DOMA and Voting Rights Don’t Compare

The immediate reaction following last week's decisions ignored the history of blacks and gays.

Gay-rights activists (Kevork Djansezian/Getty); Eric Holder after the SCOTUS Voting Rights Act decision (Mark Wilson/Getty)
Gay-rights activists (Kevork Djansezian/Getty); Eric Holder after the SCOTUS Voting Rights Act decision (Mark Wilson/Getty)

Urvashi Vaid, author of Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class, and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics, reminds us that people of color and LGBT Americans not only overlap but also have much in common when it comes to their civil rights. “First, it’s imperative to be vigilant because laws you thought were settled can be rolled back in a very short amount of time [e.g voting rights, reproductive rights],” she told The Root. “Second, the defeat of voting rights and the remand on affirmative action makes clear that the court is an agent of the Republican Party, which cannot win with its current politics in a majority-people of color country, and so has to resort to dirty tricks, voter suppression and wholesale denial of voting rights to large parts of the population.

“The Supreme Court did us a favor because it made this less visible reality extremely visible — as states now pass extremely restrictive laws — so setbacks can be really good educational and organizing moments. This is one.”

So the question remains: What will happen to the fights for equality in America, particularly over racial equality and/versus equality based on sexual orientation? The Supreme Court is framed as a nonpartisan branch of government, but justices are appointed by presidents, each of whom has a partisan affiliation. And of course, race — and which races vote for which parties — influences who the president is and who he (or, in the future, perhaps, she) chooses. In this past election, for the first time ever, the percentage of African Americans who voted exceeded that of whites. And in addition, Latino voters were much more likely to pull the Democratic lever for president than they were during the Bush years.

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund lawyer Natasha Korgaonkar lays out some ways to draw relationships between the issues the court decided. “The marriage decisions are a very significant and important victory for equal protection. What these cases and issues share is that they’re about equality, equality for everyone, regardless of who you are. That’s a relationship I see between the two issues.”

She continues, “People need to have an unencumbered right to vote in all states — not only because the right to vote is enshrined in our constitution but because it’s through that right we can make significant gains on all issues, including marriage equality.” Korgaonkar calls on Congress to take action, as it did when it reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006 under President George W. Bush. But it’s far from a sure thing that this riven Congress will pass a bipartisan voting-rights measure amid the sequester and general legislative gridlock. 

In other words, the final act of the drama of American equality has yet to be written. With immigration, gender, sexual orientation and race all in play — on the streets and in the courts — it’s hard but critical work to put the pieces of the political puzzle together. So, returning to the question of the day, is gay the new black? The best answer seems to be: That’s apples and steak, isn’t it?

Farai Chideya is a distinguished writer in residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Institute for Journalism. A contributing editor at The Root, she is  the author of four books and blogs at