Adam Shapiro

T.J. Tallie’s post on this blog last week does an excellent job describing the problems with historical appropriation – especially of the ongoing struggles for African-American civil rights in the United States.  He rightly points out that the phrase “Gay Jim Crow” implies an equivalence between America’s long and cruel history of systematic racial discrimination and an Arizona ‘religious freedom’ bill that was under consideration.  SB1062, since vetoed, was along with similar bills in other states widely reported using the phrase “Gay Jim Crow.”  In fact, one of the few media outlets to explicitly reject the “Gay Jim Crow” equivalence was the conservative National Review, which disputed the equivalence in a opinion supporting the Arizona law.

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I think Tallie’s right to say the equivalence implied by that phrase is false, and distorting. I take slight exception to the characterization of my own post as complicit in perpetuating this. I thought that it was clear that my post mentioned the widespread invocation of “Gay Jim Crow” precisely to contest its validity as a historical and legal claim.  Instead of arguing against the equivalence from a moral or political perspective (which Tallie himself has done quite well), I focused on the falsehood of that equivalence from the perspective of legal and judicial history. I did this to point out that if a court challenge to an SB1062-type bill ever came up, it likely wouldn’t be seen as a continuation or application of the civil rights laws and rulings that helped defeat Jim Crow (not that that work is complete, as Tallie points out with his invocation of Michelle Alexander’s excellent work.) I also did this to point out that the legal history that SB1062 contributed to also impinged on issues like Hobby Lobby’s ‘religious freedom’ to avoid Obamacare mandates or pharmacists refusing to fill contraception prescriptions.

I didn’t focus on rhetorical appropriation in this post, but that issue is an important one—one that I strive to be sensitive to (much of my own research focuses on the rhetorical misappropriation of religion and science.)  A few days before I posted about the Arizona bill, my American history class examined both the bill itself and debated the popular characterization of it as the “Gay Jim Crow” agreeing, for many of the reasons that Tallie outlined, that this was a politically self-serving but historically flawed equivalence.  But we also discussed whether this bill was also misappropriating the concept of “religious freedom”—either making exaggerated claims about how the First Amendment was historically meant, or imposing by fiat a substantial redefinition of religious freedom.  Some of that discussion informed my post.

This is where I think the historical appropriation of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century takes on a more pernicious flavour. The National Review editorial, and other comments like it, repeatedly emphasize the protection of rights as individual freedom (in this case, the individual freedom of religion and the freedom to withhold participation in commerce at one’s discretion). In fact, even conservative supporters of LGBT rights emphasize that these rights are about individuals.  A 2013 piece in the American Conservative asserts:

…there is a fundamentally conservative and libertarian case for gay rights, including same-sex marriage, that is entirely consistent with the right’s core principles of limited government and individual rights.

At the same time this rhetoric of individual rights is being reread into the history of African American civil rights, creating a historiography that reduces the struggle for civil rights to a struggle for individual freedom: ignoring the broader focus on the systemic roots of racism and the integrated concerns for social justice that goes far beyond some libertarian ideal of government as inhibitor (rather than co-guarantor) of freedom.

Perhaps the most egregious case of this that I witnessed personally was in Madison, Wisconsin on Martin Luther King Day, 2011.  After an incredible keynote speech by Michelle Alexander (and an address by then-Congresswoman—and LGBT rights champion—Tammy Baldwin), Scott Walker, inaugurated as Governor earlier that month, read the official state proclamation that said, in part:

the determined and unselfish work of Dr. King, and those who united with him, to further individual rights and human dignity has become an inspiration to persons of all social, religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds. (emphasis added)

This argument that individual rights is the natural legacy of civil rights has long been a staple of American conservatism. In Reagan’s famous “evil empire” speech in 1983, he told the National Association of Evangelicals, “the long struggle of minority citizens for equal rights, once a source of disunity and civil war, is now a point of pride for all Americans.”

This appropriation of the history of civil rights has set the attainment of individual rights against the need for social and legal protections at a structural level. It claims that using government to effect structural change infringes on the individual rights of those in positions of privilege. This is what underlays the claim that affirmative action is unwarranted, that the Voting Rights Act is obsolete, that checks against police and prosecutorial profiling are unnecessary. Coupled the claim that individual rights can be assessed by individual accomplishments it allows for the perpetuation of the myth of a post-racial America following the election of Barack Obama.

That historical misappropriation of the civil rights movement is also present in legislation that describes itself as protecting freedom, and which describes enforcement of civil rights protections against discriminating business owners as a way that “Government has become a weapon that homosexual activists are using against Christian business owners.”

Opponents of LGBT rights have not only appropriated the history of the African-American struggle for civil rights in this way, they’ve also co-opted the claims (like those Tallie made in his post) that the struggle over LGBT rights is not truly equivalent.  Most importantly, this was behind the perpetuation of the myth that African-Americans were largely responsible for the passage of Prop 8 in California, which had unfortunate consequences for those who were engaged in further activism to rescind or overturn the proposition.

This is why I think that, as true as Tallie’s points are, they should only be seen as the start of a larger conversation about the issues of intersectionality in the relationship between race and sexuality civil rights in America. Am I wrong to be concerned that focusing on the more overt historical appropriation can contribute to us overlooking the more subtle, and perhaps more insidious historical appropriation that’s present in the other side of the same debate?

Editor’s note.
For further discussion of these issues on Notches also see:

Shapiro - biopictAdam Shapiro is a lecturer in intellectual and cultural history at Birkbeck, University of London.  He works on the cultural history of America, particularly with social movements engaged with intersections of religion and life sciences.  His first book is Trying Biology: The Scopes trial, textbooks, and the antievolution movement in American schools (Chicago, 2013).  He also blogs at Trying Biology and tweets @Tryingbiology

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  1. I think the very complexities and nuances of this debate are illustrative of the need for continuous and deeper discussion and dialogue of who the ‘we’ of the LGBT rights movement includes and excludes, what historical discourses it appropriates or silences, why and to what ends. These are such complex and historically loaded questions, which shape our legal and political understandings and hopes for the future. Yet it seems to me that amongst those of us who subscribe, often not without ambivalence, to the ‘we’ of the LGBT movement, it is often primarily on the terrain of affect that our politics take place. That affect signifies differently depending on our own locations and embodiments, and in turn constitutes our very definitions of who ‘we’ are and can be.
    To be less theoretical and more specific, being neither African American nor particularly well-versed or attached to the history of the USA, I never would have spotted the problems of the term “Gay Jim Crow” had it not been pointed out to me by friends who are. In fact, I posted your initial blog post on Facebook to illustrate the importance of the legal argument, not the problems of the title, which I had seen invoked numerous times elsewhere and hadn’t thought about as problematic. My lack of affective and embodied proximity meant that I didn’t even see this form of appropriation (which we all agree is problematic).
    All this is to say that, in response to your final question, I think you’re right to be concerned about appropriation in its multiple forms, both subtle and overt. However, I don’t think one form of appropriation is necessarily more or less insidious than another, neither can they be separated out. These appropriations are co-constitutive, only meaningful (as you point out in relationship to Prop 8) because of a longer history of the intersections between racism and homophobia and the divide-and-rule strategy by which Black men must be reduced to their blackness alone and thereby cannot inhabit multiple subject positions that differ from the norm.
    In terms of what we say and how, I do think that we embody the histories and struggles of racism and homophobia differently and that those histories will necessarily impact how we perceive, feel and react to particular discourses. The politics of anger (if that is what is happening here, and maybe it’s not, but this is clearly an uncomfortable debate) is, for me, part of a anti-racist feminist politics that has the potential to undo centuries of a white, male, socio-economically privileged, heterosexual domination that has silenced and discredited voices by denying the role or legitimacy of affect (as feminine and irrational) in political debate.

  2. T.J. Tallie

    I completely agree with everything that Onni just said. while I really appreciate it this response, I am a little bit concerned about the “we” that is being discussed and I do think that it is important once again to foreground a lot of the critiques of positionality especially by those who hold these particular intersectional identities.

  3. Thanks for these comments, I don’t think anyone disagrees that it is vitally important for us to question the appropriation of civil rights/racial politics into the LGBT debate, or in fact the appropriation of any kind of language of ‘civil rights’ or ‘unifying social movement’ into LGBT and intersectional experiences writ large. Indeed, Adam’s initial post pointed out another aspect of this: the trouble with trying to legally equate them. I feel he used the term ‘gay jim crow’ in implicit quotation marks.

    I would be very interested to hear how you’d both respond specifically to the point Adam raises above about the tensions between ‘we’ and ‘I’ in social democratic politics. It is vitally important that we take things apart, that we problematize them, and that we recognize the various intersectional identities that many people inhabit but how can this then translate into actual effective political action? How can people who desire to overthrow racist, patriarchical, anti-feminist, and anti-gay governments and other power structures do so without some kind of a sense of common struggle? Is there even a common struggle? Adam’s post did make me fear that the conservative right is enjoying the fruits of divide-and-conquer. Out of the ashes of the social movements of the 1960s and 70s (women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights) has emerged an inevitable (and inspirational) divergence and diversity and disagreement. But can we respect this while still finding a way to capture some of the revolutionary potential of these movements in real and politically effective ways?

  4. T.J. Tallie


    Thanks for writing. I’m going to address your issues point by point, if I can. I will endeavour to do so as politely as possible, although I feel that there are some microaggressions in your previous comment.

    First, use of quotation marks does not actually imply a distancing from the subject. Adam devoted no space to actually critiquing the framework or the utility of the term (and indeed the blog post title does *not* have quotation marks). It was due this lack of any context that I thought necessary to write the response/corrective that I did. The term was just left hanging without actually being critiqued, and I would argue that there was a lack of critical self-reflection on the investment in the rhetorical power of the term (so I do find the ‘slight exception’ to be somewhat disingenuous).

    Secondly, while I appreciate the questions grouped in your second paragraph, they are also somewhat vexing. To ask a person of color, who has a specific lived and continued history with Jim Crow to then explain through the tensions of I and we in a democratic society when the asker is asking from a place of privilege, is mildly frustrating. It is, somewhat, asking the person who calls out the marginalization through their intersectional identities to then think through and plan for the larger group what any correctives are. It does not put the onus on the collective who si speaking in the ‘we’, but instead asks the person who is feeling marginalized by the ‘we’ to do the work. That is, to say as kindly as possible, incredibly problematic.

    I wonder about the need for or the articulation of ‘common struggle’ if that struggle is used to paper over or marginalize the simultaneous struggles of other groups (POC, trans, differently abled, women, etc). I think that the tensions that Adam raised are very useful and indeed productive, but I also felt a bit frustrated that the major ‘takeaway’ from the piece seemed to be a “let’s focus on these larger issues”. I felt the beginning of the piece heard my critique and responded well, but after repeated readings, I’ve grown uncomfortable with some of the directions the piece went in the end–it is an attempt to build a consensus around ‘divide and conquer’ from a conservative right that at the same time has the profound potential to marginalize. I think that Adam’s points about the move to individual freedom are *very* good ones, and they do echo ways of delegitimating structural racism in rightist rhetoric.

    But to answer your question–the challenge in the tensions of ‘I’ vs. ‘we’ can only be truly resolved when those who see themselves as ‘we’ actively work to de-center themselves from the conversation. This is work that I frequently have to think through in my own bodied positionality as a male-identified person in a patriarchal society, and I think that it is important to critically asses our own positions in making claims to speak for others, particular as the inheritors of Enlightenment universalist rhetoric that so very often marginalizes as much as it attempts to illuminate.

  5. Personally, despite returning numerous times to Adam’s original blog post, I can see no evidence of any implicit critique of the discourse of the “Gay Jim Crow” or discussion of the problems of its appropriation. We could go round and round in circles debating the intention, meaning and effect of that for a long time – we clearly read it differently.

    We now have three excellent and sophisticated critiques of both the original SB1062 AND of the discourse around it, a critique that is historically informed, nuanced and explicitly encompasses the problems of appropriation.
    I am primarily interested in this question: “It is vitally important that we take things apart, that we problematize them, and that we recognize the various intersectional identities that many people inhabit but how can this then translate into actual effective political action? … Out of the ashes of the social movements of the 1960s and 70s (women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights) has emerged an inevitable (and inspirational) divergence and diversity and disagreement. But can we respect this while still finding a way to capture some of the revolutionary potential of these movements in real and politically effective ways?”

    What does “effective political action” or “real and politically effective ways” mean? Who gets to decide what counts as effective and what is failed? Who decides what counts as ‘political action’ at all? Indeed, who gets to decide what is ‘real?’ (This reminds me a lot of the debate about Marxism and cultural studies that Judith Butler critiqued in Merely Cultural.)
    Decades of feminism has taught us that what counts as ‘political action’ is gendered. Black feminism has taught us to be aware that what we think of as ‘real’ and important is often the interests of some over others. Disability activists are calling into question the meaning of ‘standing up’ for your rights and rightly pointing to the way that ableism discredits or invisibilizes the work of people with disabilities.
    This blog is itself a form of ‘effective political action’ and the ideal place to discuss the differences and divisions that are an inevitable part of working with people across differences. As Bernice Reagon Johnson said of working in coalitions, “Most of the time you feel threatened to the core and if you are not then you are not really doing no coalescing.” For me, it is not about ‘respecting’ difference and diversity but struggling with and across difference and diversity, which is hard. I have screwed up and been called out more times than I can count and learnt and moved on (sometimes painfully slowly).
    Finally, I don’t think that appreciation of diversity and intersecting oppressions arose from any ‘ashes.’ They were an integral part of those movements, which are ongoing struggles even as they wax and wane and change. ”Ashes’ would suggest that something burnt out, and maybe some people did burn out, but many carried on and many of us took our inspiration from them and struggled on, in different times, different ways and different contexts. How is ‘diversity’ (by which I read black feminism) the inevitable consequences of a broken movement? And who did the breaking? Black feminists?

  6. Thanks for tackling that question Onni, I certainly didn’t intend it to have an easy or tidy answer. I’ll just respond by clarifying some things that you asked about. By effective political action I was referring directly to the issues raised in these blogs about the law and the governments and state structures that make and enforce them. For instance, the re-criminalization of abortion. I was thinking of concrete ways to stop it in the absence of a coalition politics which, as you rightly point out, are riven with their own oppressions and misappropriations. I was thinking about on the ground experience, the people who get hurt when laws such as the proposition being discussed, or the re- criminalization of abortion, get passed and how to reconcile respect for all of the issues you mention with the need to fight these things. I know they are not necessarily common goals, but they tend to be issues that people across a number of different subject positions support. You may well think that we have reached the end of leftist politics–you may be right! But sadly, the right has no where near reached it’s end and as Adam indicated are engaged in insidious misappropriations of their own that are proving extremely politically effective for them.

    This blog is shaping up to be a wonderful politicized intervention (thanks for thinking of it that way!) but (and I might be a cynic) I don’t think it is going to be an effective tool in fighting bigoted and sexist laws in the here-and-now. We’re engaged in a longer and incredibly meaningful and complicated conversation, but I feel personally there needs to be another form of engagement on top of that if we want to make (or prevent) political change in the immediate sense where people can be seriously affected.

    Sorry about using the confusable ashes metaphor. My intention was for it to be out of the ashes as in a phoenix, a meaningful and multiple reinvention. These movements were burned up by their own sexism, racism, and other assumptions about power and belonging. In many ways they deserved to be. But I was wondering about what remains of political campaigning and lobbying in their wake. I completely agree that there are diverse ways to be politically engaged but I was asking (fairly unclearly perhaps) about Politics with a captial P, rather than academic/intellectual debates or grassroots cultural movements. Finally, I wasn’t specifically referring to black feminists when I said diversity, I meant to capture the full diversity of identities and subject positions in the post 70s world while trying to stay succinct. And I really didn’t mean to imply that they ‘did the breaking’ as though they should be held accountable for it or should be called upon to answer for it. I’m wondering if it’s even safe to say ‘they’ about ‘black feminists’ considering the other lines of fracture in the feminist movement that runs alongside and for some feminists more deeply even than race. These fractures are my particular area of expertise so I’m acutely aware of them.

    My question returns to Adam’s observation about the political effectiveness of the rhetoric of the conservative right. I know not everyone shares my values of trying to divest them of their Political and cultural power, or wants to use the same tactics, but do you think it’s safe to assume that many, many people in the groups we are discussing disagree profoundly with their vision of a heteronormative, ultra christian, sexist society? (That’s not rhetorical, I really am asking because it’s not a forgone conclusion.)

    • I love the phoenix metaphor!! I was referring, somewhat obliquely, to the power of narrative to effect visions of the present and future (a la Claire Hemmings) for feminist imaginaries and action.

      I absolutely, definitely do not believe that we have reached the end of Leftist politics. I’m involved in various forms of political activism, all of which I would consider part of Leftist politics, and all of which contribute towards critiquing the conservative Right. I think that many people do believe in a heteronormative, ultra Christian, sexist society (which some from the USA are working even harder to recreate in Uganda and other African countries than in the US itself). But we can’t shut down debate and dissension between those of us who subscribe to the Left out of fear of divide-and-rule or even appropriation. Language is out there to be appropriated, we can’t control for that (I remember when our Radical Education forum were talking about free schools and suddenly that was a conservative party policy, albeit in very different guise, but still!). So, I’m not saying that we ignore what the Right is doing and immerse ourselves in our own semantic and sometimes solipsistic debates, I’m saying that we do both simultaneously, on different terrains and in different ways.
      Maybe we’re speaking a little at cross-purposes here. I don’t think there’s an absence of coalition politics in relationship to the pro-choice movement or the gay rights movement or anti-racist movement. It seems to me that coalition politics is thriving (Sister Song – – is just one example amongst many), it’s just that the struggles are endless and currently exceptionally difficult. To return to the power of narrative. I wonder how we balance the acknowledgment that there have been some serious steps back for pro-choice, including most recently the closure of abortion clinics in Florida, without undermining the vibrancy and efforts of those who continue the struggle. That, to me, is a question for historians because it relates to how we narrate history, how we think beyond teleologies, how we imagine agency and how we imagine the “enormous condescension of posterity” without reconstructing ourselves as saviors/rescuers. I think those questions represent an interface between activism and academia.

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