.
The political discussion that followed, particularly during a House Judiciary hearing on discrimination against Asian Americans, revealed in pronounced ways how racist violence and repression have been inveterately woven into the ideas and practices of American justice itself. “Justice” in America, as it has been conceived in the nation’s historically white supremacist culture and legal system, has entailed the violent repression of people of color.
Conversely, this discussion exposed how any efforts to achieve democracy in America will inevitably be undermined if we do not re-conceptualize justice so that its emphasis is on enabling the expression and participation, rather than repression, terror, and marginalization.
Representative Grace Meng’s (D-NY) rebuke of Representative Chip Roy (R-Texas) in the aforementioned judiciary hearing last Thursday underscored this vision of democracy and justice that enables expression and participation, as she passionately admonished Roy, asserting:
“We will not let you take our voice!”
Roy’s now infamous commentary, of course, linked the achievement of justice in America to lynching. He invoked what he called a Texas version justice, referring to a saying about gathering “all the rope in Texas and finding a tall oak tree.” He also tried to shift the focus from the experiences of hate, violence, and discrimination Asian Americans have been enduring in heightened ways the past year because of Trump-promulgated anti-Asian rhetoric about the coronavirus, by turning the conversation to last summer’s protests, immigration, and “Chinese communism.”
Meng called him on this racist obfuscation, pointing out his tactic of once again evading the issue of racism in America and thereby silencing the voices of Asian Americans in the hearing, the purpose of which was to listen to, understand, and address the pain Asian Americans have been enduring in America historically and in more intense ways recently with increased violence and terror.
As we hopefully reflect in America on how to cultivate freedom, equality, and justice in seeking to achieve political and social democracy in America, it is important to note how Meng and Roy respectively described justice.
Roy characterized justice in repressive and violent terms—in the spirit of bringing people to justice in punitive ways—and linked it through his rhetoric of lynching to racist violence and terror in particular.
Meng talked about justice not in terms of repression, but of expression. People must have a voice and must be heard, listened to. They must be able to participate freely in our political and social worlds without fear and without being subject to violence and terror. Living in terror is the opposite of freedom.
Meng focused on liberating expression. Roy focused on repression and terrorism.
This hearing, of course, we must underline, is taking place not just in the context of intensified upsurge of white supremacist violence but also in the context of the related wave of voter suppression efforts in Republican legislative bodies across the nation.
The question before us can we be boiled down fundamentally to this: Are freedom and democracy to be achieved through suppression or by enabling expression? By taking people’s voices, or by lifting and amplifying their voices?
The answer is pretty simple, if one really wants democracy, which is a big “if” these days.
For those of us who want democracy and will fight for it, Meng’s cry “We will not let you take our voice!” serves as a powerful rallying cry for all who are politically marginalized and seeking the power to partake in shaping, in making decisions about, the social and political worlds we live in.
President Joe Biden made this point clearly when he recently addressed Amazon workers engaged in a union drive in Alabama. He told them:
“Unions put power in the hands of workers, they level the playing field, they give you a stronger voice, for your health, your safety, higher wages protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, but especially Black and Brown workers.”
Unions are one political structure that affords people a voice in how their everyday lives are organized, especially in the workplace. They are about cultivating democracy in workplaces, enabling expression.
Meng’s insistence that “We will not let you take our voice” encapsulates the impetus behind the multiple but absolutely connected struggles for democracy and against repression, whether that struggle be for voting rights, for racial justice, for women’s rights, or for workers’ rights.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.