Citing “a democracy in crisis,” 2022 Radcliffe Medal recipient Sherrilyn Ifill issued a stirring call to action in the keynote discussion for Radcliffe Day on Friday.
There are “fundamental cracks in the foundation” of “every pillar that holds up democracy: education, the legal profession, journalism, the faith communities,” warned Ifill, president and director-counsel emeritus of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). “We’re in a moment that’s incredibly sobering. Also a moment of opportunity if we are prepared to open our minds to understand how we got here.”
Ifill was joined for the discussion by Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor and former Harvard Law School dean. Topics ranged from Ifill’s work with LDF, the nation’s premier civil rights law organization, to the responsibility that all Americans share for the future of our country.
A basic problem, noted Minow, “seems to be a loss of a sense of ‘we,’ of commonality.”
Ifill agreed, blaming a “nihilistic” strain in American society fueled by white supremacy. For example, she said, before the Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing school segregation, “We had a public education system that white people were quite invested in. It was only when you had to share that system on an equal basis that you started to have a crack in the consensus.”
Recent legislation restricting voting and the Jan. 6 riot spring from the same selfishness. As Ifill explained it: White supremacists think, “If we have to share power equally in this democracy then maybe we don’t have one. Maybe I’m agnostic about elections. Maybe we don’t respect the peaceful transfer of power.”
Yet a sense of common humanity still exists, she argued, pointing to the protests following the murder of George Floyd. Involving “all ages, all races, all 50 states. It was a powerful ‘we’ moment,” she said. However, the protests also provoked a backlash legislation supposedly aimed at critical race theory. “When they saw people around the world responding, they saw the power of our shared empathy, and they decided you cannot teach about any subject that could cause feelings of anguish or guilt.”
The logic is fundamentally flawed. “When I was in the sixth grade we read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’” she recalled. “I felt guilt. I felt shame. I felt anguish. Not because I did anything, and not because anyone I knew had been a Nazi. As a human being, I felt empathy.” The new legislation, she said, is an attempt to “shut off the valve of empathy.”