Supporters of democracy have been appalled by the brutality of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and inspired by the courageous resistance against it. From Helsinki to Bologna, from Buenos Aires to Tokyo, ordinary people and the politicians who represent them have been voicing their outrage at Putin’s vicious assault and have been watching President Zelensky with awe and admiration. In the United States, even white-supremacist Putin apologists like Tucker Carlson or cynical would-be populists like J.D. Vance have changed their tune recently. Although President Trump’s minions might be confused by the weird comments about his favorite strongman, in Congress, there is finally a consensus that democracy should be defended in Ukraine.
But while the world is rightly focused on the possibilities for freedom in Ukraine, in the United States the steady erosion of minority rights continues, rights that are fundamental to representative democracy. Terror has long been used to keep African Americans from pursuing their educational goals, and it has also been used to limit voting rights. Since the beginning of the year, several historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have subject to bomb threats. The FBI is trying to discover those responsible, but efforts to keep blacks from voting are happening in plain sight. Recently, the Supreme Court ensured that Alabama could solidify its long-standing marginalization of black voters through blatantly racist gerrymandering. Of course, politicians from both parties seek political advantage by redrawing voting districts. This is just a sad fact of American history. But racist efforts to limit the franchise has an especially egregious history, and it is happening again as state legislators pass laws to make it harder for African Americans to vote.
While states work to curtail black voting power, the Trump-packed Supreme Court seems poised to bring affirmative action to an end. Today, colleges and universities are still free to develop admissions policies that take race into account in relation to other factors in their efforts to create a diverse educational environment. Promoting access to a high-quality education has been key to turning American rhetoric of equality into genuine opportunity. And throughout our history, elites threatened by equality, or just by social mobility, have joined together to block access for groups striving to improve their prospects in life. Today, higher-ed institutions need more diversity ― including intellectual diversity ― and we should enhance our efforts to make them inclusive, dynamic places of learning through difference. A retreat from affirmative action will result in more “opportunity hoarding,” and return us to the orchestrated parochialism of the past. Such filtering is often defended as meritocratic, but the efforts of elites to shore up their status by excluding others has little to do with merit. It has everything to do with guarding privileges that are antithetical to democracy.
The culture wars aimed at eroding the democratic rights of minorities aren’t just about race. Politicians have found it expedient to punch down whenever they can – finding scapegoats to attack in order to energize the base emotions of their constituents. Texas may win the prize in this regard for its recent efforts to hunt down those who care for transgender youth. Gov. Greg Abbott told state health agencies near the end of February that standard medical treatments for transgender youth would be considered child abuse. This was a clear effort to frighten parents of transgender young people and the doctors that might be helpful to them. It was also Abbot’s appeal to right wing Texans by showing he will be tough on trans. Politicians in Arkansas and Tennessee and several other states have also proposed laws that move in the same direction. Although a Texas court has recently delayed implementation of the law, the result is sure to be more suffering for young trans people, while politicians who prosecute parents preen about protecting the traditional family and “normal children.” Whether it’s in athletics or in the classroom, young trans people and their families are now being investigated in several states so that politicians can shore up support among people who need someone, preferably someone vulnerable, to attack. Scapegoating.
Not to be outdone in cruelty or stupidity, the Florida state legislature recently passed what has come to be called the “Don’t Say Gay” law. As Kara Swisher has noted the bill’s “vague but menacing language is clearly focused on chilling any mention of L.G.B.T.Q.+ lives. It’s overreach in search of an actual problem.” The overreach is in the service of fear and loathing: fear that parents are somehow losing control of their children’s education, and loathing against people who are seen as different from the norm. Scapegoating again.
Last week I attended a rally in support of Ukraine’s resistance against Russian aggression. I also met with a trans student with whom I’m working on how the media represents this beleaguered minority. He was avoiding the domestic news, he told me, because hearing about the gleeful persecution of people like him in states across the country was ”just bad for my mental health.” The persecution of minorities is also bad for our collective political health, for our democratic well-being.
A society should be judged not by the speeches given by leaders about distant struggles but by how it is treating its most vulnerable members. While I am proud to stand with supporters of Ukraine eager to defend democracy in Europe, I am ashamed of the erosion of minority rights here in the United States. The persecution of scapegoats is a deep tradition in Europe and in the US, and we see efforts to activate it every day. While we should continue to take the now popular path of standing with the Ukrainians against the Russian invasion, we must reject the populist path of cruelty and stand with vulnerable minorities here in our own country.