Condolences to Professor Robert Bork’s family and friends on the occasion of his passing; for so many on the right side of the political spectrum, he was a hero.
His failed nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987 still smarts amongst those staunch Reaganites who believe in the principles of conservatism and judicial activism – so long as it acts on behalf of right-leaning ideologies.
That said, for progressives, this moment in time might also mark the passing of the kinds of judicial interventions that reflect a politics of the past – the politics of a much more homogenous nation prone to regressive ideas about race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality.
Most recently, Mr. Bork was an advisor to the Romney presidential campaign. There was no clearer sign of Mr. Romney’s repeated attempts to invoke political nostalgia in order to construct a severe conservative façade then his selection of Bork as an advisor.
Looking back, Bork’s presence probably added little to Mr. Romney’s campaign, except to remind Romney’s political opponents of the kinds of judges he would most likely be interested in appointing.
Again, if you enjoy regressive politics trapped in the bygone history of our nation then Romney and Bork were your guys.
You might also recall that another Romney advisor, John Sununu, played an integral role in the politicized process to nominate and confirm Justice Clarence Thomas. It was Sununu who assured the first President Bush’s constituents that the appointment would satisfy conservatives.
Surely Thomas has made good on that predilection. Thomas’ presence on the high court will remain a thorn in the side of the black voting populace. This is mostly because he (ironically) replaced civil rights superhero Justice Thurgood Marshall, but also because of the fact that he proudly maintains an anti-affirmative action position among many political positions out of step with the black community, even though it is clear that he benefited from affirmative action throughout his life time — most especially in the American Bar Association’s role in evaluating him for the nomination process itself.
Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas had much in common in terms of judicial ideology. Mr. Bork believed that Roe v. Wade was unconstitutional. His legal argument against this decision was based upon the now regularly referenced “states rights” doctrine that has become central to Republican political strategies.
Although too many economic facts undermine the (poor, southern) states that often house the most anti-federalist populations, Bork’s presence on the Supreme Court would have irrevocably altered the recent history of these United States.
We can only shudder to think about how the restriction of women’s reproductive rights would have affected family planning and health, as well as the economy itself. But one fact that not too many people want to discuss in these debates is that the absence of birth control and reproductive rights has a range of socio-economic consequences, including higher crime rates.
Mr. Bork believed that private businesses had the right to discriminate against people on the basis of race. If this line of thinking sounds familiar to you, that’s because you have heard it more recently from Senator Rand Paul. Mr. Bork was, generally speaking, skeptical of the Civil Rights legislation, although he at least acknowledged the fact that racism in America did exist.
Bork’s presence (and we should imagine him in place of Justice Kennedy) on the U.S. Supreme Court would have accelerated the dismantling of Affirmative Action – which some may applaud, but for those of us who understand the painful and institutional ways in which race works against people of color, that is the kind of decision that we will continue to stand against.
We should commemorate Mr. Bork’s life of judicial service and political participation and many will do so. But it is also a moment to reflect on the political life of Mr. Bork.
As for many of us, we are hoping that Bork’s political ideologies will rest in peace along with him.
James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. He is also the founder of Hip Hop Scholars LLC, an association of hip-hop generation scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures. You can follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson