I am an American civil rights lawyer. At its core, the work I do, and the work done by my predecessors, is integrative. Litigation may seem divisive. It is. But there's a long game. The goal is to ensure that everyone has the same rights, freedoms, opportunities and obligations as everyone else. The goal is to unite, not divide. The goal is inclusiveness. The goal is integration.
In a country as diverse and complex as the United States, that kind of work is not easy. It took a while for American lawyers to make any real headway toward integration. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court infamously affirmed "separate but equal." Buck v. Bell upheld the forced sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities. In Korematsu v. United States, the Court said it was okay to ship Japanese Americans off to internment camps.
Little by little, we patched the holes. Thurgood Marshall's NAACP started winning in the first half of the twentieth century. First, law schools were desegregated. Brown v. Board of Education, in theory at least, ended school segregation altogether in 1954. Loving v. Virginia decriminalized interracial marriage in 1967. After a series of defeats in the 1980s, we finally started chipping away at anti-LGBT legislation 20 years ago, resulting in marriage equality by 2015.
For the most part, even the staunch segregationists eventually accepted integration, in part because it happened gradually. We civil rights lawyers figured out incrementalism a long time ago. It's slow, but it's how we make progress. It's how we achieve ever-greater ideals of American equality. It's how we bring people together.
But there’s a catch: It works in reverse.
Racists, segregationists and separatists figured out the mechanics of incrementalism a while back. In my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, mildly inconvenienced people joined other mildly inconvenienced people from Seattle to rail against the tyranny of forced busing in our public school system. Now, since the Supreme Court's opinion in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, everyone is free to go to school in their own neighborhoods. It just so happens that those neighborhoods have been segregated for decades.
So once again, our kids go to school where we live, in bubbles set up for us by previous generations. We continue to exist in them because it's easy. If we don't visit other neighborhoods — neighborhoods where the residents don't look like us, or talk like us, or live in the same kinds of housing as us — no one makes us. If the natural consequence of this is that we cannot relate to other Americans, who cares? I know my neighbors. I know people on Facebook. I feel safe. I am comfortable. Why change that?
Three years ago, Shelby County v. Holder effectively nullified the Voting Rights Act, which protected minorities from discrimination at the polls. We are past all that, say the peddlers of the "color-blind" Constitution. No reason to burden states with anti-racist laws when those states obviously have no interest in being racist. How could a state be racist, anyway? And if fewer people vote, no matter their race, what of it?
So the stage was set for this campaign. We on the left mocked the rhetoric, calling it "Make America White Again," and laughed at that. We laughed at a lot of things at first. Then candidates for public office started saying, in so many words, that we should make America white again, and they weren't joking. Then I saw other lawyers wondering aloud on social media about the possibility of ethnic cleansing. The more of that sort of thing I saw — not just from faceless, assumed-uneducated masses, but from living, breathing, professionals that I know in real life — the harder it became to laugh at much of anything.
Now there is at least one purveyor of white nationalist-friendly media headed for Washington. White ethno-nationalism is no longer just a kooky fringe movement with a cute frog mascot. It has articulate apologists of varying political persuasions. It has high-profile champions. It resonates with hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of bored white kids living in bubbles too thick to break out of by any means other than through apoplectic internet tirades about the inevitability of genocide.
At first, white nationalism looked fairly harmless. A bunch of guys like the ones you played Dungeons & Dragons with in high school got together and came up with a set of deeply cynical sociological theories. Diverse peoples, so the argument goes, simply cannot live together. The proof is all around us if we'd only look. Black people naturally fight white people. Immigrants don't ever really assimilate. Muslims kill us because they don't share our values.
There are some who rightly criticize the term "white nationalist" as too forgiving. But on paper, there are key distinctions between admitted supremacists and plain ol' nationalists — and that is the problem. The brash Klansman still cannot go out in the sunlight, but the nationalist is a day-walker. A Northern fox. An incrementalist. The nationalist is not equivalent to a white supremacist per se, because you don’t have to accept racial supremacy for their theories to sound good. The whites and non-whites just need to stay on their own turf. Why not separate people if they are just biologically incapable of getting along? Haven't we Americans been trying this grand experiment in diversity for long enough? Never mind that meaningful integration had only a generation (at best) to succeed. And that's if you ignore the immediate, deliberate move to take black people from a state of segregation to a state of perpetual incarceration. But sure, maybe white nationalism makes sense as a valid political viewpoint, even if we don’t quite agree with it.
And so a few gradual changes brought us back to accepting “separate but equal,” more than 60 years after Brown v. Board. We're revisiting Plessy. And weighed against, say, Korematsu or Buck, maybe that’s not so bad. It's almost comforting to believe that a plan for segregation, where black people get some cities and whites get others, might be the lowest point in the sewers of to-be-taken-seriously American political rhetoric. Only now, we're seeing just how deep this shit goes and how far into it we can burrow.
Having revitalized American apartheid, what is the next move for the Northern fox? One might reasonably expect that it would proudly show itself as the Southern wolf. The stated goal of some who have been emboldened enough to say it publicly is to make the United States 90 percent white and Christian. Last week, on a nationally syndicated public radio show, a prominent white nationalist forecasted just that, and that a billionaire from Queens would help bring it about. This person would like to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Hungary. We would have laughed at him a year ago.
But how could the government "cleanse" the U.S. population by more than 20 percent? Build megaprisons? Mass deportation? Build walls? Create impossible standards for non-white, non-Christian persons who want to enter the U.S.? Requisition an island base where we can put people for years until we figure out what do with them? We have already become quite comfortable with these methods of elimination. But those methods would be very expensive to implement on such a large scale. Maybe prohibitively expensive. Maybe they'll abandon this fanciful notion of racial purity. Maybe they'll figure out a cheaper way to do it. Maybe they’ll do it gradually and we won’t even notice.
The philosophy guiding white nationalism is anathema to everything the American civil rights lawyer stands for. It is unsettling to see the unraveling of the work of so many in my profession who have won hard-fought battles for integration over generations of our history. But an open, unashamed call for a segregated society is more than just unsettling. It is the incrementalist's first step toward a white-supremacist utopia. It won’t be the last.