Christopher J. Peters

On Tuesday, Donald Trump released a list of 11 “potential Supreme Court justices” he might nominate should he become president.  All those listed are current judges; all are relatively young; all have solid conservative pedigrees.  A few are counterintuitive choices, like the Texas Supreme Court judge who once publicly questioned Trump’s fitness to name Supreme Court justices and the federal judge whose ex-husband rallied the anti-Trump forces in last month’s Wisconsin primary.  Interestingly, none of the names on the list belongs to Maryanne Trump Berry, a Pennsylvania federal judge who happens to be Trump’s sister.

Also interestingly, every person on Trump’s list is White.

What should we make of the saliently monochromatic nature of Trump’s slate?  Two possibilities come to mind, and neither of them is encouraging.

The first possibility is old-fashioned ignorance.  Maybe Trump’s list is all-White because it simply never occurred to Trump that there is anything problematic about an all-White list of potential Supreme Court nominees.  A complete lack of mindfulness about race – an unconscious assumption that White people holding positions of power is part of the natural order of things – would not be surprising in a person of Trump’s background.  But it would be immensely troubling in our next president – a huge step backward after Americans have twice elected a man of mixed race to our highest office, and a discouraging retreat from the public dialogue about racial privilege and racial injustice that has emerged since Michael Brown’s death 21 months ago.

The second, even more troubling possibility is that the uniformly pale tone of Trump’s list is entirely intentional.  Trump’s campaign has been notable, not just for his many offensive comments about race, ethnicity, religion, and gender, and not just for his xenophobic policy proposals (the border wall, the Muslim immigration ban), but for the particular pride he seems to take in precisely this offensiveness and xenophobia.  Many of Trump’s supporters appear to like him, not simply because his retrograde views about minorities and women match their own, but because his openness about those views – what he refers to as his disdain for “political correctness” – lends them a veneer of legitimacy.

Presumably Trump will have to ratchet down his outrageousness in the general election – but how to do so while signaling to his core supporters that he’s still the same angry White man they fell in love with?  Perhaps by floating a slate of potential Supreme Court justices that just happens to be all-White.  In public, he can plead meritocracy, pointing out that every person on the list is qualified and accusing critics of the political correctness he loves to condemn.  But to his base, the list can serve as a wink and a nod – another blast of the ultrasonic racial dog whistle that Republicans have been blowing for decades.

Of course, I have no way of knowing which of these possible explanations for Trump’s lily-White list is the real one.  And I suppose there is a third possibility:  maybe the complete absence of minorities from the list was neither mindlessly negligent nor coldly intentional.  Perhaps Trump and his advisors, in all earnestness, scoured the country for qualified, diverse, reasonably conservative potential Supreme Court nominees – and failed to locate even a single minority candidate.

If you believe this explanation, I applaud your confidence in the sincerity and good will of the presumptive Republican nominee.  And might I interest you in a degree program at Trump University?