Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Discrimination Cha Cha (In the Category of Mean What You Say.) #52Weeks

Wow, what a week. Whether you abhor discrimination in all its forms or fully support the subtle nuances of fear mingled with outright hatred that define it, this week’s SCOTUS rulings are hard to take in all at once. It’s a legislative Cha Cha, two steps forward, three steps back. Sidestep, sidestep, cha, cha, cha.
Arthur Murray's Cha Cha Footing Diagram

On the one hand, I guess we should all stand up and cheer now that Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts has decided that the south is no longer racist and can be trusted to keep the voting legal. If it were true, it would be really awesome news. But I live in Virginia. Even before this ruling, our bigoted legislators (regrettably, the majority these days) pushed through a new law requiring a photo ID to vote that our Rolex-wearing, gift-taking, probably-needs-to-be-impeached governor happily signed. The bill is intended to cut down on voter fraud by disenfranchising legal voters who don’t have the means or access to obtain a Virginia-issued photo ID.

Voter fraud does happen from time to time in Virginia. Just this past fall, a fellow working for the Virginia GOP employed fraudulent tactics in an attempt to get Newt Gingrich on the ballot for the Presidential Primary. Virginia has been cracking down on voter fraud pretty much ever since we went blue for Obama…twice. The creepy, conservative, wanna-be-next-Governor has already gone on record that he thinks voter fraud may have won Obama the election. So you can see the GOP’s incentives to nip this sort of voting-without-ID nonsense in the bud.

I’m going out on a limb here to suggest that Chief Justice Roberts may not actually watch the news. If he did, he would see Paula Deen copping to thinking “slave-themed” wedding receptions are a neat idea and that racial discrimination in the work place is no big deal, y’all. He would see a murder trial about a spunky but unarmed black teenager gunned down by a frightened, armed man -- whether or not racism played a part in Zimmerman’s decision to disregard police dispatchers who told him to quit following Trayvon will be for a jury to decide. Racism is alive and thrives in more than one pocket of this country. We’re making progress, but racial discrimination is still very real.

On the other hand, our nation is one step closer to reversing decades of treating homosexual couples unfairly. We all watched history this past Wednesday when SCOTUS overturned both DOMA and California’s Prop 8. Discrimination took another two steps back, and the promise of equality that makes democracy worth a damn cha cha’d onto the dance floor of possibility. It needed doing, folks.

Marriage is great, if you can find the right partner. It’s good for the economy; the wedding planning industry is big business and creates and sustains jobs in a wide range of sectors including clothing, florists, caterers, hotels, reception venues, musicians, travel agents, hair dressers, printers, bird seed producers and bottlers of bubble stuff. (Let’s throw in divorce lawyers just because...)

Marriage is (generally) good for your health; it simplifies raising children (single parents are amazing, but it’s definitely more work when you have to do it all yourself). But most importantly, marriage is NOT a product of government legislation. It is NOT a product of the Bible (and the hubris of the hypo-Christians to suggest otherwise is an affront to every other religion on the planet, but I digress). It’s a connection between two people, a desire to face together the challenges, heartaches, and pitfalls of being alive, because it’s a scary, mean world.

I say one step closer, but many more steps are needed and all of them forward – cha cha cha. Thirty-seven states still openly ban or at least fail to support same sex marriage (SSM), including (no shocker here) Virginia. SSM supporters such as I take heart from yesterday’s rulings. Recognizing SSM on a federal level will give momentum to supporters on a state level to overturn bigoted legislation state-by-state. Polls consistently show that the next generation to run this country already has little tolerance for these ridiculous and unsustainable prejudices. Indeed, in Virginia, support for same sex marriage is up to 56%, a mere 1% shy of the margin by which Virginian’s voted to prohibit SSM back in 2006 (not this Virginian).

I’ve given a lot of thought over the years to my own prejudices, where they come from, and how they weaken me. Unlike Paula Deen, I remember very clearly the day I fully understood the power of fear that racism depends on to flourish. It was June 1981, the last day of school my eighth grade year. My mom, sister and I had moved to Norfolk from Virginia Beach in the Fall of 1980, and for the first time in my life, I was in a racial minority in my school. I didn’t think much of it; it never occurred to me that it mattered. But on the last day of school, as I and two other white friends walked through a neighborhood near our homes, we were stopped and surrounded by a group of six or eight black kids, and they were looking for a fight. I was flabbergasted. Always the peacemaker, I asked, “Why?”

“Didn’t you see Roots?” they taunted me. “Don’t you remember slavery?” One of them pushed one of my friends.

“But you were never a slave. I never had a slave.” I was desperate. Surely I could make them understand. This wasn’t our fight. Whatever they felt had been done to them, it wasn’t me.

It hit me suddenly: this is how it feels, to be discriminated against because of skin color. These kids didn’t even know my name. I had done nothing to them. My only crimes were being white and vulnerable. Wrong place, wrong time. If a police squad car had not driven by at that moment, I guess they would have kicked our butts. But the sight of “Johnny Law” sent the group running in all directions. My friends and I hightailed it home. I don’t ever remember getting angry about the incident, just really, really sad. I quit using racial epithets. And I quit letting others use them in front of me without my objection.

When I was eleven my father played King Sextimus the Silent in a Little Theater of Virginia Beach production of Once Upon A Mattress. Dad's new wife was the musical's choreographer. My sister and I were part of the crew. As Dad drove us to the opening night cast party at Don and Dan’s house, Dad explained that Don and Dan (who my sister and I understood to be close friends) actually shared the house the same way he and his wife did. It was no big deal, “so don’t let it throw you.” Sis and I shrugged, enjoyed the hors d’oeurves at the party, sang along when the musical director brought out the song book and Dan sat down at the baby grand piano. We fell asleep, later, in the back room on the bed. Dad carried us to the car when the party was over. Never in my life has it occurred to me to fear love in any of its incarnations.

Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”  I learned that, too; it can be a difficult path, but I will dance down it with anyone willing to be as brave. Three steps forward, no steps back, cha cha cha.

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