1. of, relating to, or proceeding from a root.
2: of or relating to the origin : fundamental.
3: marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional.
A few days ago, I made the argument that attacks against LGBT rights, including the right to marry, rely on a template that is as much about racism as homophobia. We should all get behind the LGBT agenda in order to strengthen democratic rights for everyone.
Having said that, however, I do have a bone to pick with pundits and political strategists who’ve been popularizing the meme that LGBT movement success in winning marriage rights and inclusion in the military for sexual minorities offers lessons in how best to go about winning rights for racial minorities. I’m sure we all have a lot to learn from one another, but this argument is full of holes.
What do I mean? Bear with me.
First of all, the LGBT movement isn’t just about gays in the military and the right to marry. To equate these planks in the LGBT agenda with victory in the fight for equity does a disservice to the remarkably diverse base of the LGBT movement. For the full diversity of the LGBT community to experience justice, fights for inclusion must become struggles for structural transformation.
Why? Because simple inclusion leaves structural inequity intact, and fails to address the role of institutions like the military and marriage in perpetuating injustice. Making inclusion in unjust institutions the goal, rather than regarding them as steps in a longer journey toward justice, forces us to accept that winning for some means losing for others – that some of us just don’t fit in the vision of America we’re creating. That’s the kind of thinking that led to LGBT exclusion from marriage and the military in the first place.
We also know that transforming societal structures (in other words, reorganizing power, including the power to distribute wealth and opportunity) is necessary because of lessons learned by the Black Civil Rights Movement. That movement already covered this ground. It desegregated the military and won the right to marry across race. And while these wins were right and just, they didn’t result in racial equity. Neither did they transform marriage nor the military, at least not in the way these institutions affect most people.
But when politicians and the media equated wins in these battles for inclusion with the achievement of racial justice, they neutralized support for continuing civil rights demands among Northern whites who believed the struggle had gone far enough. Advocates of broader and more meaningful demands for structural transformation were either silenced or isolated, vilified, and marginalized, even to the extent of being assassinated. The trope of the Asian model minority (the 60s race equivalent of the supposedly typical two-earners-no-kids non-threatening gay family) was conjured up to popularize the idea that racial minorities could succeed by being compliant and working hard as opposed to protesting and demanding rights like “problem minorities” whose persistent poverty was offered up as indication of something wrong with them, and not with how our American system is organized. Relatively superficial demands for inclusion were accommodated, but America turned against more substantive efforts to reorganize power and opportunity as forms of reverse discrimination.
As a result, structural racism remained intact. Structural racism concentrates people of color in resource deprived communities where law enforcement exists to repress more than to protect, a reality reflected in the combination of the incredibly high unsolved murder rate and the sky high rate of incarceration for nonviolent crimes suffered by poor black communities. Structural racism results in cultural, economic, political, and social disadvantages that are compounded over the course of generations. It is reflected in the racial wealth gap, and higher rates of unemployment and infant mortality, lower life expectancy, and in segregation, which we know from history means both separate and unequal.
Because of structural racism, the military is one of very few avenues out of poverty for low-income people of color, making us over-represented among those who have the riskiest jobs and the worst working conditions, not to mention for pay so low a sergeant with two years of experience still qualifies for food stamps if she has a spouse and two children. And nuclear family norms reflected in our ideas about marriage are enforced through welfare rules, zoning laws, and public housing regulations, compounding and perpetuating poverty.
LGBT people suffer differently. We originate in every community and come in every color. We are rich, poor, and middle class. We live in the wealthiest suburbs and in the rural coal camps of Appalachia. This may help to explain the remarkable success of the LGBT movement in transforming a culture in which violence and hatred of LGBT people was the norm into one in which the vast majority is leaning more and more toward acceptance. However, winning real and durable justice for LGBT people will require us to reach beyond conservative inclusion strategies and take on the structures and institutions that have produced and reproduced injustice for power minorities through the generations. Understanding this is as simple as understanding that in real democracies there are no second-class citizens. As long as some of us face injustice, all of us are vulnerable.