Justice Antonin “Nino” Scalia was racist, charismatic, misogynist, intelligent, homoantagonistic, witty, a good friend and a judicial terrorist.
He was all these things, multifaceted in the ways that all human beings are, and he should be remembered as such. Still, in the days since his death, the communities he attacked viciously with his decisions over the course of his 30 years on the Supreme Court have been taken to task for dancing on his grave.
Though I didn’t cheer Scalia’s death, I fully understand the catharsis many people experienced when the news was announced that he was found dead in his bed with a “pillow over his head” at a Texas ranch Feb. 13. Still, every vogue, wobble and Southside has been countered by just as many near-hagiographic eulogies. And it is this—this romanticizing and whitewashing of his toxic legacy that has taken root in conservative circles—that is dangerous in the same way that Texas textbooks defining the peculiar institution of slavery as migrant work are.
From his perch as justice on the highest court in the land, Scalia held fast to his beliefs that white, Christian, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual men are the only class of citizen that matters; while “invented minorities,” women who should be “treated differently,” black people only capable of succeeding at “slower” and “lesser” universities, and “unwanted” immigrants do not deserve protection under the law.
For that reason alone, some have called him a “conservative lion”; I call him a bigot. These two things are not, have never been and will never be, mutually exclusive.
This Scalia narrative that has emerged is churned out by the same disingenuous, white supremacist mechanisms that have people calling Martin passive and Malcolm violent. It’s the same system that wanted us to believe that Rosa Parks just randomly decided not to give up her seat on the bus, while failing to mention that she worked tirelessly to report sexual violence that black women were experiencing and continue to experience at the fists and bodies of racist misogynists in America.
This is the same well-oiled and fine-tuned machine that wants us to celebrate Abraham Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator,” when he didn’t give a damn about enslaved Africans past their political (in)convenience.
This is the same dishonest system that will have you thinking that the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was driven by hatred of white people, instead of love for black children starved for food and freedom. It’s the same contorted system that wants us to believe that Thomas Jefferson was simply a visionary and not a rapist. It is the same system eager to say that Assata did it, but George Zimmerman, Darren Wilson, Timothy Loehmann and Daniel Pantaleo did not.
And it is this same system that wants us to believe that the Confederate flag is drenched in the blood of black people, but that the U.S. flag, waving gently over the genocide of black, brown and indigenous people, is pristine.
We don’t have time for sociopolitical distortions and half-truths; history lives in the now.
In 2005, Scalia had this to say about his storied career: “I don’t worry about my legacy. Just do your job right, and who cares?”
This is where I agree with him. Though it may have been politically necessary for President Barack Obama to call Scalia’s service “extraordinary,” as journalists, writers, truth seekers and truth tellers, our only job is to make it plain and get it right. That job is not always polite and it’s definitely not always welcomed. Scalia may have encouraged people to be “fools for Christ,” but we don’t have to be the fools who protect his legacy. I have no desire to have to explain to my three sons years from now—when they come home, bright-eyed, talking about a charming, beloved judge named Scalia—that somebody lied.
But I will.
To again paraphrase King, it’s important that we get the language right. It’s important that we understand that everybody is good to somebody, but that doesn’t mean they’re good to or for all of us. It’s critical that we hold in tension that a man who possessed keen wit, a brilliant mind, a hearty laugh and a family who loves him can also be a vessel of hate. Our lives depend on it.
So my sincere condolences go out to Antonin Scalia’s friends and family. But my solidarity goes to those who realize that there is one less white supremacist in the world lynching our humanity, not with a rope and tree, but with a robe and bench, all in the name of justice.