This week, Notches contributor Adam Shapiro posted a detailed article investigating Arizona’s controversial attempted ‘religious freedom’ bill, SB1062 (the bill has since been vetoed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer). The article did great work in critically engaging the paradoxical potential for the bill to allow legal discrimination of queer people under the guise of religious protection. As a queer African-American, I am appalled both by the potential for enabled discrimination under bills like Arizona’s SB1062 and those proposed in other states. However, I take significant issue with Shapiro (and a plethora of other writers) using the term ‘Gay Jim Crow’. While the term has rhetorical potential to help people relate to discredited governmental discrimination, its use invests in false equivalence by appropriating continued struggles of people of color in the United States.
First, the term is not historically equivalent. ‘Jim Crow’ refers to a series of laws over multiple decades designed specifically to mandate de jure forms of segregation—in other words, lawmakers attempted to mandate legal discrimination by skin color. This segregation denied African-Americans access to the franchise through poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses, segregated educational and public facilities by race, and legally inscribed black Americans to a second-class status. In contrast, bills like SB1062 are not de jure, but de facto. They do not force legal, structural segregation and second-class subjecthood. They are discriminatory, unjust, and onerous, but they are not structured in the same way.
Second, the term operates within a larger structure of appropriation of black civil rights struggles in the name of mainstream LGBT rights. To claim a ‘Gay Jim Crow’ removes the continued systematic oppression of people of color from its historic and immediate context, obscuring continued disadvantages and inequalities experienced by people of color. Indeed, the term ‘New Jim Crow’ has been used to describe the continuation of legal structures of discrimination that focus predominantly on African-Americans within the United States. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander has written extensively on the phenomenon of disproportionate policing and incarceration that affect African-American communities today. In the wake of arguments like the Advocate’s ‘gay is the new black’ in 2008, the direct equivalence of bills like SB1062 with institutional systemic anti-black discrimination offers a disproportionate form of appropriation. Such comparisons obscure intersectional identities of queerness and blackness, presuming that Jim Crow only applied to presumably straight blacks, or that these laws only impact ostensibly white queer people. Such a parallel is reminiscent of James Baldwin’s critique of gay white outrage in an interview in 1984:
I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, in a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly…Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to their sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society.
This is not to deny the gross injustice of these ‘religious freedom’ bills. However, it is important that in making these claims against discrimination, we do not invest in forms of privileged rhetoric that obscure and appropriate the real and continued experiences of people of color.
Editor’s Note. For further discussion of these issues on Notches also see:
- Adam Shapiro, Individual Freedom as Misappropriation: Race, Sexuality and the Use of Civil Rights History
- Adam Shapiro, The Gay Jim Crow – The legal history behind “religious freedom” to discriminate
T.J. Tallie is an Assistant Professor of African History at Washington and Lee University. His work focuses on race, masculinity and sexuality in nineteenth-century colonial South Africa and other settler societies. He also tweets from @Halfrican_One
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