Tag Archives: equality

What Kind of Equality?

Yesterday, I participated in a panel discussion on equality. The panel was part of the 10th Annual O’Bannon Institute for Community Service, held at Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington.

Our panel’s charge was very broad: we were supposed to discuss “equality” and consider America’s progress toward achieving it. In addition to me, the panel included a retired Pastor who heads the Bloomington Human Rights Commission, a social worker who founded and runs an organization called “Fair Talk” focused on equal rights for GLBT folks, and an 86-year old former football star who was the first African-American recruited by the NFL.

Beyond sharing stories from our different perspectives, we confronted a question: what do we mean by equality? No two people, after all, are equally smart, equally good-looking, equally talented or hardworking. What sorts of equality can we reasonably expect to achieve?

At the very least, we agreed that all Americans are entitled to equality before the law. Laws that disadvantage people based upon race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation—laws that treat people differently simply based upon their identity—cannot be justified. America’s greatest promise has been that our laws treat individuals as individuals, and not as members of a group. As a country, we are making progress toward that goal. The progress is halting, and the culture sometimes lags, but we’re getting there.

That’s the good news. The bad news, as the pastor reminded us, is that inequalities of wealth and power in this country are enormous and growing. The wealthiest Americans not only control a huge percentage of the country’s resources, their wealth also allows them to exercise disproportionate political power. America is in real danger of becoming a plutocracy.

I hasten to assure my readers that there weren’t any socialists on that panel; no one was advocating class warfare or massive redistribution of wealth. We all understand the benefits of market economies, and recognize that inequalities are inevitable in such systems. The problems arise when the inequities become too large, and when they are seen as the product of privilege and status rather than entrepreneurship and/or diligence. It is then that they breed social resentment and create political instability.

America is doing a reasonable job of leveling the legal playing field. But you can’t eat legal equality, you can’t pay the rent with it, and it won’t cure cancer.




Social Justice

I was asked to talk to a group of scholarship students yesterday about effecting social change and achieving social justice.

I began by sharing a bit of my personal history with social change (there should be some lessons to be learned from living through a significant period of American social history). In my case, I grew up Jewish during the 50s and 60s; I watched the civil rights movement “up close and personal;” I took part in the women’s  movement; and I span the time between when “gay” meant “happy” and no one ever uttered the word “homosexual” and the current fight for same-sex marriage. So I have some perspective. And as I told the students, I can attest to the fact social change is not only possible, it’s inevitable.

Change, of course, is not synonymous with improvement. I’m absolutely convinced that if we want to create progress–good change–our efforts must be framed in ways that are consistent with what I like to call our “constitutional culture.”

“Constitutional culture” is simply a shorthand for the recognition that legal systems shape worldviews. The attitudes and expectations of people ruled by the Taliban are vastly different from the attitudes of people living in a country that emphasizes values of personal liberty and political equality.

The values incorporated in the American legal system, fortunately, are entirely consistent with an emphasis on social justice.

In the wake of the horrific shooting at Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s Town Hall in Tucson, PBS’ Mark Shields made an “only in America” observation that illustrates the point. Shields said:

“This is America, where a white Catholic male Republican judge was murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon, all eulogized by our African-American President.”

There, in a nutshell, is what most of us would consider the triumph of American culture—the fact that the nation has moved, however haltingly, toward a vision that allows all of us to be members in good standing of our society, equal participants in our national story, whatever our religious belief, skin color, sexual orientation or national origin.  What makes us all Americans isn’t based upon any of those individual identities, but upon our allegiance to what I like to call “the American Idea”—a particular worldview based upon an understanding of government and citizenship that grew out of the Enlightenment and was subsequently enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

As I told the students, my argument is pretty simple: Social justice has to be approached from within that worldview, and arguments for social change need to be framed in ways that are consistent with it—or it won’t work.

Take the recent votes on same-sex marriage. The four victories at the polls on Nov. 6th were an exciting sign that public opinion is moving in the direction of equality and social justice. Of course, fundamental rights should never have been put to a vote of the electorate in the first place.  No one got to vote on whether the government should recognize my marriage, and it is constitutionally improper to give me the power to vote on anyone else’s.

The Bill of Rights marks off certain areas of our lives where government doesn’t belong—areas where we get to make our own decisions about our lives. Very few Americans seem to understand that in our system, the issue isn’t whether the book you are reading is good or bad—it’s who gets to decide what book you read. It isn’t whether you are praying to the proper God, or praying at all—it’s who gets to decide whether and to whom you pray. Constitutionally, the issue isn’t who you marry—it’s the propriety of allowing government to decide who you marry.

It’s because our system is based upon protecting our personal autonomy—our right to decide for ourselves how we shall live our lives—that social change so often begins with the courts. When majorities insist on making decisions that are not theirs to make, we need the courts to step in and remind us that in our system, fundamental rights are not subject to popular passions. Theoretically, our courts should all be “activist” when majorities try to make decisions they are not entitled to make, but the truth is, courts inevitably reflect the social attitudes of their times. Brown v. Board wouldn’t have been decided as it was unless popular sentiment had already moved. The fact that we have a judicial system charged with protecting minorities doesn’t relieve us of the duty to create the attitudes that enable the courts to do their job.

That brings us to the importance of framing. If we want to change social attitudes, and produce a cultural environment in which desirable change can occur, we need to frame the issues in ways that appeal to our sense of what it means to be an American.

Successive groups of outsiders have done that. They’ve staked their claims as Americans to equal treatment under the law. In the process, they’ve not only won social acceptance–they’ve made America’s Constitutional culture stronger–and life better and more just for us all.







Going Down Ugly

According to a March, 2011 survey from Pew, 58% of Americans believe that homosexuality should be accepted, while 33% believe it should not be. Leaving aside what the individuals surveyed thought constituted “acceptance,” this is yet another indicator that the cultural tide is flowing in the right direction; indeed, when the survey responses were broken down by age, gender and such, the results confirmed numerous prior studies showing that younger cohorts are massively more supportive of equality—including same-sex marriage—than are their elders.

In the face of this rapid and positive social change, the Right is becoming increasingly hysterical.

A couple of days before this year’s Pride celebration, a friend forwarded a “Special Prayer Request” from the AFA of Indiana that illustrates how ugly that hysteria gets, and how intellectually dishonest these radical right organizations really are. It began with an admonition that the photos appended to the email were not intended to “offend” anyone. (Those photos were the usual, carefully selected “shockers” from previous Pride parades. I’ve gone to Pride events for the past twenty years, and these days, they generally include large numbers of parents with strollers, real estate and other sales booths, and a whole host of elected officials. Strangely enough, those elements of the crowd weren’t pictured.)

The email then listed “some of the vendors registered with Indy Pride” for this year, leading off with the Great Lakes Leather Bondage and S&M Society” (a new one for me), and including the Indiana Socialist Party. (Indiana has a Socialist Party??), “various apostate churches and fringe religious entities” (by their definition, I assume Episcopalians and Presbyterians are part of that apostate fringe), and others with “gender identity disorders” or who are characterized as “left-wing” and “pro-abortion.”

Micah Clark, the author of the email, makes the assertion—which he underlines—that “homosexuals are less than 3% of the population,” and he accuses the Pride organization (and, presumably, the photographers and reporters who cover Pride events) of exaggerating attendance numbers. Although reputable scholars suggest that considerably more than 3% of the population is gay, let’s just accept that number—and recognize the real argument being made here: that we shouldn’t have to treat such a small number of people fairly. Presumably, minorities don’t deserve equal treatment under the law.  Aside from the Un-American nature of that assertion, I can only wonder what he thinks the cut-off percentage is? Since extremist rightwing Christians are also a minority, albeit a minority larger than 3%, does their percentage of the population cross the magic boundary that permits them to assert constitutional rights?)

What seems to really outrage Micah Clark is that this year, the Indianapolis Police Department officially participated for the first time.

After engaging in some two and a half pages of twisted, dishonest rhetoric (including an astonishing assertion that the nation’s founders were “deeply troubled” by “this kind of thing”), Clark ends with a request that recipients pray for “those trapped by sexual brokenness and even those who oppose us.”

How ironically gracious of him!

Painting minority groups as irretrievably “other” is a time-dishonored tactic of bigots. It is one of the many ways in which the gay community has been marginalized and discriminated against over the years. And it’s not working any more.

President Obama’s favorite Martin Luther King quote is that “the arc of history bends toward justice.” That arc is by no means smooth, but we’re getting there.

Cultural Whiplash

Who are we supposed to believe, our lying eyes or the polls?

On the one hand, efforts to marginalize gays—to label them as permanently “other,” as second or third-class citizens—have heated up since the advent of the Tea Party and the 2010 elections. Here in Indiana, we have seen the resurrection of efforts to constitutionalize a ban against same-sex marriage, an effort that has been dutifully endorsed by the majority party, and seems likely to pass during this legislative session.

Fortunately, the Indiana Constitution requires that proposed amendments be passed—in identical form—by two separately elected legislatures, so there’s hope it can still be defeated.  There is no similar roadblock to an equally hateful anti-immigration provision, modeled upon Arizona’s law, or to measures aimed at rolling back women’s right to control their own reproduction.

Other states seem fixated on efforts to exclude and demonize Muslims. The most ludicrous are measures passed by several states that outlaw the imposition of Sharia law—thus “solving” an absolutely non-existent problem.

In the U.S. Congress, a number of anti-woman measures are part of what appears to be a full-court press to repeal the 21st—and maybe the 20th—century. Newly elected ideologues are voting against science (the 31 Republican members of the House Energy Committee voted that global climate change doesn’t exist and besides, it isn’t caused by human activity) and economic reality (trying to reduce the deficit by refusing to raise taxes on even our richest citizens, and passing cuts likely to reduce revenues further by throwing the economy back into recession).

Looking at the news these days is a prescription for depression. Who are these people we’ve elected, and why are they actively trying to repeal the Enlightenment and destroy everything that makes America great? Are they insane, or just really, really ignorant?  What does it say about us that we elected these buffoons?

And yet.

Several recent surveys from respected pollsters have shown a slight majority of Americans in favor of same-sex marriage. An overwhelming majority favors legislation that would forbid employers from firing people simply because they are gay. The same Congress that seems to be trying to put women back in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, did repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The Department of Justice has confirmed what seemed pretty obvious to many of us—that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional—and consequently, announced that DOJ won’t defend it in court. Even Arizona appears to be backing off its hateful anti-immigration campaign—not because Arizona legislators have suddenly come to their senses, but because their bigotry has cost the state millions in lost business and tourism. Nice people decided to spend their money elsewhere—and it turned out there are a lot of nice people.

In short, the politics of equality is decidedly mixed. If we look for evidence of progress, there’s plenty to see. If we look for evidence that we are regressing, we’ll see that too. If we look at the whole picture, we get whiplash.

I cling to one amply documented bit of evidence: every poll, every survey, shows that the younger generation—those under 35 or so—are more tolerant, more accepting of difference, more at ease in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural world.

So when my generation is gone, things will improve. Unfortunately, a lot of people will be hurt while we’re waiting.

Us versus Them, Redux

When I was growing up in Anderson, Indiana, Jews were often viewed as an alien species. I can remember being asked—in all seriousness—whether Jews had tails, and whether we lived in houses, like “real people.” In addition to these innocent if disconcerting questions, I also remember being called a “dirty Jew” for the first (but not last) time, when I was in second grade.

Fast forward. I was in my late teens and in college when John F. Kennedy ran for President. I vividly recall fellow students assuring me that Catholics were stockpiling arms in the basements of their churches (presumably to be used if he lost, but that was unclear). Those with less vivid imaginations nevertheless muttered darkly about “popery” and warned that a Kennedy Presidency would mean American obedience to Rome.

America has largely moved beyond those particular bigotries, and it would be comforting to believe we’ve matured enough as a society to avoid that sort of crude stereotyping of whole groups of people.

Apparently, many of us haven’t.

Recent news articles have reported on efforts in several cities—including supposedly cosmopolitan New York—to prevent Muslim congregations from building mosques. Opponents of those building permits have characterized Muslim places of worship as “terrorist cells,” and the religion as an incubator of anti-Western, anti-democratic values. Here in Indiana, where perennial candidate Marvin Scott is running for Congress against Andre Carson, one of two Muslims serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, ugly anti-Muslim sentiments are regularly posted to Scott’s Facebook page.

Are there Muslim terrorists? Sure. There are also Catholics whose devotion to the Church trumped their American duty to report child molestation to the authorities. There are Jews who engage in “sharp” business practices. There are lazy black people, emotionally volatile women and gay pedophiles. There are also all-American Christian terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, WASP crooks like Enron’s Ken Lay, strong women like Hillary Clinton and innumerable lazy white guys and heterosexual pedophiles. Judging people on the basis of invidious stereotypes doesn’t get us very far.

One of the foundations of the American value system—embedded in our legal system and culture—is this recognition that people deserve to be judged on the basis of their individual behaviors, not on the basis of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.  

We are living through some very tough times right now, and it is understandable that many of us are looking for scapegoats—someone to blame for a world that seems increasingly out of our control. It is human instinct to look askance at those who are unfamiliar, who look different, who come from other places or who follow different customs. There are also genuine issues that arise when groups new to the American landscape are in the process of assimilating to that landscape.  But we dishonor the American principles of equality and fair play when we treat any community as monolithic.

 Muslims—like Protestants, Jews, Catholics and other believers and nonbelievers—are just “real people.”