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On President Obama and race, and why human dignity can serve as a basis for liberal solidarity.

Another important set of debates recently emerged, this time, from within the White House. An exchange between President Obama and a human rights activist who is transgender provided yet another moment for the nation, and especially left-leaning activist communities, to critically consider the meanings of solidarity.

While activist communities articulate arguments from their specific vantage points, the exchange captured in this video – and the public debates that ensued – highlights the complexities and shortcomings of the Left. Debates over racial equality, socio-economic mobility and gender identity have continually placed leftist protest communities either at odds with one another or have left them unable to build solidarity in ways that could promote a collective vision through which a shared political agenda could emerge. Let me explain.

When I viewed the video, I naturally assumed Jennicet Gutierrez’s comments were valid and substantive. I trusted that an activist brought into the White House in celebration of LGBT Pride Month was indeed right in her claims and demands of the President. But what struck me most was the President’s frustration with how Gutierrez leveled those concerns, and most importantly, the nature of his response.

Like most of us engaged in these debates at some level, I posted the link to Facebook and added short excerpts and quotes from Obama’s response. Of course, my implied commentary emerged from my own set of identity politics steeped in my position as an African American, heterosexual male. Almost immediately after my post, some of my liberal colleagues commented demanding that “I” understand how important it was that the human rights activist’s points be heard and responded to by Obama. I was scolded and instructed to minimize my own racial politics and political stances so that the claims of my comrades could be heard and attended to.

This White House exchange offers an important opportunity for the Left to truly advance efforts at building solidarity without minimizing any of our respective agendas. In an ironic twist of history, the person with whom to begin this question of solidarity is…Justice Clarence Thomas.

I know; it hard to believe. I feel a little dirty having to thank Justice Thomas given his hostile attitudes on matters of racial equality, particularly those attitudes that fuel his attacks on programs and policies that positively impact the life chances of African Americans. But a few days after the incident in the White House, Justice Thomas offered a dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges  – the case that extended marriage equality across the nation – that provides the very example needed to highlight the deep connections shared by all struggles for human rights and equality. The tie that binds us all is indeed the often implied and explicitly articulated, inalienable, constitutionally protected right of human dignity.

In opposition to same-sex marriage, Justice Thomas disagreed that same-sex couples were being denied anything at all if restricted by law to marry. He even raised the specter of slavery in his dissent, which sent shock waves across media outlets. One fellow legal scholar and friend of mine stated the Associate Justice had officially secured his legacy with the dissent, and had expressed a “deeper sense of self-hatred” than she had ever seen. Thomas wrote:

Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.

The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

Well, the Associate Justice is correct about one point – and only one point. Indeed human dignity is an innate, inalienable right; a natural right enshrined by our very placement on this earth. The rest of his musings on dignity are wholly wrong and misguided. By using examples from slavery, internment and state assistance, Justice Thomas actually provides key examples of ways the government has robbed people of human dignity. It is true that people managed to maintain some version of human dignity despite such state-sanctioned attacks on that inalienable right, but Thomas’s legal subterfuge is flawed in myriad ways.

If government can’t bestow such dignity, why did the Framers enshrine the principles in the founding documents Thomas references? Of course government can bestow dignity, otherwise why articulate a Bill of Rights, require birthright citizenship, or demand that no state deny its citizens the equal protection and due process of law?

Yet dignity can be an elusive term. Whether or not we have a shared working definition of human dignity, we certainly know it when we see it and experience it. I believe, though, that there are some lessons that can assist with a construction of human dignity that can also serve as a starting point for left-leaning solidarity.

In a telegram to Cesar Chavez, Dr. King wrote these words to his fellow freedom fighter:

The fight for equality must be fought on many fronts–in the urban slums, in the sweat shops of the factories and fields. Our separate struggles are really one–a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity… We are together with you in spirit and in determination…

The call for Black and Brown solidarity has a rich history. Here, Dr. King evokes dignity alongside freedom and humanity. Dignity has been a persistent component to long-standing movements for racial equality – explicitly stated or implied. Dr. King expands solidarity beyond the civil rights struggles of the South and the needs of African Americans. What mobilizes this race and class-based solidarity is the fundamental notion of human dignity.

Dignity has been a key component in global human rights struggles. While many examples are instructive, there is none better than efforts to end Apartheid in South Africa, which became a global cause célèbre. Decades of Apartheid rule advanced direct attacks on human dignity leading the Rainbow Nation to protect this fundamental right in clear language in its Constitution. In fact, the Republic of South Africa’s Constitution unequivocally states in its Bill of Rights, “Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.”

I return to Justice Thomas’s dissent to add girth to the importance of solidarity across protest groups, with our respective identities and political agendas in mind. As a show of solidarity on my Facebook page after the White House incident, I thought it useful to highlight a disturbing parallel between key excerpts from Thomas’s dissent and those from the opinion in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) decision.

Note the striking similarities in language and legal reasoning.

Justice Thomas writes in 2015:

The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

Justice Brown wrote in 1896:

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it… The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each others merits, and a voluntary consent of individuals. . .

Whether it’s race-based, class-based, identity-based, or a broader version of solidarity that moves the left toward a collective political agenda, human dignity has been and will always be the bedrock.

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