Friday, July 29, 2011

Dangerous Complacency

On July 2nd, 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act that had just been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives a few hours earlier, into law. The act outlawed segregation in businesses such as theaters, restaurants, and hotels. It banned discriminatory practices in employment and ended segregation in public places such as swimming pools, libraries, and public schools.

Passage of that piece of legislation was not easy. It had been bottled up in the House Rules Committee and in the Senate, opponents attempted to kill the legislation with a filibuster. It is a testament to the tireless work and clear vision of people of conscience that the Civil Rights Act became law in 1964. But, what if it all ended with the passage of that landmark legislation? What if all activist decided simply to stop all of their work on July 2nd, 1964? What if the NAACP simply closed its door on that victorious day? What if donors to the advancement of Civil Rights and human dignity decided to stop donating? What if volunteers decided to lend their efforts to other causes, and there were several important causes and good works (the Vietnam War, Peace Corps)? What if the President simply decided to focus on other matters?

Without sustained political pressure, volunteers, donations, activists, we would probably never have passed the Civil Rights Act of 1965 that outlawed literacy tests and poll taxes as a way of assessing whether anyone was fit or unfit to vote. After the passage of the 1965 Act, all you needed to vote was American citizenship and the registration of your name on an electoral list, after the passage of the 1965 Act no form of hindrance to this would be tolerated by the law courts. If everyone threw a party, celebrated and went home after the signing of the 1965 Act’s signing into law, what then?

The Civil Rights Act of 1968 that among other things ended legal housing discrimination, would probably not have been passed into law. If people stopped working for Equality after the signing of the 1968 Act, then there would have been no Civil Rights Act of 1991 that protected workers from unlawful harassment and intentional discrimination in the workplace.

The point of this is that the attainment of Civil Rights and Social Justice are rarely, if ever, “an event,” if history is an accurate guide, this is usually a long, painful, tedious and costly process. There will always be vested interests and uncharitable people who will work, contribute and organize to oppress minorities. Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous quote that the “Arc of history bends towards justice,” is a noble truth meant to inspire in the face of evil and not as a license to do nothing in the face of evil.

In our War for Human Dignity, we will be forced to engage in many battles. We have recently won two major battles, the final repeal of DADT that will occur on September 20th, 2011 and the establishment of Marriage Equality in New York State. Some in our community feel that they have won and that someone else, somewhere else, can fight other battles elsewhere. These sentiments are reported in an article by Alana Horowitz (Full Story).

The line of thought expressed by some members of our community is dangerous on two levels. First, there is still much work that must be accomplished before we reach Full Federal Equality and beyond that goal, Full Equality for members of our community Internationally. Here are just two major mileposts on the road ahead:

• Repeal of DOMA (the falsely named “Defense” of Marriage Act)

• Passage of ENDA (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act)

Even after we have won, and we will win, Full Federal (legal) Equality. There will be decades of work to be done to establish Full Social Equality for members of our community. There is a distinction between “legal” protection and “social” acceptance. This was tragically pressed home last fall with a spate of suicides of young people in our community. People who were hounded into self-hatred and despair by those who would “keep us in our place” (i.e. silent and invisible).

It is important, healthy and good to celebrate victories in our battles. This encourages future efforts and necessary sacrifices. However, it is a fatal mistake to assume that a victorious outcome to a particular battle, such as the victory in New York State or the Repeal of DADT, marks an end to our War for Human Dignity. It most certainly does not and I promise you that the oppressive elements at NOM and their funders in Salt Lake City and the Knights of Columbus have not stopped trying to restore injustice.


Tal said...

Fr. Geoff, reading your last few posts brings a two quotes from Sun Tzu to mind.

"Know yourself and know your enemy, and in a thousand battles you will have a thousand victories."

"Opportunities multiply as they are seized."

I think our community has overall done a good job of understanding our opponents, and the fallacies in their arguments. And we're making headway even in their bastion of the Church. But you're right about not sitting on our haunches. Long way to go....

Lucrece said...

I fully oppose ENDA. It fails to provide housing discrimination protections, and it's just a crappy work-around to revisiting the civil rights code to include sexual orientation/gender identity.

All because prominent minority members in the Democratic party don't see gay people as worthy of protections that they themselves enjoy.

Father Geoff said...

Dear Lucrece,

I empathize with your frustration, a Political Science professor I had as an undergraduate said the following: “The reason that liberals have such difficulty in passing progressive laws is that, they want the whole loaf. In politics, it’s a good day if you manage to get one half of the loaf.

Many, including myself, have denounced instrumentalism because what we are ultimately fighting for is human dignity, our right to simply “be.” The problem with instrumentalism is that it is often employed as an apology for politicians who are unwilling to take a risk and publicly stand (vote) for Equality. It is also employed as an excuse for inaction, or worse, for supporting the aforementioned politicians who betray justice motivated by political expediency.

Let us be clear, we are engaged in a war for our right to exist. That war has, is and will be composed of many, many battles. The repeal of DADT was a step forward; however, spouses of LGBT service members will still be denied base housing and countless other benefits due to DOMA. The repeal of DOMA is yet another battle we must win. ENDA also is an imperfect law, as you justly point out, however I recall that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also failed to address the issue of housing discrimination based on race. Title VIII of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 addressed that, but without the Civil Rights Act of 1964 there would have been no Fair Housing Act of 1968.

My point is that, although imperfect, the repeal of DADT and the passage of ENDA represent substantive progress for members of our community. Even after full federal legal equality and protection for our community is achieved, we will have to continue to work and fight for full social equality. That, as in the case of the Civil Rights movement, will be an on going series of additional battles for a few more generations.