The Selma Analogy

By Reno, R. R. | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, May 2012 | Go to article overview
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The Selma Analogy


Reno, R. R., First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


It's easy to see why gay activists invoke the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s, and not just because it's a handy way to take the moral high ground. It puts a large body of legal sanctions, an expansive bureaucratic power, and a well-established tradition of social censure behind the goals of sexual liberation.

Last summer, New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg gave a speech in advance of the close vote in the New York state legislature that decided that men have a right to marry men and women women. He described the fight for same-sex marriage as "the great civil-rights issue of our times." He then went on to issue the threats latent in the analogy: "On matters of freedom and equality, history has not remembered obstructionists kindly. Not on abolition. Not on women's suffrage. Not on workers' rights. Not on civil rights. And it will be no different on marriage rights."

It's a chilling warning, one meant to intimidate. History has been not only unkind in memory, but also highly punitive in fact. The civil-rights movement set in motion what has been undoubtedly the most extensive and pervasive expansion of government power over society. It was to American culture what the New Deal was to the economy.

Responding to entrenched and systemic racial discrimination, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not just dismantle Jim Crow as a legal regime in the South. It prohibited racial discrimination in nearly all aspects of American economic and social life. Along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and subsequent Supreme Court decisions, this seminal legislation created an energetic bureaucracy and expansive body of law that sought to stamp out racial discrimination.

Conservative libertarian and presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater notoriously voted against the Civil Rights Act (something he later said he regretted doing). Southern states had voting laws that effectively disenfranchised blacks, as well as an elaborate legal apparatus that enforced discrimination in everything from education to courthouse bathrooms. Goldwater claimed to be in favor of using the power of the federal government to overturn these forms of state-sponsored discrimination. But he insisted that trying to prohibit discrimination in employment and public accommodations empowered the government to interpose itself into the everyday lives of citizens to an unprecedented degree. With his characteristic bluntness, he warned that a government mandate to prevent and correct discrimination at all levels of society would require a "police state."

I certainly hope that if I had been in Goldwater's position I would have voted for the Civil Rights Act. And yet, however misaligned his moral compass was in 1964 and hyperbolic his description of the consequences of the translation of the goals of racial equality into government policy, he wasn't entirely wrong about the implications of the legislative and courtroom victories of the civil-rights movement.

The various implementations of the broad antidiscrimination mandate were often heavy-handed. For example, the Nixon administration formulated the "Philadelphia Plan," which imposed hiring quotas on unions, an initiative designed as much to punish Nixon's union adversaries as to promote racial equality. Mandatory school-busing programs were implemented, often against a great deal of local resistance. Corporations and universities put in place quotas and special hiring programs.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the legal and bureaucratic machinery for securing civil rights for blacks was refined and extended. The courts struck down the use of strict quotas in most cases, and in their place emerged a powerful and pervasive system of employment regulations, legal sanctions, and bureaucratic review. Gender equality was added to the antidiscrimination mandate, as well as legal protection against discrimination based on disability. The details of this multifaceted system are complex and continue to be litigated in the courts.

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