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Maya Wiley discusses racial and gender politics in the United States at annual Hon. A. Leon Higginbotham lecture

November 08, 2018

By Jenna Wang

On November 7, Maya Wiley spoke at Penn Law’s annual Honorable A. Leon Higginbotham Lecture about gender and racial injustice in the current American political landscape.

The lecture, which brings in influential figures in the African American community each fall semester to Penn, was co-sponsored by the Center for Africana Studies and Penn Law, and named in honor of the prominent judge A. Leon Higginbotham, who was the first African-American judge appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Higginbotham was later appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Wiley is the Henry Cohen Professor of Urban Policy and Management at the New School’s Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy, as well as Chair of the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the independent oversight agency for the City’s Police Department.

The day after the midterm elections, Wiley spoke about the intersection of racial and gender politics in the United States, and its relation to the decline of American creed values such as equality, freedom, and democracy since the election of Donald Trump.

Wiley used the example of Trump and Yamiche Alcindor, a White House correspondent for PBS News Hour, as a symbol of the centricity of race and gender in today’s political landscape. Alcindor, a black woman, asked Trump whether he was worried that he was sending the wrong message to the country by embracing nationalism, and Trump responded by saying the question was racist.

“He said it over and over — ‘that’s racism,’” Wiley said. “The clear message was also, you are the divider of the country. You are the reason there is not unity, not me.” 

Wiley also addressed the issue of nationalism at large, using an example of a Twitter exchange she had with what appeared to be a white woman who asked why nationalism was bad and equated it more with patriotism. This, she said, led Wiley to do some research that yielded four separate definitions of nationalism in the social sciences, including ardent nationalism, American creed nationalism, disengaged nationalism, and restrictive nationalism.

Wiley said ardent and restrictive nationalism were the categories that worried her the most, because of their ethnically and culturally exclusionary terms. In addition, those who identified with restrictive nationalism also tended to have a “lack of pride in American institutions, including democracy, arts, economic institutions, and science.”

“That’s what worries me, that we say we’re better than other countries,” Wiley said. “Because [when] we’re better than other countries, we’re better than other people.”

Lastly, Wiley talked about Brett Kavanaugh’s successful nomination to the Supreme Court and the social norms that this event broke. Firstly, she said, it broke the norm of judges not being able to lie on a national stage. Secondly, the dismissal of Dr. Ford despite her status as a non-threatening, educated white woman also deviated from the previous boundaries established by the American creed.

Wiley identified the rise of a new “innocent until proven guilty” norm that specifically applied to white men rising to positions of power like Kavanaugh, while criticizing the disenfranchisement of women of color in related cases like Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas and #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, who was cropped out of a Time magazine cover featuring leaders of the movement.

 “Even the MeToo movement ignored sexual violence against women of color,” Wiley said. “#MeToo was first coined by a black woman working on issues of sexual violence. When that Time magazine cover [happened], in the photograph, she got cut out. That would not have ever happened to a white woman, I’m sorry. It wouldn’t have.”