Last week, America went through some dramatic political changes. The historic voting Rights Act was repealed by the Supreme Court, rolling back the fight for racial equality by decades and putting the voting rights of millions of minorities in jeopardy. Then, Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis of Ft. Worth attempted a 13-hour-long filibuster aimed at stopping SB5, a bill that would likely shut down most of Texas’s abortion clinics. Davis’s brave efforts succeeded in killing SB5 in its tracks. A day later, the Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA) was repealed by the Supreme Court, providing a huge boost to gay rights and the battle for marriage equality in America.
The landmark events served as a brilliant example of how contradictory and complex American society can be, but it has also highlighted an uncomfortable facet of American life, that money determines access to political freedom, while skin color and poverty continue to relegate citizens to second class status.
The fight for gay, black and women’s rights are of course, equally as important. But it is interesting that attacks on gay and women’s rights provoke coordinated action resulting in wall to wall media coverage and legislative success, while the fight for racial equality has not. While some might believe the 1960’s solved America’s race problems, As Gary Younge writes, the battle is far from over:
The day before the [Voting Rights Act] ruling, the trial of George Zimmerman opened in Florida. Zimmerman, who is Latino, shot dead an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, claiming he looked “suspicious”. He was neither charged nor arrested for several weeks, and then only afternationwide protests. Zimmerman, who had never met Martin, referred to the boy as a “punk” and complained to the police dispatcher: “They always get away.” Zimmerman weighs 250lbs and had a 9mm handgun; Martin, 17, weighed 140lbs and had a packet of Skittles and a can of iced tea. Zimmerman claims he was acting in self-defence. “He shot him for the worst of all reasons,” said state prosecutor John Guy in his opening statement. “Because he wanted to.”
The day after the ruling, celebrity chef Paula Deen went on the Today show and wept over accusations of racial and sexual harassment that are destroying her empire. In a lawsuit a former employee accuses Deen, among other things, of demanding a “true southern plantation-style wedding” for her brother Earl “Bubba” Heirs in 2007. “Well, what I would really like is a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties,” she allegedly said. “You know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around.”
The repeal of the Voting Rights Act was a legal decision made by a court, but it reflects a worrying attitude in America that there is no longer a need to promote minority rights for African Americans and other racial minorities.
The gay rights movement has seen major victories in the past couple of years – from the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), to gay marriage rights in nine states and the recent repeal of DOMA. Women’s rights, although under attack from Republicans, remains a forward moving battle. Women have served alongside men in the military from 2003 onwards, Nancy Pelosi became the first woman speaker of the house,and in 2009 and 2010 Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were confirmed as Supreme Court Associate Justices. The earning gap between men and women is continuing to close (although it is still not equal), and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act was signed by Obama allowing victims of pay discrimination to file a complaint with the government against their employer within 180 days of their last paycheck. The fight is by no means over, particularly given Republican attempts to defund planned parenthood and restrict abortion rights, but the trend points to more success, not less.
Blacks and other ethnic minorities have not seen the same type of success in recent years, with progress made during the Civil Rights era reversed and life made significantly worse. The median net worth of white households is now 20 times that of black households, with poverty increasing for the past 10 years. African Americans live in a society still segregated along racial lines and their lot has gotten worse under the first black president, not better. The Supreme Court has now gotten rid of legislation designed to ensure voting rights for minorities, and concerted right wing efforts are under way to stop blacks and Latinos from voting. These trends show a troubling indication that government is now incapable of reigning in economic and political forces that are splitting the country apart along racial lines, and is now a part of the problem, not the solution.
Gay rights are funded and fought across party lines. Gays are disproportionately wealthy compared to other Americans, and owe less. They have disposable income to fight inequality and are funding the gay rights movement with billions of dollars. Women’s rights organizations in America are also well funded, with organizations like the Ford Foundation, the Heinz Family Foundation, George Soros’ Open Society Institute, and the Turner Foundation all giving millions of dollars a year to the cause.
With public funding cuts, minority-led nonprofits face the additional challenge of serving a population that has fewer financial resources to contribute to organizations that serve them. Moreover, recent studies show that foundation grantmaking for ethnic minorities is low and is not growing at the same rate as overall giving. “Although foundation funding is only a small portion of funding, many nonprofits serving diverse communities depend on this source of support for survival,” says Renee Branch, director of diversity and inclusive practices at the Council on Foundations, a Washington, D.C., association of more than 2,000 grantmaking foundations and corporations.
America is a deeply divided society, and the basis for the division is wealth and skin color. Race correlates almost exactly with poverty – the darker your skin in America, the poorer you are. And the poorer you are, the less resources you have to fight for equality, as African Americans and other minorities were reminded of again last week.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.