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Why the Supreme Court Said "No to Blacks, Yes to Gays"

Why the Supreme Court Said "No to Blacks, Yes to Gays"

by Rabbi Michael Lerner
June 26, 2013

On Tuesday the Supreme Court overturned a central part of the Voting Rights Act that had been one of the main accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement for African Americans. Southern states, consistent with the racist legacy of slavery which has shaped their politics for the past 150 years at least, are now rushing to put in place new rules to make it more difficult for African Americans to vote.

Then on Wednesday the Supreme Court declared the “Defense of Marriage Act” unconstitutional, thereby opening the door to gay marriage and sustaining a lower court decision that had overturned the California state proposition that had tried to prevent those marriages.

Why is it “no to Blacks and Yes to gays?”

Don’t expect a constitutional argument here. As the Supreme Court minority on Voting Rights made clear, the argument for dismantling the victories of the Civil Rights era are pathetically inadequate. And, one might add, hypocritical given that those who overturned that Congressional Act often proclaim their opposition to an “activist judiciary” that interferes with legislative decisions.

The answer is purely political.

For the past twenty years with deep commitment, and for ten years with growing intensity, the gay and lesbian communities have relentlessly pushed forward their convincing arguments that it is a morally indefensible double standard to allow heterosexuals to marry and to deny that same legal right to homosexuals. That such a double standard has been part of the legacy of the human race for thousands of years made no difference. The key point is that in a society which, largely due to the successes of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, has embraced the notion of equal rights with self-congratulatory enthusiasm, this unequal treatment of gays and lesbians could be seen as inconsistent and hurtful.

I was one of the many clergy people who for the past decades performed marriage ceremonies for gays and lesbians in defiance of this double standard, even though the marriages only had religious but not state-sanctioned validity. And there were millions of other Americans who, in small ways and large, poked fun at the homophobia, ridiculed the religious provisions that seemed to embrace this double standard, and celebrated as cultural stars in entertainment and sports, children of prominent elected officials, academics, professionals and other symbols of cultural authority came out of the closet and revealed themselves as homosexuals. Often their personal stories were deeply moving, and over a very short period of time, a majority of Americans came to sympathize and then finally to support homosexual rights and to detest those who would oppress gays and lesbians.

There was no comparable mobilization in the African American community in the past twenty years. Black professionals and business people, academics and writers, music and television stars, sports and cultural figures, were happy to embrace the benefits of affirmative action and the residue of Civil Rights consciousness. But only a very small percentage of that community were willing to face the reality that racism toward Blacks was still being played out on a daily basis in the effects of economic inequality, unequal access to health care and jobs and healthy food and crime-free communities and well-financed primary and middle and high schools not just in the South but throughout these United States.

White supporters of civil rights too often believed that it was victories in the courts rather than the kind of mobilizations in the streets pioneered by MLKjr. and the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s that would sustain and make equality and fairness prevail. One sad consequence of electing a Black president was our collective fantasy that he was a civil rights leader, which increased our collective denial about the persistence of racism. Even today many liberals and most Blacks give Obama strong support because he is our first Black president, even though his policies have been far more supportive of the needs of the top 1% of income earners, the big banks and investment companies and Wall Street than of the American poor, who are disproportionately Black. I've witnessed that same kind of identity politics lead American Jews to give blind support to Israeli policies that we would never support anywhere else, and to ignore the ways that those policies actually are detrimental both to Israel's security and to Jews around the world.

While the Supreme Court decision reminds us that racism against Blacks remains far more deeply implanted in America’s economic and political institutions, and in the consciousness of many Americans, than the horrendous homophobia that may now be somewhat receding, it is also a testimony to those in the gay world who refused to be “realistic” when told that gay marriage was unthinkable. We need that same kind of unrealistic thinking to revive the necessary struggle against American racism.

*************

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine (www.tikkun.org), chair of the interfaith and secular-humaninst-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in Berkeley, California. He is the author of eleven books, most recently Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy for Middle East Peace.

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