Friday, May 8, 2015

Reflections on Race, Gender and Class in America

States are praised as laboratories of democracy.  But as the debates over same-sex marriage reveal, states often can also be crucibles of persecution and discrimination.  If as many expect the Supreme Court rules by the end of June that the Constitution protects the right of same-sex couples to marry that decision will not mean the end discrimination against gays and lesbians.  Instead, as both history and recent events reveal, it will take more than a Supreme Court decision and the passage of few laws to end discrimination.
Consider the matter of race. Sixty years after Brown v the Board of Education schools in the US remain as segregated as ever.  Fifty years after the adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act women still are only paid 77 cents on the dollar compared to men and boardrooms remain almost exclusively male (as does Congress and most state legislatures).  Police shootings of unarmed African-Americans paint a picture of continuing racism, and recent polls in the NY Times attest a public opinion that sees a worsening of racial attitudes in America.  Obama has not moved us into a post-racial era and mounting evidence suggests that Millennials are not our first color-blind generation.
Now think about the issue of GLBT rights.   We have traveled an eternity since Stonewall but one should not think that a Supreme Court decision protecting the right of same-sex couples to marry will end the issue.  Much in the same way that post-Brown states found ways to circumvent the Supreme Court, the same is happening with same-sex marriage and GLBT rights.  Indiana’s religious freedom restoration act originally would have sanctioned, under the guise of religion, bigotry in the sense of letting people refuse to provide services to same-sex couples.  Now we see the same bill surfacing in Minnesota with a Senate bill.
James Madison, one of the constitutional framers and author of the Bill of Rights, was skeptical of the power of majorities in small close-knit communities.  He sought to create a larger more diverse national country to offset the powerful pressures of conformity and discrimination often found in local communities.  Nationalizing rights was a say to overcome the type of behavior we see in laws now that try to create personal religious exemptions to laws enforcing civil rights.
But even if the Supreme Court does rule as expected and these laws do not pass or are brushed aside by the courts, one should not think that the last frontier of discrimination has ended.  In fact, the real battle has yet to start–the battle of discrimination against the poor.
Face it, the ultimate discrimination is based on money, wealth, or poverty.  Few see any problem with saying that housing, food, medical care, and even political power or influence being allocated on the basis of money or wealth. Back in the 1970s in San Antonio v. Rodriguez the Supreme Court refused to declare wealth a suspect classification necessitating that government classifications based on it were constitutionally suspect.  Governments are free to discrimination against the poor and they do so all the time.  But even if the Court had ruled opposite of what in did in Rodriguez it still would have left untouched all the non-governmental discrimination that is inflicted upon the poor.
In so many of my classes I discuss how race, class, and gender are often major point of discrimination and conflict in our society.  The law and social attitudes at least officially decree racism and sexism wrong, but we have done little to tackle class.  Instead, as I have written about so many times in columns and blogs, inequality in America is growing and it is clear that the poor have little political influence or power.  Ask who governs America? and the answer is simple–look to see who benefits and it is certainly not the poor.  Our economic stratification reflects our societal political power differentials.
Economics is what gives racism, sexism, and homophobia their power.  On one level I do not care what others think, but it is when they are able to enforce or impress their views upon me by allocating or withholding economic resources, that is what gives discrimination its punch. In many ways I think class is the most fundamental and powerful form of discrimination, it is the one that underlies all other forms of prejudice.

On Another Topic: With less than ten days to go before the end of the 2015 Minnesota Legislative  Session it is not looking good to finish on time. As I said in my last blog, political incentives, partisanship, and a broken budget process all are factors explaining why Minnesota repeatedly now cannot gets its work done on time.

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