As an undergraduate at Brandeis, and especially as an Anthropology and Gender Studies major, my classes focus on interrogating larger systems that influence our society and shape our relationships. In anthropology, we discuss the “possessive investment in whiteness,” which is an institutionalized frame of mind that empowers society to structure institutions and practices to benefit white people. The possessive investment in whiteness creates the false perception that being white is the norm. By creating an “us/them” dichotomy between white people and non-white people, the United States is able to exploit and harm non-white groups through deeply rooted systems of oppression.
We see the possessive investment in whiteness everywhere, from legacy admissions to the communities that bear the brunt of the climate crisis to the lack of Black and Latina women running Fortune 500 companies. All of these disparities are the result of social systems that directly benefit white people and harm non-white people. While I have always known these truths to some extent, I’d never been taught how to conceptualize them until now. Being able to name these systems of oppression has been instrumental in my understanding of Alliance for Justice’s (AFJ) work to diversify the state and federal judiciary.
During my internship, I’ve come to understand that, like all aspects of our bureaucratic system, the judicial selection process is a prime example of a possessive investment in whiteness. Traditionally, nominees are judged in part based on their past experiences, whether it be as a lawyer, a local or state judge, past clerkships, or other jobs. Even when not explicitly named, peoples’ opportunities to obtain these different experiences are often dictated by race, class, and connections. If a prospective judge is able to gain these qualifications, they are recommended to the White House by U.S. senators, or occasionally U.S. congresspeople. However, only 23% of the current U.S. Congress is non-white, with Hispanics making up only 9% of the U.S. House and Asian American and Pacific Islanders making up only 3%, despite accounting for 19% and 6% of the U.S. population respectively. Once selected by the president (who, if we look at history, has been a white man forty-five out of forty-six times), nominees must sit before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a group selected from a senate body that has only had 11 black senators in its 230+ year history. Currently, only eleven out of the one hundred sitting senators identify as a racial or ethnic minority. When a judicial nominee of color sits before the Senate Judiciary Committee, rarely are they addressing people who look like them or hold similar life experiences.
The entire political and judicial process, going all the way back to Jim Crow-era voter disenfranchisement, works to enable white leadership and suppress people of color from sitting on the federal judiciary or running our nation’s government. This intentional suppression of minority representation has concrete effects on judicial decisions today. In a conversation with AFJ, Justice Halim Dhanidina (a judge on the California Court of Appeals) noted that people who hold marginalized identities are more easily able to recognize when others are being discriminated against. These perspectives are critical in our federal court system, but our nation’s possessive investment in whiteness encumbers individuals with these experiences from being appointed. Through the frameworks I’ve been taught at Brandeis, I am able to scrutinize these systems and am even more energized to push back against them.