Published originally by Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post.
But we have also seen both substantive and symbolic steps recently that push back against intolerance, hate and violence. They are worth celebrating.
Consider, for example, the passage of a bill last week to replace the statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the U.S. Capitol with one of Justice Thurgood Marshall. The symbolism could not be more striking.
Taney not only wrote the court’s Dred Scott decision, which held that a slaveowner could reclaim a slave who resided in a free state, but affirmed in that ruling that Blacks had been permanently shut out of citizenship. They were non-people in the eyes of the court. As Taney wrote, “they were at that time [of America’s founding] considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.”
Post-Civil War constitutional amendments overturned the holding. But it was Marshall, first as chief counsel for the NAACP in bringing landmark cases to the court, including Brown v. Board of Education, and then as the first Black Supreme Court justice, who helped shred the legacy of Dred Scott and later Plessy v. Ferguson. Marshall’s life and work were a rebuttal to Taney, a confirmation that “we the people” includes all Americans born or naturalized here.
For some, it might be amazing to learn that Taney’s statue lasted so long in the Capitol. Then again, it has only been in the past few years that statues of Confederate generals have started to come down across the country. (Richmond just took down its final major Confederate memorial last week.)
Clearly, there has been a welcome shift in most Americans’ attitudes. They agree that Americans not only need to learn history but also to honor those who embody our better angels. To honor Taney is to repudiate our Constitution (as amended); to honor Marshall is to pay homage to our ability to move forward from America’s original sin.
Also last week, President Biden made an important statement in the wake of the explosion of vicious antisemitism on Twitter and elsewhere. The White House announced, “The President is establishing an inter-agency group led by Domestic Policy Council staff and National Security Council staff to increase and better coordinate U.S. Government efforts to counter antisemitism, Islamophobia, and related forms of bias and discrimination within the United States.” The goal, according to the announcement, is to develop a strategy that will “raise understanding about antisemitism and the threat it poses to the Jewish community and all Americans, address antisemitic harassment and abuse both online and offline, seek to prevent antisemitic attacks and incidents, and encourage whole-of-society efforts to counter antisemitism and build a more inclusive nation.”
Jewish organizations warmly received the news. The Anti-Defamation League endorsed the move, and the American Jewish Congress was effusive in its praise:
“Our communities can no longer afford a method of “wait and see.” Instead, action is required to safeguard Jewish Americans — and the establishment of this new White House entity is a fundamental step in that direction. At this particular moment, it is also essential to recognize how antisemitism is perpetrated today, as it has often taken shape in the arena of social media, differing from how it has before. Furthermore, this group can serve as a direct supporting entity to assist local and state-wide law enforcement efforts, in their fight to ensure that the fires of antisemitism are extinguished with haste.
President Biden’s commitment to defending the Jewish People is and has always been profound, and the creation of this group is a further testament to that fact.“
Whether this move results in increased law enforcement or improved data collection remains to be seen. But simply elevating the issue and countering hateful rhetoric can help prevent the normalization of antisemitism. Left alone, antisemitism will metastasize, as history shows.
The White House last week also held a ceremony — more like a joyous festival — for the signing of the Respect for Marriage Act. The act itself, necessitated by concern that gay marriage has joined the endangered list of constitutional rights under the radical right-wing Supreme Court, codified protections for same-sex and interracial marriage. Though Republican support was minimal, it did attract enough GOP support (12 Republicans) to survive a filibuster in the Senate.
Biden made a big deal of the signing to show that his White House was one where all married folks are welcome. Mere tolerance is insufficient; this was about acceptance. As Biden said, he wanted to mark the day as one in which “America takes a vital step toward equality, toward liberty and justice, not just for some, but for everyone.” Counteracting hate and violence against the LGBTQ community requires more than laws; it requires a change of heart. In modeling the largeness of his heart, Biden made those seeking to ostracize LGBTQ people look small.
The notion that none of this matters — that the hearts and minds of the most embittered haters are unchangeable — is morally obtuse. These actions are intended to align the country with its deepest-held values and to persuade the persuadable of the real meaning of American democracy. In that regard, all these steps matter.