Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Racism, Sexism and Homosexuality: Human Rights in the United States One Step at a Time

Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street holding hands with a marriage contract

Imagine the following scenario: a gay black woman runs for office and actually wins the presidential elections in the United States. At the current state of affairs, this is pure fantasy, but the general feeling is that we are, slowly but steadily, inching towards equal rights and liberty and justice for all. In the past, and to an extent even today, these are merely nice words that have not always been supported or backed-up by facts or deeds, underscoring the wide gap between theory and practice, wishful thinking and reality.

In fact, the issue of human rights has been a veritable struggle: It seems that throughout American history, equality has gained legal and social recognition and acceptance only one issue at a time. Let us look back at the founding years. In that time, slavery was seen as a common practice, at least until the Civil War broke out. That it took a war and internal bloodshed and strife to set the foothold on the path of equality for members of the African race is indeed a black spot in American history.

To be considered equal in the eyes of the many, African Americans had to struggle through various years and decades of civil conflicts, which reached its climax in the 60s; that it took another 50 years for an African American to become a president of the nation shows that the fight against bigotry and racism still contains many hurdles. There is, however, a positive upward trend and continuous hope since Obama managed to get re-elected despite fierce and passionate opposition, by, if the sources are to be trusted, mainly white rural Americans.

As I am considering that equal rights are fought over strongly and bitterly and that it is mainly achieved one step at a time, I want to emphasize two points. One, that any fight for human rights is filled with both perils and rewards, and two, that once granted we need to ensure that it is never taken away again.

We want to move forward not retrace our steps, so we do not go back to the period of ignorance. Nothing is for free nor given out freely; it took wars and bloodshed, pain and suffering to get there. Yet evidently we still need to make much more headway for true equality among the races and ethnic minorities to occur in everyday life.

In fact, I want to give the “benefit of the doubt” to some but not all white Americans. I do not think that it is necessarily fair to point fingers and lay blame on people's attitudes in the past.

Particularly, if you were living in the Pre-Civil War years and believed that slavery was acceptable because you in your ignorance and lack of scientific knowledge were under the mistaken assumption that black people were inferior, I may in my most forgiving and benevolent mood give you not the finger but the benefit of the doubt.

I am mentioning this for two reasons. One because we may stumble upon people and writers and thinkers who were considered enlightened and good at heart but who were trapped and wrapped up in the bigotry of their times and society.

To blame that great philosophers of those times were racist and sexist is an anachronistic way of looking at culture. By the standards of the times, they would have fallen into norms of that culture and society, their epoch or zeitgeist, and it would be not entirely fair to blame them for that. To illustrate this point, we may look at Thomas Jefferson, who may have ensured and documented freedoms and liberties by declaring “all men to be born free” (which was by some interpreted as only referring to “freemen” automatically excluding slaves), but who himself owned slaves. Although Jefferson opposed the practice of slavery, he also generally objected to masters freeing their slaves.

This rather stands in some contrast to other American presidents like Washington, Adams or Lincoln who clearly and unequivocally condemned the practice of slavery both in theory and in deed (although even that claim may be debatable). But again, we may forgive Jefferson's lack of clarity or clear perspective on the issue since his idea of equality among people was revolutionary in itself and since he was caught up in the economic fabric of the slave trade, a common practice of his times.

Two, any "benefit of the doubt" that I grant people in the past I revoke (with a vengeance) from current times. In fact, I double the blame. We cannot plead ignorance in modern times. Progress in science and rational thought have presented us with factual proof that racism is not only immoral but downright harmful and wrong. Experiences of the past including Nazi ideology and the persecution of the Jews or the atrocities under the Apartheid in South Africa clearly show us that there is nor should be any kind of tolerance or leeway for racial discrimination.

If writers and thinkers have racist beliefs in modern times, they belong into the same category of ignorance and stupidity that characterizes people who claim that the Earth is flat and the center of the world or that our planet is merely 6000 years old.

Out of the civil rights gains, another group, also heavily discriminated against, managed to effect a change in our consciousness and society: women. The feminist movement ensured that women be treated with the respect they deserve and that gender equality become steps closer than ever before.

Again, we are surely not fully there, as long as certain people believe that women can be condensed and enslaved in a “binder,” but only on the day when not just pay but also social status and respect be equally spread out among both genders will true equality become a flat fact.

This fight is definitely not over yet, and we must be careful of gender stereotypes as portrayed in media, culture and our surroundings and openly object to and denounce those practices. Both men and women need to do their part to ensure gender equality in our every day lives and for the future of our children.

Finally, last but not least, we need to look at gay rights. Again, there is significant progress made on the issue, one of them being the acceptance of gay marriage in certain parts of the nation. Although many are still opposed to this idea, state authorities need to ensure that gays receive equal stature and protection under the law.

This is our most recent struggle for freedom and equality. It is an essential step and the fight of our generation to make sure that people are not discriminated against based on sexual orientation.

Once gay people are fully integrated into every aspect and fabric of society, on Wall, Main and Sesame Street, in the military and in political office, then we can feel coming closer to true equality for all.

And by ensuring that, we can continue to move forward giving more rights and protection to our minorities and accepting that regardless of race, sexual orientation or religion, we are all the same. Once these ideas are not only protected and enshrined but built and lived upon, the opening scenario of a triply discriminated person – black, female, and gay – may not be just a figment of our imagination but may become a real possibility one of these days.


Vincent said...

I have to say, Arash, that I shudder at the implications of what you say here. You lump together different things and imply that as "it took a war, internal bloodshed and strife to set the foothold on the path of equality for members of the African race", you would consider that no holds should be barred in establishing what some people define as equal rights for women and men, and for homosexuals.

Then let America invade Africa, Asia, any country where the traditions are different from those of the liberal left in the USA. OK, so you say one step at a time. Let America slowly infiltrate, and by fair means or foul impose the moral viewpoint of one section of society on others who have a different moral viewpoint.

Start by calling everyone who disagrees a bigot, racist, sexist, homophobe etc. No one's allowed to use the word nigger but those other words may be used indiscriminately in the self-styled virtuous cause.

In other words, I mildly disagree with your thesis in this piece, dear Arash!

Arashmania said...

Quite an interesting and curious comment of yours, Vincent!

First off though, I never said (nor implied) such a thing. My focus was only on the United States and a historical perspective of human rights, and I used the example of the Civil War; so no invasion whatsoever.

That being said, do you seem to imply that the Civil War was a mistake? That it was not worth it?

Secondly, since there are invasions, would you not prefer one based on actual human rights instead of fighting for oil and profits?

Thirdly, do you see a fundamental difference between the rights of African Americans versus women and gays?

Lastly (and this one I am preparing a post on anyhow) do you claim that cultures are infallible and that it is all right to impose a death sentence, for example on homosexual people?

In other words, I'd be rather curious to know your answers and position on those issues, dear Vincent!

Vincent said...

These (apart from the last one) are valid questions, Arash.

(1) I know little about the American Civil War, not enough to know whether or not it was a mistake. All the wars I know anything about were about a clash of interests between the parties concerned, never about high-minded principles, e.g. WWII wasn’t fought by the Allies because of Hitler’s genocide, but to defend territory. Perhaps the American Civil War was different. Historians may argue about whether any particular war was worth it; but wars tend to have unintended consequences. They leave legacies of bitterness, for example.

(2) I don’t envisage there ever being an invasion “based on actual human rights”. I don’t prefer any war.

(3) I don’t understand what you mean about the rights of African Americans. I assume they are the same as anyone else’s. Am I wrong? I also assume that the rights of women (in America) are the same as those of men. Ditto with gays. I assume that when we speak of “equal rights” we mean a lack of legal discrimination putting one type of person at a disadvantage. If you take the view that there must be such a thing as “gay marriage” in order to establish equal rights, I have to admit you are not alone in this view. But if you don’t see the fundamental distinction between racists and those who oppose “gay marriage” then I conclude that you are a victim of liberal propaganda. There is no issue of injustice involved here, only a would-be semantic shift relentlessly promoted by the activists within sexual politics. It’s plain that for many people the definition of marriage has changed. Once it was “wedlock”: the only legitimate framework for procreation in most societies, with property rights legally defined accordingly. Now it is a voluntary arrangement between men and women, who may decide to remain childless, whilst other couples have children without registering their bond, with no stigma resulting, and few if any legal differences. But when you ask the word “marriage” to include any assortment of couples, regardless of gender, you are in many people’s eyes attacking a bulwark of morality. So go ahead, fight them in a civil war. It’s a difference of opinion.

Slavery was wrong because it gave licence to a system which fostered inhumanity. Attempting to resolve the question with war left racism smouldering in America, probably still to this day, like a fire that was never properly put out. Starting new fights will harden existing prejudices: isn’t that obvious?

(4) Your last question is three questions. (a) Are cultures infallible? Cultures are not right or wrong. They are the compromises that groups make to operate successfully day to day. Cultures are usually unfair in some way, sometimes to the point of intolerable cruelty, but they are the resultant of opposing forces. They are the least worst that the group can come up with at that particular time. People are fallible. Cultures just happen. (b) Is it all right to impose a death sentence? Well, some states of the USA, and some countries in the world think so. I’m personally against. (c) Is it all right to impose a death sentence on homosexuals? What, you mean for being homosexual? You don’t need my answer on this, surely?

Christian Pearson said...

This is a very insightful post. I do agree with you. With modernization comes the slowly awakening knowledge of people towards equality. However, we are definitely far from that time of electing a black gay woman president, but we sure are not losing hope that one day, that might happen.
Christian Pearson