We Can’t Achieve Equality through Disdain

We need a new word. I’ve noticed a preponderance of a phenomenon that is something more specific than racism or sexism. Unless someone can think of something catchier, I propose a German-style mash-up to get at the heart of the idea. Let’s call it “equality-through-disdain.” And let’s put an end to it.

Black History Month has come and gone. The Violence Against Women Act has finally passed out of the House and will be signed into law again. Over the last month, I’ve engaged in arguments about both. At first, I was completely flummoxed. Who could possibly be against Black History Month? What would motivate anyone to oppose The Violence Against Women Act? As I’ve been repeatedly told by conservative friends and the right-wing punditocracy, my liberal brain is just too naïve and too closed to comprehend the opposition’s point of view. If I could only open myself up to modern conservatism, walk a mile in those expensive loafers, I would see that the other side makes a persuasive case. So I tried to be persuaded. Instead, I found a kind of contempt born of resentment and masquerading as virtue: Equality through disdain.

The first revelation that came out of my attempt to understand the conservative positions was that the opposition to Black History Month and The Violence Against Women Act was not, in fact, two separate arguments, but one. Black History Month, I was told, divides us. It forces us to focus on one portion of our population. This division is unhealthy. If we could simply teach History, I was told, rather than any particular group’s history, then we would be better off. Similarly, The Violence Against Women Act divides us. It forces us to focus on …well, on a majority of our population, but a slim majority. This division is unhealthy. If we could simply focus on preventing violence against everyone, then we would be better off.

This argument is wrong factually, and it’s wrong morally. I’ll let you decide which of those is most important.

Factually, Black History Month does not make us focus on a portion of our population. An historian cannot tell the history of Black America without telling the history of all Americans. It’s a lens. Eight months of the year, schools teach “American History.” It’s the story of the (predominantly white, male) leaders who accomplished noteworthy things. Depending on your point of view, it’s the history of the winners or the history of the oppressors. Both those labels are loaded, and both are true. Black History Month provides us with an opportunity to reexamine our nation’s history through the lens of an oppressed people. That can be the story of striving, of overcoming obstacles, of breaking through seemingly impenetrable barriers. Or it could be the story of atrocity upon atrocity. Too often, in our schools, it’s the false story of an anodyne version of Martin Luther King Jr. who didn’t say anything that would still challenge us today. Still, the willingness to reexamine our history so that it’s more than the story of military battles and electoral victories is not divisive. It’s more inclusive.

Now, the conservatives I argued with said, “Why not Mexican American History Month? Why not Japanese American History Month?” (One wrote, “Why not Jamaican History month?” Um, two reasons come immediately to mind. First, Jamaica is a sovereign nation, and we generally don’t teach the history of other countries for a solid month in an American History class. Two, Jamaican Americans are Black.) To this I say, “Absolutely!” Why shouldn’t our history be taught in a thematic way, focusing on various groups who made contributions? Perhaps, if we are bound to the idea that history must be taught chronologically, we could divide Black History Month throughout the year. And we could sprinkle the stories of other groups in, too. And do you know what would happen? Unless a history teacher had figured out a magical way to rush through all of American History in nine months, when things had to be cut, they would almost inevitably decide that those stories would end up on the cutting room floor. Is this racial bias? No. It isn’t. I can say that categorically. History teachers, regardless of their races or racial biases, have to pick and choose. There simply isn’t enough time in the year to teach all the relevant material. It’s an impossible job. So they teach about leaders like presidents because presidents are important for students to know about. They teach about wars because wars are important for students to know about. They struggle to teach students about persistent institutions because concepts like “slavery” or “Jim Crow” or “Civil Rights” are abstract and difficult, and not limited to a day or an election or a year. Are those concepts essential to understanding American History? Absolutely. But they aren’t easy to teach or understand. Events like Black History Month aren’t evil mandates. A history teacher can choose to ignore Black History Month or she can attempt to spread it throughout the school year. Black History month is a gift teachers can choose to accept; it gives teachers permission to take the time to put things into a different context.

Similarly, the argument that The Violence Against Women Act only helps women is patently false. About four second of research reveals that the VAWA protects the victims of spousal abuse even if they are male, and increases funding for law enforcement programs which target abusers, even if those abusers are female. One could argue that the title of the bill is the problem. "The Violence Against the Victims of Domestic Abuse" would be better. For that matter, "An Attempt to Prevent Domestic Violence and Increase Penalties for Abusers After-the-Fact" would be much more accurate. The acronym AAPDVIPAAF is a bit unwieldy, though. The concept behind the actual title of the bill is largely correct, though; the vast majority of domestic abuse cases involve victims who are women. If that fact is divisive, the fault lies with the domestic abusers. 

[Side note: This false argument is not the reason the VAWA languished in Congress for so long. Opposition to the VAWA was politically toxic for its (uniformly) Republican opposition, and those politicians are all smart enough to know that the bill strengthened protections for victims of demostic abuse regardless of their gender. They didn't oppose it because they hate women. The story that my conservative friends seem to have missed is that the newest version of the bill extended protections to victims of domestic abuse who were LGBT, illegal immigrants, or Native American. The Republicans who opposed the bill had almost unanimously voted for it before those groups were added. Their much touted “War on Women” wasn’t focused on promoting the domestic abuse of most women. It was focused on cutting the funding for women's healthcare clinics if those clinics also provided abortions, or on making women undergo unnecessary medical procedures to shame them out of getting abortions, or on making medical doctors say patently untrue things to patients who might be considering abortions, or making women wait longer and longer to have an abortion while also limiting how long they could wait to have an abortion. Really, the “War on Women” was about abortion. Until the women being beaten up were illegal immigrants or Native American or gay. Then the “War on Women” extended to them, too. Make of that what you will.]

Now, the moral counter-argument in favor of Black History Month and the VAWA might seem to be obvious. The story of African Americans should be taught. The victims of domestic abuse should be protected. But it goes a lot deeper than that. The people who opposed Black History Month were, in my experience, uniformly white. The people who opposed the VAWA were uniformly men. That’s not to say that a black woman couldn’t oppose either one. It’s just that her arguments would have been different. I’m also not saying that the people who opposed Black History Month or the VAWA were overt racists or sexists. Instead, they were practicing a kind of unconscious racism or sexism that comes from the dangerous combination of good intentions and hurtful ignorance born of unacknowledged privilege. On the good intentions side of the ledger, they want everyone to be treated equally. That sounds great. Who is against equality? But, if you are a white male, your ethnicity and gender are rarely acknowledged. Nobody says, “Good for you, overcoming the obstacles that come with being white and male.” So, in a perverse way, it seems logical to these folks that we will achieve equality when no one acknowledges the race or gender of anyone else, either. In essence, the reasoning goes, if one person is not allowed to be proud of being white, the others should be prohibited from being proud of being black. If one person cannot enjoy the history of male oppression, another shouldn’t be allowed to gain confidence from the gains of feminists. Sounds fair, right?

But that’s not equality. It’s disdain. Oppressed people take pride in their categorizations because they come from a category which has, historically, overcome oppression. White men don’t get to take pride in their history of overcoming because, as a group, we haven’t had to overcome in the same way. So, for white men to try to deny anyone else the ability to be proud simply because we can’t be proud of our white-ness is another kind of oppression. The way to morally level the playing field is to lift people up persistently and systematically. The goal should be that being from any group other than white men is not a hindrance and hasn’t been for so long that the relationship between the oppressed person and their descendants diminishes with time. I can be proud of my ancestors’ struggles against poverty in Ireland, the anti-Semitism they survived in Eastern Europe, the second-class status they weathered here in America. It will be a marvelous day when a woman’s experience of sexism is just as removed from her life as I am distant from the hardships my immigrant ancestors faced, and when a black person is just as many generations removed from any experience of racial prejudice as I am from my ancestors’ experiences fleeing the Nazis. But we’re not there yet. (And don’t get me started on poverty. Americans aren’t even allowed to discuss the struggles they face due to our wide and growing income inequality without someone screaming “Class Warfare!” and mixing up socialism and communism while frothing at the mouth. Poor People’s History Month must be in July, because we don’t focus on that at all.) A white male telling anyone else that they shouldn’t have their experience recognized in a special way is just articulating a rough translation of “I still don’t get it.” 

Black History Month has come to an end, and now the Voting Rights Act is before the Supreme Court. The most likely outcome is that Section 5 will be invalidated. That’s the portion that says that specific parts of the country with a history of racial segregation have to check with the Department of Justice before they can change their voting laws. Now, a very good argument could be made that this section is unfair to those parts of the country, and should therefore be expanded to every state and locality to prevent things like racial redistricting or voter ID laws that target minorities. Another worthwhile change would be a recognition that most, if not all, voter laws are now motivated by political partisanship rather than race (thought race is sometimes a means to a partisan end), so perhaps changes in voter laws should be run by the Department of Justice to make sure they don’t favor a particular party rather than a particular race. But those were not the arguments made before the Supreme Court, and those will not be remedies the Court will consider. Instead, the Court will uphold or strike down Section 5 based on the argument that institutional racism is now so distant in the history of Shelby County, Alabama (the plaintiff) that the law no longer applies. But according to the Huffington Post, “The most recent census found that the city is 63 percent black, but the majority of the city council’s seats are held by white politicians who live in largely white sections of town.” One of Shelby County’s residents, Jerome Gray, said, “Listen, it’s plain to see that when Shelby County decided to take up this fight, they didn’t ask anybody who would be in a position to know if there are still real problems.” 

This attempt at equality-through-disdain isn’t limited to something as toothless as Black History Month, or even something as important as the VAWA. It goes all the way to the heart of the argument which may decide if some people maintain their enfranchisement in a democracy. So the next time someone says, “Why do we always have to focus on our differences? Why can’t everything just be the same for everyone,” please tell them that differences diminish in importance when people are lifted up, not when the simple acknowledgment of difference is treated with contempt.