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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