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Grace Ross: Civil Rights and Gay Marriage

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Grace Ross, GoLocalWorcester  MINDSETTER ™

The day that President Obama announced that he had figured out that he should be for equal marriage for gays and lesbians was a truly bizarre day for me.

I found myself struck by the fact that he doesn’t seem to understand his own history and the struggle for expanding the civil rights of marriage to interracial couples. He had never connected the exact parallels to the present struggle of expanding the civil rights of marriage to gay and lesbian folks.

On the other hand, I wanted to reassure those who are still scared about this particular challenge to social assumptions about how institutions like marriage are supposed to work. 

My thoughts toward President Obama were pretty straight forward. The man was born in a state that I guess allowed for interracial marriages, but at that time it was not the law of our entire nation. He’s actually 2 months younger than I am and in 1961 the battle was still raging between different states allowing interracial marriages and other states trying to ban them. It wasn’t until the decision in Loving v. Virginia in 1967 that the Supreme Court finally ruled that interracial marriages were allowed. He is a constitutional law expert supposedly and this was certainly one of those fundamental constitutional law battles. 

He has to know that the interracial marriage controversy was couched very much in Christian religious terms; opponents quoting segments of the Bible about, for instance, sheep and goats needing to be kept separate and the unnatural mixing of different species and similar rhetoric which underlay essentially a defense of a social assumption because people were scared of the expansion of civil rights of marriage to a new group. Today, we simply here a different set of bible quotes. I have heard people say it was a real stretch to quote the section about sheep and goats about interracial marriage; how will people look back at our time?

In Massachusetts when our Supreme Judicial Court ruled that same sex marriage was allowed under our constitution, only about 35% of the public in our state was open to the idea and supportive. Two years later by the time the final legislative fight was happening over whether the decision should be reconsidered in a popular vote, nearly 65% of folks had figured out that extending equal marriage rights to gay and lesbian folks wasn’t going to harm anything. In fact, rights are only protected when they are exercised and the more folks who exercise them the more protection there is for an institution such as marriage. 

It didn’t surprise me particularly when I looked at the marriage statistics that Massachusetts had the lowest U.S. divorce rate at the time when that the Supreme Judicial Court decision was made. That continues to be true.

Obama should have gotten it about bolstering the institution of marriage and extending those rights to other consenting adults based on his own family history.

For the people in this state who are still nervous about same sex marriage rights I only remind you that it was also our Supreme Judicial Court that ruled slavery illegal also because of our constitution; thus we became the first state that ruled slavery is illegal. This was done around the same time that our nation was born. I’m sure if I could get my hands on newspapers from that time period there would be plenty of folks hewing and crying about how outlawing slavery was unnatural, against the Bible and shouldn’t be allowed except if the people voted it! Voting doesn’t seem to be how change necessarily happens when civil rights are extended to a group that have not had them before. 

Some folks are still afraid that extending marriage rights might mean that their entire social reality is going to change. If it’s any consolation at least in a democracy most of the time when these sorts of civil rights expansions happen, they’re not challenging our fundamental values. While they might overturn some social assumptions, only a few real challenges to our unconscious social assumptions actually reach society-wide proportions. Our fundamental values of extending civil rights to everybody who’s willing to be responsible back to our society is a position that should be both familiar. And if a little uncomfortable at any one time, at least something we can recognize is a value our society reaches for. 

What was truly confusing about this whole day was that there was a second civil rights decision by the Obama Administration. They decided to ignore the wishes of Governors in a number of states that had refused to welcome a federal administrating policy of the immigration services (now referred to as ICE not INS). There is an initiative bizarrely called Secure Communities – one impact of this policy is it undermines the activities and effectiveness of local law enforcement!

There is an administrative rule (not a law) promulgated by ICE that opens the door to local law enforcement being used by ICE to enforce immigration status violations. Local law enforcement leaders, even in Arizona, when they were passing their own version of this, came out against it. Law enforcement in general tends to come out against it because in effective law enforcement situations law enforcement knows they don’t have enough staff to track down every criminal. They also know is that if they can extend their reach because of good relationships with all sectors of the community and actually track somebody down with the assistance of members of the community that they can actually get their job done. Almost every community at this point has a noticeable number of immigrants. Most of these, of course, are in some legal status, but they might have family members or friends who are out of status. So if law enforcement wants to be welcomed and comfortable in areas of a community that are mostly immigrant then the immigrants there cannot be afraid for family or friends in talking to the cops at all. 

The ICE “secure” communities initiative if local law enforcement gets involved means diverting resources from dealing criminal not civil violations. And they are likely to try to guess whether folks might be immigrants out of legal status, that encourages racial profiling. In a state like ours, the majority of the folks who are out of status on their immigration papers are actually Irish. The racial profiling here would probably target the folks assumed to be out of status, Latinos, which is not even the predominant group in our state. So would be racial prejudice without even a logical excuse.

But what makes me crazy is that this is a federal administrative rule. Local law enforcement and huge swaths in our state were so firmly against it that we got our Governor to switch our stance and say that he opposes it. Then the Obama Administration decides an administrative rule which Congress never saw or voted on can overrule the position of our highest elected official!

So the Obama Administration on one day extended civil rights to one group and curtailed them for others on the same day! It just made me crazy. And it made me crazy that people did not make the connection and ask what the politics are of an administration led by an elected bi-racial president, with an immigrant parent on one side who can make these kinds of decisions.

I think we have to get clear here that our goal is civil rights for everybody who’s not engaged in criminal behavior (I will remind folks that being out of status on immigration is not a criminal act, it’s a civil violation). And if we’re going to go after civil violations, let’s go after the admission in our major news papers to millions of civil – potentially criminal – violations by banks that remain unprosecuted. 


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