Wednesday, November 05, 2008

We're Not Done Yet!

I was sorely tempted to write an unequivocally joyous post this morning, trumpeting the new dawn in American politics. I stayed up far too late last night, drinking far too many celebratory beers, filled with pride in a country that could elect a man named Barack Hussein Obama, the son of a Kenyan and a Kansan, president.

I wanted to proclaim a last and final (yes, I know that's redundant) end to the Civil War, with an African-American not only winning a presidential election, but even gaining the electoral votes of the former capitol of the Confederacy.

I wanted to do this. I really did. But my joy is tinged with grief this morning. Because I see a new Civil War emerging.

While one avenue of oppression was at least partially closed, with racism getting a stinging (if incomplete - the election of a black president neither ends nor erases centuries of institutional racism) rebuke, another avenue of oppression is seeing a tremendous increase in traffic.

Across the country there were ballot initiatives designed to trample of the rights of same-sex couples, and all four of them passed:

With 92% reporting, Arizona Proposition 102 is ahead 57% to 43%, which means, of course, that it has passed. This is especially painful because a similar ballot initiative, Arizona Proposition 107, was defeated 51.8% to 48.2% only two years ago. In those two years, then, it seems homophobia and heterosexism have enjoyed a 9 point bump in Arizona.

Meanwhile, Arkansas voters, responding to a 2006 Arkansas State Supreme Court ruling that a state policy banning LGBT foster and adoptive parents, have "approved a measure banning unmarried couples who are living together being adoptive or foster parents." This ban is essentially a back-door route to banning LGBT foster and adoptive parents, although its victims are not limited to the LGBT community.

In Florida, voters - not content with having already banned same-sex marriage - have voted to do it again, just for good measure, passing Amendment 2 62% to 38%.

But, most shockingly, it looks like California Proposition 8, a measure to change that state's Constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage, has probably passed. Yes, even in California, heterosexism and homophobia still rule.

Last night was still a great night for America. The country stood up and demanded change, and change has happened. But many, many more changes are still needed. A young African-American girl or boy may now be able to dream of leading the country without being laughed out of the room, but a gay man or a lesbian can still be denied fundamental rights, and can still be scapegoated for the problems faced by heterosexual couples.

Racism may have been dealt a blow, but it has certainly not been killed. And, this same election that dealt that blow to racism has also proven that heterosexism and homophobia are not only still alive and well, but are in fact growing.

So congratulations to Barack Obama, president-elect of the United States. And congratulations to America for taking a bold but necessary step. We can certainly rejoice in this great moment. But my rejoicing is muted this morning, as I mourn for those citizens of this great nation who were told in no uncertain terms last night that they are still "other," still "less than," still at best second-class citizens, who cannot marry the person they love, who cannot adopt children (or even take in foster children!) and who may even be denied the right to visit their partner in hospitals.

So, by all means, take a moment to celebrate. But when that moment is done, realize this sobering truth: Injustice and inequality persist, and are in some very significant ways growing in strength.

We're not done yet!



Oh, and Comic Elon James White takes on the notion that Obama's victory somehow signals an end to racism and the rise of a post-racial society in Episode 12 of his brilliant This Week in Blackness:


Liam said...

Yeah, the ballot measure thing is bad. We have a long way to go.

The video was very funny and right on.

Renee said...

At the time that I wrote my reflection on election night Prop 8 was still unsettled. When I finally found out unequivocally that it had passed a sadness descended upon me. I just for the life of me cannot understand how people can actively choose not to support love. The yes on 8 only shows how far the states still have to go to affirm the humanity of all. This is one time I really wish Americans would look northward to Canada where we have legalized gay marriage. It has not damaged our society, it has not reduced the rights of straight couples, gay marriage has only affirmed the love of gay couples and allowed them to have the legal and social recognition that they deserve.

brian beech said...

I congratulate you on your party's victory. I do not share in the excitement and have a lot of negative feelings toward Obama, but nevertheless, the country voted and he is in. So congrats.

I watched the video and just wanted to give you my impression of it; you know, a differing opinion to share.

The comedian made a lot of statements but one that really resonated with me was his explaining that Obama and Oprah are the two that they have. Obviously he does not participate in mainstream society (where I work everyday). I have many blacks in positions over me and many of them are very capable and well respected people. I look at the gov't and see that there are more black people than just Obama. Basically, I find his comments a big out of touch with normal society.

Gay marriage... I understand, if you support gay marriage, how you could be sad; much like I am sad that Obama won the presidency. But, the people voted and they defeated/accepted the proposals. Once again, the people have voted, and that should be the final word. If you read the headlines today, you will see that thousands took to the streets and protested the vote and clashed with police. I see these people as the one's who want to take power away from the people and allow judicial activism to continue. Of course, I'm sure they only want this when it does not push their agenda. Fact is, if the voters approve/deny something that should be the last word. Now, we all know that they can put an initiative on the ballot to accept gay marriage and vote on it...and they can do this every election until its passed; much like voting in casinos. Once in, there would be no more voting to remove said initiative.

Congrats again... Hope he's a much better president than I'm expecting.

Sandalstraps said...


Alas, no time to respond in depth.

To be very brief, while the law must be respected, some laws are unjust. Such laws must be opposed.

I know that we have different opinions on the issue, but to me laws curtailing the rights of the LBGT community are no less unjust than Jim Crow laws, and should be resisted with no less zeal, no less sincerity of purpose.

Such resistance, however, in order to be moral, must exist within the context of respect for the rule of law. How this works out I suspect would be a great conversation over beer.

Sandalstraps said...


Now that I've done what I need to do, I have a little more time to respond to you. However, I also have Adam standing next to me blasting Star Wars music and repeatedly asking me nonsense questions to pester me into abandoning the computer and playing with him, so we'll see if this makes as much sense as it should.

We both agree on the need to respect the rule of law, that seems clear. However, I wonder if you really mean that such respect should include a willingness to in any and all cases go along with the decision of the majority in any and all cases.

After all, we do not have a simple democracy, but rather a representative democracy, and - more importantly for our immediate purposes - a Constitutional one. Our Constitution both enumerates rights and articulates principles for discerning the possession of rights (that is both which rights may be possessed and who may make claims of possession of such rights).

We both agree that our nation's Constitution, for instance, grants the right of possession of firearms to private citizens. You agree that our Constitution has correctly identified an inalienable right, whereas I believe that in this respect our Constitution is mistaken. However, both of us are bound to respect that - mistaken or not - our Constitution has codified this right, legally granting it to private citizens.

If, for example, the state of Indiana were (in, I'll grant, an improbable series of events) to pass a law curtailing this right in some fundamental respect (that is, in a way that no reasonable Constitutional argument could be made in support of such a law - so we're not just talking about a ban on hollow-tipped bullets or fully automatic weapons, or, in a more extreme case, rocket-propelled grenades or something, but rather the right to possess any firearm for any purpose) such a law would rightly be struck down as unconstitutional.

Even prior to its legal demise, however, I would wager that you would oppose this law, oppose it vocally, oppose it strenuously, and gather with others to forcefully (but, if I understand you correctly, not violently) protest its passage. This is because you would correctly understand that when it comes to fundamental rights, the decision of a simple majority is insufficient to take those rights away.

There is then a law that is higher than statutory law, that cannot be overturned by the decision of a simple majority. And I'm sure that we'll both grant that this law secures considerably more than your right to possess your guns. It also extends to your right to have your relationship with your wife legally recognized and respected. It secures for you the right to establish a household, a family together. The right to a degree of privacy within that household, and the right to a degree of self-determination within that family.

If your wife becomes ill, and is placed in intensive care, you have the right to visit her there, and to represent her will to the doctors there. You and your wife enjoy the right to by property together, to share insurance policies, and to make major life decisions together, with a minimal amount of outside interference.

Until Tuesday, same-sex couples in California enjoyed these rights as well. These rights were identified as such by the California Supreme Court, in its interpretation of that state's Constitution. While neither of us are qualified to render judgment on the legal principles involved in that decision (neither of us being experts on California's state Constitution, nor having knowledge of relevant legal precedents) I'm sure we can both agree that if we were part of a population who enjoyed such rights, whose rights were then taken away by a simple majority vote, we would rightly protest this act, legal though it may be.

In the extraordinarily unlikely event that the state of Indiana were to legally dissolve both your marriage and your right to marriage, you would no doubt not quietly respect that decision. No reasonable person would. You would assert your rights, forcefully (but, again, not violently) claiming your rights as rights. And you would also no doubt strongly resent the forces in your state that helped legally dissolve your rights.

And your protest would not mean that you fail to respect the rule of law. Rather it would entail a claim made on the basis of a higher law, a law that it is both immoral and unconstitutional to transgress.

In addition to the very (rightly) emotional protests that you reference, there are now very credible legal challenges to California Proposition 8. These legal challenges hinge on the question of whether or not a simple majority can dissolve rights guaranteed by that state's Constitution.

On its face the claim that a Constitutional amendment - which is what Prop 8 amounts to - is unconstitutional may seem absurd, but it raises a valid legal question. The main argument behind the legal challenge to Prop 8 is that the act of revoking a Constitutionally granted right requires not an amendment, which in California can be accomplished by a simple majority vote, but rather a Constitutional Convention to change the Constitution, which requires considerably more support than that of a simple majority.

It is for legal experts in California to hash out whether or not that is a valid interpretation of that state's Constitution. However, I think that we can both appreciate the claim that fundamental rights should not be taken away by a simple majority vote. If they could be, we would not need them enshrined in our Constitution, but would instead trust the legislative process to perpetually secure them.

Such trust would prove to be misplaced, as we have seen time and time again. Therein lies the wisdom of the Constitution's enumeration of rights and its further articulation of principles which give rise to rights not enumerated but no less granted by the Constitution.

Sandalstraps said...

Liam and Renee, thanks for commenting. It seems, however, I only respond to dissent!


Another constructive task out of the way, I'm free to return to another aspect of your comment. With regard to the video, you wrote:

Obviously he does not participate in mainstream society (where I work everyday). I have many blacks in positions over me and many of them are very capable and well respected people. I look at the gov't and see that there are more black people than just Obama. Basically, I find his comments a big out of touch with normal society.

First, let me get out the of the way this critique: Your use of "mainstream society" reminds me a bit too much of a strategy that has thankfully begun to backfire against your political party, that of cordoning off certain parts of the country as "real" and dismissing others as less-than real. Your experience, like that of anyone, is your own experience, a narrow one that is by no means normative. To say, for instance, of a resident of Brooklyn that their experience is not "normal," that it is "out of touch," that it fails to be "mainstream" because it does not directly correspond with your own experience strikes me as both arrogant (though I am not calling you arrogant, merely this particular behavior) and counterproductive. It has had success in the past steering discourse, but it failed miserably in the most recent election cycle. I suspect this epic failure was due to the American people's collective refusal to be continually divided against itself.

To say these same things of black experience treads more dangerous ground, and participates in institutional racism by naming white experience as normative and black experience as valid only insofar as it corresponds to white experience. I'm sure you will disagree that this is what you are doing, but I ask you to at least check yourself on this matter.

As for the substance of your criticism, here is what I see happening:

Elon James White's argument is roughly this: the experience of a few exceptional blacks having success does not mean we live in a post-racial world where racism is no longer an obstacle; it simply means that a few blacks have been able to navigate their way through society in spite of racism. The real crux, however, is found in his supporting argument (to the extent that one can say that a comic has a supporting argument).

That supporting argument is roughly this: Barack Obama's election does not signal an end to racism. The success of a single individual - while powerfully symbolic - cannot be equated with wholesale societal transformation, erasing both the persistent social ills of the present and the systemic oppression of the past, which still have a powerful negative impact on the present.

This supporting argument is not unlike the kind of arguments I heard evangelicals making after George W. Bush was elected president. This is the sort of conversation I - as a liberal evangelical - overheard many times in those heady days.

Hypothetical evangelical (H.E.): You know, with the steady creep of secularism erasing our Christian heritage and pushing talk of God out of public life, evangelical Christians are being increasingly marginalized in American society.

Hypothetical secularist (H.S.): What are you talking about?!? Not only is evangelical Christianity the fastest growing American religious group (with the possible exception of Islam), but evangelicals are now taking over the government. The Speaker of the House is an evangelical, and now even the president is, too!

H.E.: O.K., so we finally have God's choice in the White House. That doesn't mean that evangelicals aren't being marginalized across America. The courts, with their radical interpretation of the non-establishment clause, are forcing religion out of the public sphere, denying evangelical Christians the right to practice their faith freely in the name of "separation of church and state" - a phrase that, by the way, never appears in the Constitution.


You can see roughly where the conversation goes from there.

My point is, whatever the merits or demerits of the rest of the argument, the evangelical makes a good point when s/he says that the election of an evangelical Christian as president of the United States does not by itself disprove the claim that evangelicals are being marginalized in American society.

In the same way, the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States - while momentous, and cause for celebration by all Americans, even those who for political or ideological reasons not related to race opposed him - does not by itself signal an end to institutional racism. It is a significant moment, and a powerfully symbolic one, but it does not change the fact that on average blacks are significantly more likely to be poor than whites, significantly more likely to be incarcerated than whites, are significantly more likely to do be victims of violence than whites, and have a shorter life expectancy than whites.

These facts, to me, point to the existence of institutional racism. You disagree with me on this point. But independent of our verdict on the question of institutional racism, we can surely both agree that the argument that Barack Obama's election does not by itself disprove racism is a valid one.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

The weird thing is that all of the ballot measures against elective abortions FAILED. I would have expected just the opposite: I think that the country has become increasingly opposed to elective abortions since 1973, but I thought polls showed a profound lessening of heterosexism and homophobia. Of course, the organizers against same-sex marriage (and adoption) were far more organized than were supporters--who seemed to assume that Obama supporters would automatically vote down these measures. (In CA, there were many undervotes: i.e., people voted for pres. and then left the rest of the ballot blank!). Progressives have to learn how to use ballot measures to advance our agendas, not always play defense.

And, we have to do FAR more to change hearts and minds on heterosexism/homophobia. Progressive religious leaders MUST take the lead. We cannot mistakenly think that the popularity of Ellen DeGeneris or Rosie O'Donnell (or even George Takei) does all the work for us.

Roll up our sleeves.

Brian Beech said...

Just a quick one before I start my next project:

"First, let me get out the of the way this critique: Your use of "mainstream society" reminds me a bit too much of a strategy that has thankfully begun to backfire against your political party, that of cordoning off certain parts of the country as "real" and dismissing others as less-than real. Your experience, like that of anyone, is your own experience, a narrow one that is by no means normative."

I think the problem here is that you made some assumptions about what I meant; possibly I wasn't clear enough. Allow me to clarify. By saying he does not participate in mainstream society, I was limiting that to what is actually mainstream. The example I was think of was a working American. This man obviously has not watched TV, worked a job, or walked down the street if he believes that Obama and Oprah are the only two 'they' have.

I think it is safe to say you like his speech, but I ask you to honestly do one thing for me; every time he says 'black', replace it with 'white' and read the transcript then. Tell me if you think his speech is acceptable or if you think it rings of racism. This is one of the reasons we will never get past racism in America; the 'black culture' continues to segregate itself. How can we be one people when we have black only movie awards, black only scholarships, black only beauty pagents, black only television networks. You can't have it both ways. Either it is wrong for a race to segregate itself or it isn't.

Also, I don't believe that racism was given a death blow by the election of Obama. I believe institutional racism (against the black man) has long since been dead an this is just another, very large, sign that this is true.

Sandalstraps said...


I simply don't know what to say to you right now. I think one of the things that's happened here is that you've failed to understand the genre here.

Elon James White is a comic, using comedic exageration to make a serious point. By obsessively literalizing his point, you are in fact missing his point. His point is not that Oprah and Obama are literally the only two black people to ever achieve success in America, but rather that they are exceptions to a general rule. Their exceptionality points not to the end of racism, but rather merely to their own exceptional nature.

I'm not sure what to make of your willingness to over-literalize a comedic exageration from a black comic. I'm willing to bet, however, that you do not make the same mistake for "mainstream" white comics.

As for the persistence of institutional racism, I've long since given up trying to persuade you of it. Your unwillingness to see it, however only reinforces the distance between white and black experiences in America.

But seriously, you can't possibly believe that Elon James White meant that literally only two black people have succeeded in American public life, can you?

Sandalstraps said...

One more thing: you can't simply flip "black" and "white" in the script. To do so would be absurd, and unreal, not responding to our history. "Black" and "white" are not interchangeable parts, but rather are descriptors of a particularity. They are not the same, never have been the same, and never will be the same. The imposition of sameness is in fact a manifestation of white privilege, trying to impose on a minority culture the image of the dominant culture.

But seriously, we're not going anywhere here. I eagerly look forward to talking with you about anything else.

Brian Beech said...

Oh Chris!!! Come on, I realize he is a comic! Once again we find ourselves at odds with inflection and tone over the blogosphere. I realize he says most of that in jest, but it does highlight a thought that I think is quite common. No, I do not believe that he thinks Oprah and Obama are the only two that have succeeded. My point is that he is participating in the segregating of our culture. This, although mildly amusing, pits black vs white again; as evident by the language of 'they' and 'us' - even the title - 'this week in blackness'.

The history is relevant, but we are to learn from it and move beyond it. We're not to rehash it at every possible juncture available. At one time, we need to put it behind us, not to forget it, but to move ahead.

"The imposition of sameness is in fact a manifestation of white privilege" - I would be amazed if you could explain how I've been privileged with my whiteness. I think that would be pretty interesting to hear. Maybe an email?

Sandalstraps said...



I think you're right about tone.

As for white privilege, that would make a good email, but perhaps an even better conversation.

One thing to keep in mind about white privilege is that it - like race - is by no means the only factor in outcomes. White people in America, by virtue of their whiteness, have a kind of privilege respective to their race. That is a factor in terms of their (our) outcomes, but it is by no means the whole ballgame. It is coupled with gender, class, sexual orientation, and a thousand other sociological factors, along with a great many uncountable personal variables.

To claim that whiteness confers privilege or that systemic institutional racism exists does not mean that race by itself determines outcomes, or even that it is the most important factor. It simply means that whites (as a group) have an easier time navigating our society than blacks and other minorities (as respective groups). Within that, there are of course fluctuations and other variables, but we'll hash that out in a more friendly environment in which we will (hopefully!) no longer be subject to misreading each other's tine and inflection.

Sandalstraps said...

Incidentally, you sit in computer/desk chairs a lot, don't you?

Have you ever managed to get your shoelace caught in a wheel on one of these chairs?

I ask because it seems I've permanently attached myself to my chair, chaining myself to the computer. I know that Roman soldiers used to stake themselves into the battle ground as a powerful symbol that they would not retreat, but this is ridiculous!

Sandalstraps said...


Finally, something you wrote reminded me a great deal of something that i wrote earlier:

My point is that he is participating in the segregating of our culture. This, although mildly amusing, pits black vs white again; as evident by the language of 'they' and 'us' - even the title - 'this week in blackness'.

I still believe that particularity needs to be recognized. That white culture and black culture are not the same thing, nor (and here we probably agree) is either homogenous. That is, while it is easy to speak of "black" culture or "white" culture as though either were a single entity, in reality there are a great many different "black" cultures and a great many different "white" cultures.

Within that particularity I also agree with what I think you're saying, that we need to together carve out in public space some kind of shared culture. In fact, I think that we do that. But we do that best when we recognize and respect particularity, and when we are sensitive to claims that the majority is imposing its own vision of American public culture on the minority, not allowing minority cultures sufficient space to help shape public culture, to help shape our common space.

Your concern that some sharp and permanent divide between "black" on the one hand and "white" on the other is a concern that I shared in this post on James Cone's use of "black" and "white" as ontological categories. I just don't think that that is what Elon James White is doing, nor do I think that that is what most contemporary discourse on institutional racism is doing.