Civil Rights, Who Gets Them and How Often

Remember anti miscegenation?

“Anti-miscegenation laws, also known as miscegenation laws, were laws that banned interracial marriage and sometimes interracial sex between whites and members of other races. In the United States, interracial marriage, cohabitation and sex have since 1863 been termed “miscegenation.” Contemporary usage of the term “miscegenation” is less frequent. In North America, laws against interracial marriage and interracial sex existed and were enforced in the Thirteen Colonies from the late seventeenth century onwards, and subsequently in several US states and US territories until 1967. Similar laws were also enforced in Nazi Germany, from 1935 until 1945, and in South Africa during the Apartheid era, from 1949 until 1985.

–from Wikipedia

The laws were mostly dissolved by 1967, which wasn’t that long ago, but some states continued to keep the laws on the books. South Carolina finally nixed them in 1998, “It took 103 years, but South Carolina has finally voted to remove a ban on interracial marriage from its state constitution.

Although it was not actively enforced, a clause added to the state’s constitution in 1895 prohibited ‘marriage of a white person with a Negro or mulatto or a person who shall have one-eighth or more of Negro blood'” (South Carolina removes ban on interracial marriage).

I thought of those discriminatory laws because I came across this article today about folks in the state I grew up in, “Religion, politics shape black views on gay issues — Ga. black lawmakers continually supportive of gay rights.” From the article:

There’s a typical response H. Alexander Robinson hears when he talks to some black people about gay rights.

“There are those in the community that continue to say the whole gay agenda is about special rights,” he said. “In lots of segments of the community, I feel like we’ve addressed that and moved on from that question. But I still feel like it’s being framed in that way by certain African-American ministers.”

Robinson, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, said he and other gay activists are pitted against religious and political influences as they work to win support from black Americans.

This alignment of civil rights by race and sexuality is a difficult one, I think. On the one hand, there should be no comparison between oppressions, and on the other, we should be trying to find how they are interconnected and discover how they work in complementary ways to maintain oppression. How do the powers that be fragment the oppressed so that we don’t work together against oppression’s mechanics? One of the problems encountered though, with frequency, is just that: my oppression is different from yours – it’s not the same! Except, well, except oppression is oppression, with varying and fluctuating degrees of damage and severity, but overall, no one’s oppression should be tolerated–and that’s the crux of the matter that gets back-burnered.

I’m thinking of this topic today with some trepidation because I recall taking a Women’s Studies course as an undergrad on African American Women’s Issues. One of the biggest challenges the African American women in that room faced was voiced often — Do we sell out the push for our civil rights as a race by critiquing our male counterparts? The debate was voiced as one or the other: fight for your rights as a black person or demand fair treatment as women.

Many people in this upcoming election are going to have to face a similar issue — do we support civil rights for everyone or do we invest our efforts in our own oppression first and worry about the oppression of others when we are finally free? Isn’t that the kind of “us versus them” thinking that serves those in power first and foremost? If you keep the lesser groups isolated and defensive, they won’t work together, regardless of their shared oppressions, and strength in numbers isn’t found. The way to keep those “smaller” or “minority” groups isolated and insular is to emphasize just how different they all are and engage them in proving that “I’m not an immigrant,” “I’m not of African American descent,” “I’m not gay,” “I’m not poor,” “I don’t have a life-threatening illness,” “I’m not you,” etc.

It seems that the adage about the chain being as strong as its weakest link holds some weight here — I mean, what if only African Americans fought for civil rights back in the day? The notion that “I’m not gay, so these matters aren’t really my concern” is about as fruitful as white people claiming not to be invested in segregation laws or anti-miscegenation laws, until they finally are directly involved only because their rights are threatened. Everyone would be waiting on the sidelines for something to change or happen to them–and the hierarchical status quo would remain steadfastly the same. Infringement on anyone’s civil rights in America is every American’s issue, not just those who don’t get all of the perks of civil rights. Our constitution is only as strong as those who enforce it.

Which brings me to this recent tidbit: just posted Michelle Obama’s June 23, 2008 speech to the Gay & Lesbian Leadership Council (below). In it, Michelle Obama implies that Barack Obama is for everyone’s right to marry and have the same rights as each other. But. Didn’t Obama come out and state that he only supports civil unions? In this video (click link), he actually stacks in a hierarchical order which laws for blacks should have been fought for first. I get the enticing logic of that thinking. But I don’t like the parallel that gays and lesbians should settle for a civil union first, with the implication that maybe, perhaps marriage is down the road. This thinking relies too much on the old notions of “separate but similar” (ultimately not “equal”) rights that finally serves to hurt people.  Segregation laws were just such a “stepping stone” — these institutions bred lots of “you are other and less than me” mentalities that our country can’t overcome to this day. Affirmative Action? Everyone has an opinion on the matter and lots of hypocrisies and biases are voiced when you start asking around. The fabric of this society is riddled with hierarchical thinking, and as a good southern girl, it was woven into the spoken culture I grew up around. We just learned to tuck it away when around “those folks” or people who didn’t share our loyal “us first” mentality.

Remember “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?” That policy tried to ride the fence of giving the GLBT community a hint of “belonging,” but it really opened the door to legalized witch hunts whenever someone didn’t like someone else who happened to be gay. Enforcement of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has dropped dramatically now that the U.S. Government is experiencing extreme difficulty recruiting people to fight this war. How convenient — the gov’t needs soldiers, and now they think gays and lesbians can kill with the best of them. Even four retired military officer bigwigs recently made that determination. Huh.  So gay soldiers are cool now.

I’m concerned that there will be a lot of “separate but almost equal” ideology spun during this election (see article, “an appeal to individualism as the root of success and therefore contradicts the systemic nature of racial discrimination in United States society.”). An ideology that allows Obama to emphasize to a more conservative (or empowered) group that he is firmly against gay marriage, while he turns to more civil rights-oriented groups and claims to be in favor of “everyone having similar rights.” Hmm. Sounds familiar. You have to tailor your promises to lean a little left and a little right when riding the wave of political claims, I suspect, without make outright claims for or against anything. But whoever said politicians had to be straightforward and honest? I hope that he simply does the right thing, regardless of what he says to the assorted groups listening, by winning their votes, taking office and making good on his claims toward equality, something this country has great difficulty conceptualizing, let alone enacting.

“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies; education and culture for their minds; and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.” –M. L. King Jr.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” –Nelson Mandela

“We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” –The Talmud

“The obscure we see eventually, the completely apparent takes longer.” –Edward R. Murrow

“Make the injustice visible.” –Mohandas K. Gandhi

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” –M. L. King Jr.

“Freedom is a good held in common with others and, while everyone is not benefiting from it, those who believe they are free will not be so.” –Miguel de Unamuno

“The middle class and working poor are told that what’s happening to them is the consequence of Adam Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand.’ This is a lie. What’s happening to them is the direct consequence of corporate activism, intellectual propaganda, the rise of a religious orthodoxy that in its hunger for government subsidies has made an idol of power, and a string of political decisions favoring the powerful and the privileged who bought the political system right out from under us.” — Bill Moyers, June 3, 2004

–Quotes taken from Equality and Illusions: Reflections on Human Oppression Work

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AMY KING View All →

Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.

6 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I can’t see gay marriage happening for a very long time on national level. Most states, including Obama’s home state of Illinois, have anti-gay-marriage legislation.

    To satisfy the Democratic base, Obama has to show a fairly benign attitude towards gays and lesbians. That’s it. The bar is low. I find this pretense that he has ever been for gay marriage insulting but typical. In my experience, straight Democrats and liberals don’t know the anti-gay laws in their state. They also don’t know how the law affects the individual because they are passively–but stubbornly–homophobic.

    If Obama were to fight for civil unions as president, I would be surprised.

    Jim K.: as far as Massachusetts goes, I think the state is an anomaly. In the 1800s, there was the “Boston Marriage”–Henry James wrote of it in *The Bostonians*–which was basically lesbian marriage. I think gay marriage in, let’s say, Michigan would be a “big fish.”

  2. The important point (I think), the point missing in most
    analyses, was not the current climate in Massachusetts,
    but the past legal background for the decision.
    The principle behind the Mass. SJC was that
    if an activity seems important to equality
    and (crucially) is not prohibited by the
    state constitution, one must err on the side
    of freedom. A series of rips in the legal fabric
    that began with adoption and power of attorney
    had their most logical remedy in this decision.

    The key question is: can you block a freedom to
    a group that was never addresed directly or indirectly
    by constitution. And in property law, tort law,
    and labor law, Mass has always been rather rigid
    when it comes to slicing off that which flows
    be default. There are only a handful of states
    that have a comprehensive system of property and
    rights that is explicit in forfeiture or acquisition,
    and their decisions carry a lot of weight over the years.
    Midwestern and western property law was a mess until
    states adopted the explicit deeded arrangedment.
    I know that seems unrelated, but rights under law
    tie tightly to principles of property and obligation.
    Same-gender marriage clearly has both through and through.

    Anyway, that’s just the thought from reading the SJC.
    Supposed “morality” meanings run into the face of
    the 1800s religious troubles and court decisions,
    and rightly so. I would call CA important politically,
    but another tight judicial (original colony) state
    key legally.

  3. I have higher hopes for Obama, but we shall see.
    Steady pressure is the way things like this happen.
    It is now more in the states’ realm right now.
    Which means something dragged out, unless
    obvious US constitutional links can be built.
    Unde rit all, note that the banning of
    previously unthought of freedoms, and then
    attached rights, doesn’t have solid support
    in the US Constitution. The ability of one State
    to strip fundamental properties and rights
    bestowed by another (especially others plural)
    is something that has met the scythe often
    in our legal tradition.

  4. Hi: Thanks for the thoughtful, well written post. Although to a large extent I share your view of the issue, there is an aspect that I would expand upon:

    “But I don’t like the parallel that gays and lesbians should settle for a civil union first, with the implication that maybe, perhaps marriage is down the road. This thinking relies too much on the old notions of “separate but similar” (ultimately not “equal”) rights that finally serves to hurt people.”

    It is easy to forget that “the oppressors” are humans as well, and like it or not, they constitute the majority of society at this time. From what I read online from them, their intention is not to oppress; rather, they genuinely object (generally per religious beliefs) to the practice of homo-sexuality. They are sincere in their point of view, even if the liberal-minded may hold this point of view as (at best) uninformed.

    It is fair to say that a more evolved society will no doubt be more accepting of homo-sexuality; it will find it less threatening with time. But we have to deal with the cultural reality as it is now. Unevolved or not, the conservative-minded see homo-sexuality as “wrong” or a “sin”, and as much as they may grate on those who identify more with the oppressed, I don’t think it works to simply demonize such people.

    (Clearly it doesn’t work, based on the recent results in California…)

    Thus, I would take issue with your all-or-nothing stance. It fails to take the needs of the conservative-minded into account. I would very much go with the civil union solution as means to compromise. Civil unions (or whatever you call them) allow for formalization of commitment; they would allow for a variety of rights and benefits in a relationship that gays don’t currently have. And yet differentiating between traditional marriage and civil union takes the needs of the social conservatives in mind as well.

    I have a number of gay friends who agree with this point of view, and who will privately say that they think that the gay/liberal community is politically shooting itself in the foot by being rigid and righteous in its position. Such a stance MOBILIZES the conservatives, and is thus self-defeating. Don’t results (in the form of progress) take precedent over “sticking to your guns”?

    Let me say it this way: as one who generally supports gay rights, I think we need to get that “tolerance” needs to flow both ways. If we are going to admonish society to tolerate homo-sexuality, then per that value we need to mature to where we have tolerance for the homo-aversive portion of society as well. If this person has the right to be gay (per the progressive worldview), then doesn’t it follow that that person over there has the right to be where he is as well, including an unease with homo-sexuality?

    I know this suggestion tends to provoke an emotional reaction from progressives, and yet maybe we need to grow beyond that emotional reaction in order to work with society as it is, not as we think it “should” be. True diversity would mean tolerance of world views that one might (rightly) hold as lesser than one’s own liberal mindset, no? In any case, the conservatives will remain for now a political reality to be reckoned with….

    In any case, thanks again for an articulate piece of writing. Jim

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