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Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: We Must Rethink Our Society, from Policing to the Supreme Court

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As President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden face off in the first presidential debate in Cleveland, we speak to author and academic Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who says the multiple crises facing the United States are not getting enough attention leading up to the November election. “We’re in the midst of a national reckoning about systemic racism in this country, about the way that things are governed, the way that this country functions,” says Taylor, historian and contributing writer at The New Yorker. “There is such a myopia with Donald Trump that every sentence, every breath, everything that he does absorbs the entirety of public attention.” She also says it’s time to reimagine the U.S. Supreme Court, which has for most of its history acted to enforce “a conservative social order.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden will face off tonight in Ohio in the first of three presidential debates. Host Chris Wallace of Fox News says the 90-minute showdown will focus on both candidates’ records, the Supreme Court, coronavirus, the economy, race and the integrity of the election. Each topic presents a pressure point in an unprecedented election season.

Just five weeks before November 3rd, the global coronavirus death toll has topped 1 million worldwide. The virus continues to devastate African Americans, Latinx and Indigenous communities across the United States. As the economic crisis sparked by the pandemic shows no sign of abating, a wave of evictions looms.

And more than four months after the police killing of George Floyd, protests are continuing against police brutality and in defense of Black lives. Just last week, people poured into the streets in protest after a grand jury failed to charge any of the white police officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor in her own home with her death.

The presidential debate comes as more than a million Americans have already cast their votes, and millions more are being urged to vote early to ensure their ballots are counted, amidst unprecedented attacks on the democratic process by President Trump and his administration.

This comes as Senate Republicans are racing to confirm right-wing Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the Supreme Court.

For more, we’re joined by historian Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, contributing writer at The New Yorker magazine, where her latest column is “The Case for Ending the Supreme Court as We Know It.” She’s also the author of several books, including Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, which was a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History. She’s joining us from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, thank you so much for joining us. Let’s start with this latest piece in The New Yorker. The headline of it is “The Case for Abolishing [sic] the Supreme Court as We Know It.” Can you tell —

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: That’s what the headline should have been.

AMY GOODMAN: — the history of the Supreme Court and why you believe this?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Yeah. Hi, Amy. Thanks for having me on.

You know, I think that the history of the Supreme Court has been one of, really, enforcing a conservative social order in the United States for most of its history. And in the moment — you know, in the 20th century, during the — when Chief Justice Earl Warren presided over the court, so really from the late 1950s through the late 1960s, is this moment of the Supreme Court defending freedom and rights and all of these things, really is an outlier in the court’s history. And even within those instances, it has come at tremendous pressure from either social movements or shifting international political dynamics, where the United States needed to project itself as a beacon of democracy and really cover up and hide what was happening to African Americans in the South.

And so, I think that the court and the other wings of government always sort of defend the court as an apolitical body that is sort of neutrally making decisions about legal cases, based on legal precedent, and all of this, really, nonsense. The court is very much a political body. And now with Trump on the verge of being able to place an absolute reactionary justice on this court, giving it a 6-3 balance, or imbalance, led by conservatives, the political nature of the court, both in the process by which this is happening and also by the potential of what these — the way that this kind of court’s decisions may reverberate, I think, remove any illusion that the Supreme Court is anything but a political body doing the work of the right in a very undemocratic, authoritarian way.

And any society, I think, that purports to describe itself as a democracy cannot have nine unelected people, or even an expanded court of 13 unelected people or 15 unelected people, making such consequential and categorical decisions that impact the lives of millions of people. This type of system, this type of institution, I think, has no place in a democracy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, but, Professor Taylor, part of, I guess, the reasoning for the establishment of a Supreme Court, not only in this country but in many countries around the world, is to check the powers of an executive branch or even of a legislative branch. How would you envision the — because, obviously, the power that the court currently has would then, somehow or other, devolve to other sections of government, and leaving people open possibly to even more demagogic leaders than President Trump, because, remember, there’s still 40% of the American people that back him no matter what he does. So, how would you envision a change that would move more in the direction of democracy rather than in the direction of demagogic influence or more authoritarianism?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Well, first of all, I would say that that is — in some ways, that is representative of how the court has been working. In my article, I looked through a series of actions and cases throughout the 19th century, were far from being a check on a slide towards undemocratic rule by state and federal legislatures. The Supreme Court merely reflected what was happening within those bodies. And I think now, when we look at the way that Trump has been able to circumvent more lengthy and potentially problematic legislative courses, that he has simply appealed cases to the Supreme Court in expectation that he will have a favorable ruling. He has said in the last several days that his hope is that if there is a contested election, that the Supreme Court, whom he has handpicked the last two and now potentially third justice, will make the determination. And so, I think that we’ve already slid down that slippery slope into a body that hardly serves as a check but is simply reflecting the sort of political imbalances that already exist.

In terms of what should replace it, I think that that is up for a public discussion. I mean, part of the intent of my article was to say that we are in the midst of a national reckoning about systemic racism in this country, about the way that things are governed, the way that this country functions, that there are all sorts of things being thrown up for question that at one point or another have been to be — have been assumed to be the natural order of things, from a for-profit healthcare system, which has now been thrown into question, to something even like the Sanders campaign and someone openly identifying as a socialist or democratic socialist garnering millions of votes. To me, that is reflective of people wanting to rethink basic assumptions about what American society should look like. And I think, in this case, things like the Supreme Court, the Electoral College, all are open for debate and discussion as we are talking about what our country looks like, what it could look like, what it should look like, how do we have more democracy, more voices of ordinary people dictating the course of things. To me, that is what is at the heart of some of the demands of the demonstrations that have been going on over the summer and now into the fall, is that the status quo is no longer working, and now is the time to throw it all open for discussion, throw it all open for debate, that this is an opportunity to be rethinking what kind of society that we want to live in.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, in essence, isn’t the growing right-wing and fascist movement in the country also seeking to rethink and refashion the kind of country that we are, and, in effect, are practicing some of that under Donald Trump? So, how do you see putting together the kind of coalition that could actually structurally change the nature of American society to be able to implement some of the changes that you’re hoping for, given the reality that there is this intransigent and substantial group of Americans who support the current move toward more authoritarianism?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Well, it’s a struggle. It’s not a cakewalk. And so, you know, the country right now is deeply polarized, but I think that I would probably — I don’t think that it’s polarized in that half the country is on one side and half of the country is on the other. I think, you know, we’re talking about 43% of people who back Trump. Then we can look at the numbers of people who actually voted for Trump. We can look at the 100 million people who didn’t participate in the last election, who were never counted in anything and who trend towards being younger, more of color, who would be classified as Democrats in a classical way.

And so, I think that part of the issue that we have is that there is such a myopia with Donald Trump that every sentence, every breath, everything that he does absorbs the entirety of public attention, partly because of the mainstream media. But I think, in doing so, it really minimizes the extent of opposition that exists in the country, not just to him, but to what is happening in this country, where there are all sorts of organizing movements, of demonstrations, of things that continue to percolate just below the surface, whether it’s teachers who are mobilizing to protect themselves from the dangers of COVID as government officials try to force them back into school buildings, the ongoing struggle around the rights of immigrants in this country. You know, just 10 days ago, the lead story was about the forced sterilization of immigrants in detention, immigrant women in detention in Georgia, and Trump says “Boo,” and we move on to the next thing, as if that is not a story that is deserving of deeper investigation. There is the ongoing struggle around climate, obviously the ongoing movement around Black lives in the struggle against police brutality, the struggle around housing, the struggles around healthcare. There are all of these things that are the kind of disparate parts of a mass movement that has the potential to develop in this country, that is constantly overshadowed by the antics of Trump.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I would agree with you on all of that, and I would agree with you that there’s a majority of Americans who want progressive change. But again, I get back to this 40% of Americans. That 40% has maybe five times as many guns and a much more sort of, at this point, core of people who are willing to resort to violence to impose their will. And my question is: How does the progressive movement deal with that?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: Well, I think part of the point that I was making is that we have the mass — the parts of a mass movement. What we need are the politics to try to connect these disparate parts together. We need organizations, not just little organizations working on their own, but we need organizations that reflect the mass — the potential of the mass movement that I think is in development. I mean, the right has always had more guns at their disposal. Our side, the left, the mass, the majority of people who suffer from oppression and exploitation in this country and other countries, have never had the guns to force our agenda onto anyone. We have always had the mass of our movement, is that which is the vehicle for social transformation. And I don’t think that any of that has changed.

And I think part of the issue is that there’s a way in which the over-hyperfocus on every single thing that Trump does and says magnifies his mesmerizing abilities. It creates an impression that he’s popular, when he’s not. It creates an impression that the forces gathered around him are more massive, when they’re not. I thought it was interesting that the Proud Boys were supposed to have a mass turnout in Portland, Oregon, where thousands of people were predicted to show up, and only 200 did. And so, that is not — you know, 200 is 200 and shouldn’t be taken lightly, but it’s also not indicative of a mass movement. I think in every place where there has been predictions of some mass outpouring of the right, the actual reality has been underwhelming.

And we compare that to what The New York Times reported in June or July in the aftermath of 15 million to 26 million people participating in Black Lives Matter protests, the largest number of participants in political protest in American history, and we look at the number of gatherings that have happened over the course of the Trump presidency, and I think it’s clear that the other side, that our side, has millions of people who are looking for some direction, who are looking for a political alternative to the status quo as it exists right now. And so, the challenge is: How do you unite the different aspects of that, the different segments of that, both in protest, in organization? How do you develop solidarity? All of these questions are the challenges that we face.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, we have to break. Then we’re going to come back. We’re going to link to your latest piece, “The Case for Ending the Supreme Court as We Know It.”

Also, Democracy Now! is live-streaming the first presidential debate tonight, 9 Eastern [Daylight] Time, at democracynow.org.

When we come back, we’re going to look with Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor at the Breonna Taylor case and also what’s happening in her city, in Philadelphia, unhoused people rising up, demanding — and getting — some housing. Stay with us.

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Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: Breonna Taylor’s Rigged Case Further Erodes Legitimacy of U.S. Institutions

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