Demand your freedom

MLK Day is always a difficult “holiday” for me.  As a historian of the 20th century U.S., and as a person who is deeply committed in both my work and personal life to meaningful progress in eradicating racism, I recognize there is a danger in celebrating King as a “paper tiger,” as Michale Eric Dyson once wrote.  When we remember him as nothing but a bearer of love and integration we negate the sheer radicalism of his life–not only “back then” but now.

I recommend you spend some time today reading “The Last Steep Ascent,” an essay King wrote for The Nation.  Beginning in 1961, King wrote a piece for the magazine every spring, assessing the status of civil rights in the nation.  This one, published on March 14, 1966, was his sixth.

For those who might think the removal of legal protections for segregation was “the end” of the movement, King wrote:

The quality and quantity of discrimination and deprivation in our nation are so pervasive that all the changes of a decade have merely initiated preliminary alterations in an edifice of injustice and misery. But the evils in our society oppressing the Negro are not now so heavy a social and moral burden that white America cannot still live with them. That is the dilemma of 1966, for which the white leadership has no clear and effective policy. The logic of growth means that the civil rights odyssey must move to new levels in which the content of freedom is security, opportunity, culture and equal participation in the political process. Negro goals are clearly defined, their tactics are tested, suitable and viable. The lag is appearing in the white community which now inclines toward a détente, hoping to rest upon past laurels. The changes it must accept in the new circumstances, however logical, have not been faced nor accepted as compelling.

To those who might think that progress for some can be ahcieved without sacrifice, he reminds us:

It is easy to conceive of a plan to raise the minimum wage and thus in a single stroke extract millions of people from poverty. But between the conception and the realization there lies a formidable wall. Someone has been profiting from the low wages of Negroes. Depressed living standards for Negroes are a structural part of the economy. Certain industries are based upon the supply of low-wage, underskilled and immobile nonwhite labor. Hand assembly factories, hospitals, service industries, housework, agriculture operations using itinerant labor, would all suffer shock, if not disaster, if the minimum wage were significantly raised. A hardening of opposition to the satisfaction of Negro needs must be anticipated as the movement presses against financial privilege.

Indeed, his words are as meaningful then as they are now. As an advocate for humane work and living conditions for the 2 million farmworkers in this country, I can find purpose and courage in his concluding remarks:

Negroes expect their freedom, not as subjects of benevolence but as Americans who were at Bunker Hill, who toiled to clear the forests, drain the swamps, build the roads—who fought the wars and dreamed the dreams the founders of the nation considered to be an American birthright.

You can–and should–read the piece in its entirety by visiting the following link.

The Prop. 8 Case: Findings of Fact

Check out the findings of fact related to today’s decision, especially from page 60 onward.

And this is what it comes down to: all the arguments same-sex marriage opponents use are not provable in a court of law. In fact, in many cases, the opposite of their arguments is provable.

The next time you hear somebody calling this proof of an “activist court” take issue with them. What they are saying is that a court should only base its decision on feeling and opinion, not on legal (provable) fact.

The next time you hear somebody say this was an “anti-democratic” decision because it overturned the voters’ will, remind them that democracy has its limits, too. That line is always reached when it abridges the legal right of another person.

Sean Hannity Celebrates White Supremacy

FOX News talking head Sean Hannity aired a video clip of Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court nominee, wherein she states “I am a product of affirmative action. I am the perfect affirmative action baby.” He introduced the clip by saying:

Apparently being the beneficiary of reverse discrimination is a matter of pride for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Included in some of the materials recently submitted to Congress for the confirmation process is a tape of Judge Sotomayor singing the praises of affirmative action.

The title of this blog post may not be sincere, but it’s not too far off the mark either.  You see, when Hannity takes a complicated issue like race and opportunity, and then reduces it down to a trite form of rhetorical spin by calling it “reverse discrimination,” well, he has to live with the equally rational consequences.  Sean Hannity thinks white people should get opportunities because they are white.  That is “white supremacy” in its practical (and most frequent) application.

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Because that’s what affirmative action sought to do.  It sought to undo what had been a centuries-long policy of affirmative action for “white” folks by trying to identify qualified or potentially qualified people of color and provide for them an opportunity to achieve.  It is vital to note, that opportunity was a mere slice of the government-funded opportunities afforded to “white” people.

Even if we only consider that period in US history from the 1930s to the 1970s–when new programs of “white” affirmative action were instituted and, later, new programs for people of color followed–this case becomes clear.  We can list the government-protected benefits which were both formally and informally denied to nonwhites: Social Security; job training in the Armed Forces; the full use of the GI Bill; unemployment benefits; FHA home loans; government incentives for home ownership; union rights; minimum wage and overtime rights; and the list goes on and on. This doesn’t even substantially include the day-to-day forms of discrimination people of color formally encountered.  This doesn’t include the other systemic forms of marginalization they faced (lack of protected voting rights and the like).

Affirmative action is often seen as a creation of the 1960s or 1970s, but that policy was crafted from the government-sponsored incentives and benefit structures of an earlier part of the century.  Calling it “reverse discrimination” separates it from its historical context and tries to analyze it as only a discrete practice–discrimination in the literal sense.  But it’s a hollow metaphor.  It’s the equivalent of calling a cup of water an ocean.

The failure of affirmative action was not in the Sonia Sotomayors of this world, people who have proven their distinction of being recipients of affirmative action policies.  Its failure isn’t in the way it discriminated against “whites,” a class of people whose status within the benefit structures of US society continues to reign supreme.  It is in the way affirmative action policies turned “racial justice” into “racial representation.”

Even when it opened up the spigot to people of color, it never turned it off for “whites.”  More importantly, it never forced “whites” to even consider why it was they were soaking wet.  Dripping all over the floor, it continued to allow an entire society of people to pretend that they were bone dry and thirsty.

Affirmative action was flawed, yes.  But it sought to address a real problem, one Sean Hannity won’t even acknowledge exists, because it is one that benefits him to this day.

Same-Sex Marriage and a Latina on the Supreme Court

Today has been a big day in legal news, though not an entirely surprising one.

In a move everyone expected, the California State Supreme Court upheld the legality of Proposition 8, the anti-same-sex marriage act passed by voters in November 2008.  As they declared the legality of the measure and the manner of it passage into Constitutional law, they also upheld the legaility of the more than 18000 marriages which took place between the time the same court made same-sex unions legal and the voters disagreed.  You can read the story here.

This is a sad day for the cause of equal rights, but there have been many such days in the history of this nation.  Progressive movement forward has never been a foregone conclusion, it has always come from the deliberate and focused action of groups of people engaged in movement.  For this issue, there was no broad-based and collective movement before November 8, 2008.  There is now.  I doubt my 3-year old son will reach kindergarten before there is a voter-mandated change in the Golden State.

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Today also marks a moment of tentative success of movements past with the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court of the United States of America.  If her nomination is confirmed by the Senate this fall, Sotomayor will become the first Latina to serve on the highest court of the land.

There is a long road ahead of the successful nomination of the Bronx-born, Nuyorican to the Court.  But it is a reflection of the success of generations of people who actively fought for recognition, representation, and a chance to participate as full members of a society.  It is the product of movements for change, ones that desired Latinos or Latinas in positions of power and ones that fought for bigger and more systemic changes.

One step backward, a small shuffle forward?

Read more LATINO LIKE ME.

How Republicans spin ‘gay marriage’

On yesterday’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich responded to questions regarding the recent advances for the legalization of same-sex marriage.  “It’s very dangerous for the country to have the judiciary become the chief agent of social change,” he said.

I wasn’t surprised to hear what he had to say.  If anything, Gingrich has been a consistent representative of the most mainstream “conservative” viewpoint.  If you have been anywhere near a state that has been confronting the issue of same-sex rights in the past decade, you’ve heard the rhetoric already.  The “assault” on “traditional marriage” has been led by a cabal of “activist judges.”  Leave it up to the masses, they say, or else we are walking down an “anti-democratic” road.

Sadly, this analysis is not a new one.  You might think this strand of judicial skepticism within “conservative” thought is the result of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case making abortion legal.  It’s not.  This argument stretches back to the Brown v. Board decision almost two decades earlier, as well as to a host of federal circuit court decisions relating to civil rights which were adjudicated in the years immediately after WWII.

As the courts increasingly recognized the disparity between the Constitution and “real life”–a material condition which included legalized segregation, discrimination, and bold political disenfranchisement–they were persuaded to side with the parties fighting for equal rights.  They did not see their work as that of “activists.” The opinions they issued were framed according to their interpretation of what the law required.  In fact, in a host of cases before and after 1954, judges did EXACTLY WHAT IT WAS THEIR JOB TO DO: make decisions about the law apart from whether or not those decisions were popular or whether or not people wanted them.

It is significant to note that a clear majority of the U.S. public disagreed with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board.  Whether or not they agreed with school segregation is a matter of debate, but they clearly did not agree with compulsory desegregation.  Apart from arguments we would see as “racist” from today’s perspective, many people just thought the courts couldn’t change people’s hearts.  The only way for racist practices like school segregation to end, these “progressives” argued, would be when people felt differently and realized the error of their ways.  Sound familiar?

If you want to read the most famous reply to this kind of thinking, read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

The anti-same-sex marriage movement uses its critique of “activist judges” to suggest the quest for equal rights is the work of people not following the rule of law.  They imply these judges are engaged in a form of social engineering where they disrespect the “will of the people” and the “democratic tradition.”  More than anything, that analysis is political spin.

The “will of the people” has a historic tradition of racism, sexism, and other forms of widely recognized unjust practices.  Would these “conservatives” have left them in tact because of public support?  Do they believe any law is a just and moral law simply by its existence?  What about laws that contradict the Constitution?  What about laws that contradict other laws?  What about capricious laws?  What about those Republicans who sound off anytime somebody encroaches on the Second Amendment?

There are too many contradictions in their line of argumentation to deal with here, and this is why is use the term “conservative” so cautiously.  The same “conservative” mainstream using the “activist judges” arguments are also the old guard when it comes to the “law and order” and “Constitutional rights” arguments.  The reason they see no conflict here is that none of these positions is about philosophy or ideology as much as it is about political expediency.  The “conservatives” in question don’t want to see LGBT people get married, and they are willing to use rhetoric that spits in the face of principles they claim to uphold because it suits their purpose.

Most perspectives in this world depend on the position from which you are viewing a given issue.  The “suicide bombers” who constituted the “terrorists” who “attacked” the United States on September 11, 2001, are “heroes” and “freedom fighters” to others in the world.  Timothy McVeigh, the man who committed a “terrorist attack” on the U.S. is seen by others as a “hero” and a “patriot.”  The list goes on and on.

Many who support the cause of obstructionism and stand opposed to same-sex unions are people who deeply believe in their stance.  They see queer folk the way others saw people of color forty years ago–living in ways that challenge the “norm.” Of course, their norm is hell for the rest of us.  While they long for a time that never really existed, and try to stop the tide of change that takes them further and further away from their mythical “America,” they bypass contradiction because some things become more important than others in the big scheme of things.

The Republican spin doctors who help mobilize them, however, are conscious in their work.  They are out in full force right now doing what they have done for decades, digging in their heels to try and preserve a power imbalance that the force of social conscience and the rule of law are both disabling.  They do so for many reasons, not the least of which is that change brings with it the loss of a tool to mobilize for their causes.  A half century after civil rights became a household word, people have to work a lot harder to use racial fears in the work of politics.  Make a wrong step, and even people sympathetic to your cause may flee out of a sense of guilt and morality.  The Republicans in question recognize same-sex marriage will go the same route if they don’t do something about it.  And they are doing their best to spin their way to success.

But, eventually, they’re just going to get dizzy. . . or dizzier.

Read more LATINO LIKE ME.

Rosa Parks and the Truth of Movement

Today–December 1–is the anniversary of the arrest of Rosa Parks.  On this day, in 1955, she boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and refused to comply with the city code delineating segregation on the bus system.

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In our national history, this “simple” act is now depicted as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, Miss Parks’ refusal to give up her seat did initiate a chain of events providing the context of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a campaign that mobilized that Southern city, drew the attention of the nation and world, and marked the public debut of Martin Luther King Jr. But “the movement” has a history much more complex and with longer roots than suggested by the simplistic narratives we to which we cling.

In this era, when the election of Barack Obama is being characterized by many as the fulfillment of the dream of racial equality and equity, it is perhaps even more important to remind ourselves of how “the movement” has roots in the U.S. radical traditions of the first half of the 20th century; how organized movement by groups of women activists turned a simple arrest into a global campaign; and how the cause of justice remains a worthy endeavor.

For more information on the bus boycott and how collective action turned Rosa Parks’ act into a movement, check out the classic Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson from your local library. For an interesting and detailed account of the long historic roots to the mid-century movement, see Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore’s new book, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950.

NO on Prop 8: because it’s the right thing to do

This is the fifth in a five-part series on the “California Marriage Protection Act,” Proposition 8 on the November 2008 ballot. Parts one, two, three, and four appeared earlier in the week.

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In this final post on California’s Proposition 8, I want to urge those of you who are gay, lesbian, transgender, or allies of the same, to do what you can do to assure this measure is defeated in November.

For those who do not know, Proposition 8 seeks to amend the state Constitution by adding a section which would read: Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California. It is an attempt to overturn the May 2008 decision of the state Supreme Court which legalized same-sex marriage.

As I wrote last July, the coalition of groups against same-sex marriage is diverse in it potential reach. Composed of religious and conservative groups, they also reflect some of the broad racial/ethnic diversity of the state of California. As a largely grassroots organization (or, more appropriately, a coalition of grassroots organizations), with exceedingly deep pockets, they have been poised for some time to whip up fear and support among traditionally ignored voting blocs and get them to the polls in November. Among these constituencies are poor and working-class people of color whose sole regular institutional participation ins usually within their local church.

Last summer my fear was that the “No on Prop. 8” movement would not reach out effectively to these groups, leaving them with no other channel of information than the steady stream of fear from intolerant zealots. I continue to have this fear. Poor and working-class immigrants and people of color are often ignored in political campaigns. It is not surprising, therefore, that they also tend to vote in lower numbers. In an ironic twist, the state of the economy and the campaign of Barack Obama are both contributing to a projected increase in these groups’ participation this fall. Where will they fall on Prop. 8 in California?

My hope is that they vote to reject this measure out of a clear recognition that it is the right thing to do.

Those of us from marginalized communities are intimately familiar with the daily kinds of pain (physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual) inflicted upon those who are not regularly considered part of “we the people.” For the immigrant who chooses to come to this country in search of economic survival, this realization is often expected but no less tragic. For them, the thin veil of American’s image of themselves is nothing but that as they are faced with a daily existence marked by regular forms of discrimination and the feeling of being on the invisible margins. But their participation in this society can have a healing effect.

I remember when my grandmother became a citizen of the United States. An immigrant from Mexico who had lived and worked in the U.S. for her entire adult life, the decision to become a citizen after five decades of being a green card holder came, partially, from a recognition that she wanted to have a voice in the political machinations of this country. While it had become “home” to her long ago, the organized anti-immigrant and anti-color campaigns of the Pete Wilson governorship were too reminiscent of earlier times in the state for her to sit by without some (however minor) political role.

I am glad she will be voting against Prop. 8. Though she is a naturalized citizen, though she attends church every week (and sometimes more), she know there is nothing gained in a society marked by discrimination. She know this makes us all weaker in the fight to make this nation live up to its ideals.

In reality, a vote against Prop. 8 is a fairly conservative move. Same-sex marriage rights still uphold the socially-constructed and politically-sanctioned valorization of marriage as a social institution. It doesn’t challenge that fundamental bias, instead opening up more of the population to nurture it. I suspect someday our society will begin to question whether or not civil authorities need to be in the marriage incentive business at all but for now, that is the dominant model.

I say this to highlight the fact that for many, support of same-sex marriage is not stretch, even if they “morally” disagree with being lesbian or gay.  Many people understand the difference between a law that forces a discreet morality on people in a free society versus one that allows for people to choose their own morality.  A classic argument of the civil rights era was that racial integration was being legislated and that it was bound to fail since you can’t force people to not be racist.  Even so, an end to segregation did not compel anyone who was racist to not be.  They didn’t even have to tolerate “mixed” settings.  They could go on in their daily live keeping themselves and their children in a white bubble.  But, over time, by society stopping to valorize this morality of a few on the majority, its contradictions became increasingly clear.  It is time for us to do the same with homophobia.

This week’s worth of post were not meant to convince the fervent supporters of the ban on equal marriage rights. Such a debate is largely impossible to have. But they are not the majority of this state. The majority are fair-minded people who place social and political equality on the level it deserves. They want us to be a healthier, more just, more equitable society. They only need to be reminded, when they are faced with the opportunity to do so, how important it is to take that step.

For more information, click here.

NO on Prop 8: because it’s homophobic

This is the fourth in a five-part series on the “California Marriage Protection Act,” Proposition 8 on the November 2008 ballot. Parts one, two, and three appeared earlier in the week.

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California’s Proposition 8 seeks to amend the state Constitution by adding a section which would read: Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

Such an addition to the state Constitution would discriminate against gay and lesbian couples because they would no longer enjoy the equal rights they now share with heterosexual couples, namely, the ability to marry in civil ceremonies, have that marriage recognized by civil authorities, and enjoy the public recognition and benefit of being married. This is, of course, the rub. People who support the measure do not want parity between gay and lesbian couples and heterosexual couples. They “celebrate” the “legal equality” of the state’s domestic partnership regulations with the state’s civil marriage ones, but still disagree with the legality of same-sex marriage, an even “more equal” move. What is beneath the seemingly contradictory stances?

Simply put, support for Pop. 8 is about homophobia. It is about a largely irrational fear of gay, lesbian, and transgender people in our world.  Its supporters are engaged in a move to maintain a social system which embodies homophobia, what many call heterosexism.

When it comes down to it, this is the basic position of the “Yes on Prop. 8” effort. They view the increasingly public visibility of homosexuality and its accompanying rising levels of tolerant acceptance as an attack on their vision of a society based on their conceptions of right and wrong. And for once, they’re right. Unlike those other moral questions (like murder or crime, like democracy versus fascism) this one does not threaten the larger social contract, except when we do not preserve equal marriage rights.  When your vision includes having to dictate “morality” for other people rather than protect their freedom to decide for themselves what is “moral,” then history shows your vision will, eventually, be dismantled.

Where they’re wrong is not in their analysis but in their chosen position, a reflection of the some of the most destructive kinds of cultural arrogance and fear which have marked our history with pain, death, and oppression instead of fostering in it freedom and equality.

I will be among the first to say there is a contextual and historical difference between being nonwhite in U.S. society and being lesbian, gay, or transgender. That isn’t because of biology or levels of oppression (what Chicana writer Cherrí Moraga called the “oppression olympics”). This is an analysis based on the role played by whiteness in U.S. history and in the way it continues to work as a definitive element of both our national culture and social formation. Racism and homophobia have differences, rooted in the past and present, which are worth understanding.  That said, the tactics of oppression, inequality, and discrimination used in a system of racism compared to those used in a system of heterosexism are like different instruments in an orchestra, each playing their own part of a grand symphony. They are connected, and often reliant upon on another, building with each other in one common cause.

The eloquent and critically sophisticated Martin Luther King expressed this in the previously quoted “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” when he wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” His sentiment was itself a reincarnation of the sense of unity and common struggle expressed in the slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all.” That mantra came from the International Workers of the World (IWW), one of the most radical labor unions in U.S. history, who first worked to mobilize all workers despite their job or job status. One was rooted in Christianity; the other in labor theory. Both are a bold recognition of mutuality–of the ways in which all of us, our hopes and our struggles, are interconnected.

This same fundamental analysis is reflected in the grand narrative of the U.S. past, but in its inverse. That story has been expressed as one of increasing and expanding liberty and freedom for all, from the extension of voting rights to the end of legal sex/race discrimination. At the heart of this narrative structure is the assumption that “democracy” can only be real if it truly involves those who are governed. When the U.S. began as a nation, roughly 15% of the population had the right to vote. That’s it. Restrictions based on wealth/property, gender, race, and age, to name a few, made this the case. In time, this became proof of the lack of democracy in the nation. Accordingly, in this framework, the extension of rights to African Americans, to women, to Native Americans, were all connected, even to the rights of the landed, white male. The vote of one made the vote of all the others more real, more meaningfully democratic.

What we are faced with in the proposed measure is the antithesis of this humanistic truth, observable in the struggles of our past. Homophobia–like all fears–is isolating and reductive where humanism is expanding and interconnecting. It rests on the rejection of our commonness and mutuality. It requires a person to define those whom they fear as so different from themselves as to be “other,” foreign, dangerous, or immoral. Their threat is that they are not you. Conversely, the homphobe selectively defines their “self,” as well, choosing a set of ideas and constructs that make them who they are, facilitating the delicate game of identifying “us” and “them.”

This homophobic measure forces an historical comparison with the other kinds of oppression which nurture it and, in turn, which it nurtures. The most obvious is with the diverse and sustained effort in our shared past to maintain racism as a system of exclusion and inequality. Towards the end of its institutional decline, the supporters of racial inequality had reached a point where they recognized their cause was no longer popular enough to assure its blind support by the public at large.  The United States has become increasingly “infected” with the notion that black people were as equal as whites.  They had also become increasingly conscience of the ways racism, as a system of exclusion and oppression, ran against the idealized tradition of this nation.

At that moment, the historical record is increasingly filled with examples of racists trying to justify racism on grounds other than race.  They used arguments about state’s rights to say it was the will of the people in th South for Jim Crow to be the law.  They celebrated “separate but equal” saying it was not about inferiority, just difference.  They accused the federal government of trying to force social change when “the people” were not ready for that change.  They did what they could to make the rational argument for their irrational fear, all the while strategizing to sell it to the larger public.  Does any of this sound familiar?

One of the topics I cover each year in my introductory Latino history class is the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first federal law effectively barring a racial group from immigrating to the U.S.  After its passage, people from Latin America continued to immigrate to the U.S. and had no legal impediment to their movement.  So why is it important to Latino history?  Well, in short, it was the first legal step in a course that nurtured racial hatred and violence against all workers of color; that led to outrages like the deportation of over one hundred thousand United States citizens because of their Mexican heritage; that even, in many ways, fostered the kinds of draconian ICE raids we suffer today.

When the irrational fear and hatred of homophobia is allowed to continue to exist in institutional and systemic ways, then we are all inured by it, whether we be gay, lesbian, transgender, or straight.

For more information, click here.

NO on Prop 8: because the other side are liars

This is the third in a five-part series on the “California Marriage Protection Act,” Proposition 8 on the November 2008 ballot. Parts one and two appeared earlier in the week.

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California’s Proposition 8 seeks to amend the state Constitution by adding a section which would read: Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

The coalition of religious and conservative groups who are aligned with the “Yes on Prop. 8” effort are bold-faced, unethical liars. There. I said it. It’s that plain and that simple.

We are near the conclusion of a presidential election cycle which means most of us are awash in a sea of “spin.” The daily barrage of half-truths and outright lies is almost too much to bear. At some point, we just kind of turn it off and tune out. But it’s worth remembering that this is exactly the kind of campaign being waged right now with respect to the “Yes on Prop. 8” effort.

Here’s an example. The short paragraph I began this post with is the entire text of Prop. 8. That’s it. The measure has nothing to do with education, adoption, or economic policy. It has nothing to do with a church–any church–and its rights to do whatever they like. Nothing.

Yet you would not know that from the “Yes on Prop. 8” campaign. Their website (which I won’t link here but is really easy to find) describes the California Supreme Court decision which made same-sex marriage legal as overturning “the will of California voters.” This might seem like simple truth, since California voters passed a proposition in 2000 defining marriage as between “a man and a woman.” But it’s spin. As discussed in the previous post in this series, the process the court performs has nothing to do with “our” consensus as voters on a given position and everything to do with our consensus on a constitutional government. We demand that it is their job to make sure our government respects the laws and values as reflected in our Constitution. That’s what they did.

If we relied on the “will of the voters” to be our standard of Constitutional interpretation then segregated schools would still be the norm. When the U.S. Supremem Court issued their famous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the vast majority of Americans supported segregated schools–and not just in the South. The point of the courts is to make their decision apart from all that, and the “Yes” folks know that. They just want to piss you off. And anyway, when did the “will of the voters” become such a static thing? Rather than just ask people how they feel about same-sex marriage, they have to make sure you don’t think about it and instead think about how much you don’t like so-called “activist courts.”

Isn’t what we’re doing in this proposition voting on whether or not it is “our will”? What sense is there in opposing a measure whose consequences you support because you don’t like how those consequences were arrived at? Why can’t we discuss the values of same-sex marriage without resorting to tactics of fear?

And that’s what helps us see the truth of the effort. The one overriding reason this side lies in order to mobilize support for their cause is that their entire cause boils down to one simple position: gay and lesbian Californians should be discriminated against in the law. They need people to turn off their commitments to equality, to decency, and to common sense. They need people to ignore the months of legal same-sex marriages in the state with no other consequence other than happy, married couples. Most Californians don’t agree with their belief, but they can be moved to vote yes if they are inundated with enough lies and half-truths to obscrue the truth of the measure. And that’s exactly what is happening.

The ads funded by the “Yes on Prop. 8” effort communicate a steady stream of bullshit meant to incite fear, hate, and some of the worse tendencies in the electorate. They say that legalized same-sex marriage means “schools will now be required to teach students that gay marriage is the same as traditional marriage.” (It should be, and I hope it is, but this proposition will not be the nail in that coffin.) They say churches will loose their tax exempt status. They say a lot, but none of it is true. Californians already know that when same-sex marriage became legal, the sky didn’t fall, the earth didn’t open up, and soceity as we know it didn’t begin it’s decline.

They are joined by more “academic” efforts as well. Groups like the Family Research Council (FRC) issue regular mailings filled with the most biased and least truthful form of dissemination of academic work, all in the name of promoting discrimination. A visit to their website shows a list of reasons to oppose the measure–all relating to adoption and the rearing of children. First of all, whether you like it or not, same-sex couples can adopt in the state of California (but not without some forms of local discrimination). If you don’t like that, try working in some public social work capacity and see what conditions tens of thousands of children are living in. You should read the research on what makes a good home for foster and adopted children, often the solution to this anti-child society. It has NOTHING to do with whether or not the parents are of the same gender or not and everything to do with the kinds of love and support they can give.

The FRC uses very specific research which studies, for example, children who are raised in single-parent households without a father, and then extrapolates it to form conclusions about two-parent households where the parents are both moms. If they were in my class they’d get an “F” for that kind of work. It’s an unfair use of research, and an unethical tactic in a political campaign.

The worst part of all of this is that these groups are supposed to be the moral and ethical ones in society. Many of them are religious and religiously affiliated. In the real world classroom of our society, they are all earning an “F” by allying themselves with a cause that is so discriminatory it can not face the substance of its very narrow stance. (I’ll say it: if Jesus were around he’d be for same-sex marriage, too!)

By spinning a campaign based on everything but the direct issue at hand, these groups are signaling voters that there is something wrong. That something, is the “Yes on Prop. 8” campaign.

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NO on Prop 8: because it’s unequal

This is the second in a five-part series on the “California Marriage Protection Act,” Proposition 8 on the November 2008 ballot.

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California’s Proposition 8 seeks to amend the state Constitution by adding a section which would read: Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

Currently, same-sex marriages are legal in the State of California. They were made legal after the organized and individual struggles of many people found some resolution in the courts. On May 15, 2008, in a decision relating to a number of cases consolidated before the State Supreme Court, the justices decided by a 4-3 decision that the Constitution of California required people to be treated equally with regard to the “right to marriage.” The majority decision reflected the widespread rejection of the premise “that gay individuals and same-sex couples are in some respects “second-class citizens” who may, under the law, be treated differently from, and less favorably than, heterosexual individuals or opposite-sex couples.”

Even before this court decision, California had made same-sex unions legal via the designation “domestic partnership.” While this legal designation provided same-sex couples numerous benefits and responsibilities associated with legally-defined “marriage,” it did not do so fully. There remained a legal difference (as well as a social difference) between “marriage” and “domestic partnership.” This difference, this lack of equality, proved the deciding factor for the court. It should provide the same for us as a society.

To oppose the decision of the court, and seek to reverse it via the method of a voter initiative, is to stand against the principle of equality as embedded in the laws and culture of the United States. Furthermore, it is an opposition that can not, in the long run, succeed.

As a historian, I’ve always been kind of irked by the ubiquitous tactic of the radical right labeling all court decisions they disagree with as the product of an “activist court.” This is convenient, to be sure, but it is also so hypocritical. The political system in which we live and enjoy our rights is one reliant upon the principle of judicial review. We trust the courts to be the arbiter of what is and is not in line with the constitutions of our states and our nation. This role has been played by the courts for almost as long as there has been a United States, and certainly for as long as there has been a State of California. A consequence of it is a periodic change in the law that is expansive. To object to the court’s processes by labeling a some changes as “activist” is to really object to the role they play fundamentally. It assumes the court should do nothing because they can never make a decision with an impact on the law or society, or that they can make no decision that is not popular or driven by the consensus of the people

Of course, courts are not infallible. Segregation and other forms of systemic inequality were legally protected by the same judicial system now upholding same-sex couple’s right to marry. I am not arguing that since the California courts decided in favor of same-sex marriage we must support the issue. I am far more concerned with the ways a court makes its decisions, the principles it applies and uses to frame it decisions. In this case, the overwhelming force in the court’s decision was the principle of “equality” and non-discrimination. That principle–when protected by the courts and reflected in its decisions–should also serve as a suggestion to us that they succeeded in their Constitutionally-dictated role.

Equality is fundamental to our society. We are a culture which firmly believes in the obligation of the state to treat each of us the same way as the other. Our legal history has been, in part, one of an expansion of the notion of equality. Most notably in the realm of race, our judicial system has played a primary role in communicating an evolving sense of what equality means in our nation, of who is deserving of it, and how it can go from an idea to a lived reality.

Equality has also occupied a fundamental place in the history of struggles for social justice. In almost every way, movements of people seeking a more just world have been the pretext of any court decision expanding our notion of equality. Perhaps this nurtures the “activist court” critique, but it also speaks volumes about the court system being something of a follower more than a leader in the crusade for justice and equality. As a cornerstone of movements for justice, equality has also been expansive and interconnected. The struggle for legal equality of Blacks and Whites is directly connected to later struggles for educational equality for Asians and Latinos, to marriage equality for all races, to gender equality in voting, and so on.

This interconnection makes the struggle for gay, lesbian, and transgender equality intimately part of all struggles for equality. With respect to rights, a society can not thrive for some as it flounders for others. Much like a fire, which must be fully contained if it is to cease posing a threat, injustice must be defeated everywhere if it can exist anywhere. We are all diminished in a context of inequality, as we would be with the passage of Prop. 8, whether we are within or without the LGBT community

The thirst for freedom from discrimination and for real equality is something that can not be denied, historically speaking. As Martin Luther King said in his Nobel Peace Prize address in 1964, “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.” The condition of the denial of freedom and equality helps to nurture that thirst, as it demands mass struggle to quench it.

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