The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and a Hollywood movie at the top of the box office about a butler’s view of history from the White House caused the nation to pause to consider the state of civil rights in America at the end of the summer.
Despite the steps forward we have made, there are too many hurdles being erected to declare the race for justice and equality won.
It’s a consequential time and there are allies in the progressive coalition who can do more to knock down barriers to equal treatment still being constructed by reactionaries.
In June, the Supreme Court overturned the most sweeping voter protections in our history, even after millions were shut out of our democracy by long lines and broken voting machines in the last election. With the Court’s go-ahead, states are now passing laws with one goal in mind: suppressing the vote.
An unarmed black teen’s killing without punishment of the shooter revealed that justice remains elusive in our courts, just as it does in the eyes of too many Americans when they see young black men walking down the street.
In the same year, the Supreme Court extended basic federal rights to millions of families headed by same-sex couples. LGBT equality is quickly becoming less of a wedge issue and more of a non-issue among mainstream Americans. It’s even a crack of light for a Republican Party desperate to connect with 21st century America.
As politicians in Congress and statehouses erode the foundation of equality for African-Americans and Latinos that took more than a century to build, a tide turns into a wave of progress for LGBT Americans in cubicles, in our culture and in neighborhoods across the country.
It took decades for LGBT leaders to move from the shadows to the streets and now to seats of power in state legislatures, Congress and the White House. Gays were once shunned by politicians; now we are their go-to ATM, a sure sign of arrival in our political culture.
Throughout this amazing evolution, the leadership of the movement — from donors to bundlers to media stars — has largely been all white. This generation’s advocates rightly embraced the mantle of civil rights, cajoling black and Latino leaders to stand with LGBT organizations on issue after issue.
They won the hearts and minds of many black and Latino leaders, but the rank and file remained wary. That’s in part because people see that support as a one-way street. Investment by white LGBT leadership in communities of color politically, financially and culturally has been relatively weak, and sometimes nonexistent.
Think about it. The president of the United States, the attorney general and associate attorney general — all African-Americans — took an unprecedented legal leap to bring down the Defense of Marriage Act. The governor of the first state and attorney general of the most recent state to win the freedom to marry — again, both African-Americans — used their platforms to extend protections for LGBT people and vocalize their support as public officials and prominent black leaders.
The African-American heads of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP and the Urban League all forcefully and unequivocally push for LGBT rights, including marriage. It’s a beautiful thing: African-American leaders staunchly in the lead for LGBT advancement.
The fact that black and Latino LGBT people benefit from marriage equality laws and often are the populations that most need the protections misses the point. In the midst of marriage equality victories, these communities are enduring policy and political attacks that resemble communal hate crimes and most of their white gay brothers and sisters respond by doing little more than signing online petitions.
Trayvon Martin is Matthew Shepherd, both killed because of who they were and how they looked.
The power black, Latino and LGBT Americans can have when united is tremendous. We can vote out politicians who exacerbate racial tensions; ensure all immigrants — gay or undocumented — have a path to citizenship; and name and shame corporate leaders who support elected officials who deliver laws like “Stand Your Ground” and “Don’t Say Gay.” Our faith leaders should bring us together on this agenda, not tear us apart.
Being part of the civil rights movement isn’t just an honor or a rhetorical cloak, it is an obligation. Step up.
Gay leaders have persuaded so many in black and Latino leadership that the gay fight is our fight. That means the black and Latino fights are our fight too. Sadly, for the LGBT community thus far it’s been flight, not fight.