(The Root) — Who is the most privileged among the least privileged? That's the question many are asking as Americans discuss how the Supreme Court treated race-centered cases over the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action versus cases over same-sex marriage. Are African Americans and other people of color, who are the most likely to face voter suppression, winners of the dubious prize of "most oppressed," now that the court has struck down a key provision of one of the most important aspects of the civil rights struggle? And how does that compare to the court's treatment of gays and lesbians, which has seen a progressive sea change over the past 10 years?
Just follow last week's headlines about the court's decisions: "Why the Supreme Court Said 'No to Blacks and Yes to Gays,' " blared an analysis by progressive Rabbi Michael Lerner. "Gay Is the New Black," stated the overblown headline atop a nuanced New York Times article by Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler. At every turn, there seemed to be a blunt-force reaction to the court's landmark decisions, setting up the civil rights of gays and blacks as if it were a battle of winners versus losers.
But such headlines ignore the nuances within each group's civil rights struggle. Indeed, Fordham University political science professor Christina Greer, author of the new book The Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream, calls comparing the court's decisions not just apples and oranges but "apples and steak" — that is, possible to compare but highly differentiated.
America was founded with a national framework of racial segregation and exploitation. "All men are created equal" did not include black Americans, male or female. For better or worse, the concept of gay rights (or even gay existence) was not baked into our national framework. Indeed, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights struggle has been based upon the groundbreaking work of racial civil rights movements.
For sure, the fight for gay rights has its own unique history: Their battles are much more recent, and the legal strategies for LGBT rights have moved toward a more state-by-state framework that interacts with federal judicial decisions, versus the civil rights movement's reliance on the federal government to protect rights that states would not. For the moment, with the current Supreme Court, that strategy seems to be working more quickly than a federal action-based rights strategy.
Indeed, the knee-jerk analysis missed all of the texture of each group's history, as well as the intersecting identities of those who are black and gay. Pam Spaulding, editor of the award-winning blog Pam's House Blend, is a black woman legally married to her wife. After Barack Obama was elected in 2008, at the same time that the anti-same-sex-marriage Proposition 8 passed in California, Spaulding recalls, "Vitriol was hurled at blacks that evening, and I recall on the Blend being on the receiving end of angry commenters — as if I had burned my 'gay card,' as my blackness, which clearly was not invisible to them before, was now a threat."
I interviewed a Los Angeles-based black lesbian activist, Jasmyne Cannick, right after election 2008. She said, "The reason why I wasn't inspired to work on Prop 8 was because that glass ceiling that the white gays are bumping their head up against is to a room that as a black person, I haven't even got a foot in the door of. I'm just trying to put food on the table."
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 farai.com.