Perhaps America’s greatest victory today is that its Constitution is seen as a living transformative document. However, this alone does not guarantee the same to such groups at the local level. This disconnect is cause for concern. For every extension of rights, there is a movement to remove them”, says the author
Events over the last month have outlined the contradictions within American society. On June 17, Dylann Roof killed nine African-Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in a racially motivated act of domestic terrorism. On the other hand, on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) legalized same-sex marriage across the U.S. through a narrow 5-4 ruling, making the U.S. the 21st country to extend benefits of marriage to same-sex couples. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who previously was instrumental in decriminalizing gay sex and extending federal benefits to same-sex couples, said, “No longer may this liberty be denied”.
These two events are very telling of American society and politics. For every far-reaching institutional change to embrace social justice, there is a Dylann Roof backed by several white-supremacist forums, who violently disagree with the premise of justice and equality. And for those fighting for social justice, like the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community, SCOTUS has scripted new rights.
The same-sex marriage ruling has been hailed by many across the world, and has come at a time when racial tensions have demonstrated how infirm liberty and equality are in the U.S. for people of color. Institutional changes have guaranteed liberty, but the fight for equality for all is still being fought. In short, racial, gender and income inequalities are still factors that prove to be obstacles to substantive social justice.
Let us consider Justice Kennedy, who has previously upheld the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms and facilitated the involvement of big money in American politics. His voting record is an indicator of the deeper contradictions of American politics:
Those who support gay rights can also support a ban on gun control, those who believe in reproductive rights can also believe that big money is acceptable in politics. These are the contradictions – between equality and inequality, embracing social justice while being unable to facilitate it completely – that are quickly forming the variables of the 2016 American presidential campaign.
In the last year, the U.S. has seen reinvigorated debates on race, income inequality, gender, immigration, global warming and the status of minorities. In July 2014, Eric Garner was put in a chokehold by the police and died an hour later after saying several times that he “can’t breathe”. A month later, Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson by the police sparked off street protests that challenged the relationship between black people and the increasingly militarized police. This was followed by the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in April 2015, which sparked off protests in Baltimore. The Charleston shooting followed two months later. In terms of income inequality, 70 per cent of countries in the world are more equal than America. The Occupy Movement that sculpted the concept of the ‘one per cent’ drew attention to the unequal distribution of income and the benefits that accrued to the wealthy through speculative activities. For instance, a CEO in America today earns roughly 300 times more money than a normal worker. This coupled with less spending on welfare services and the decline of trade unions has meant that it is increasingly hard to find social and economic mobility in the U.S.
Slow institutional changes
When race, immigrant status, gender and income dovetail, they produce a section of people that exist on the fringes of the economic, social and political systems. While the U.S. has been aware of these conditions, the institutional changes to facilitate full inclusion of marginalized groups have been slow. Even where legal inclusion has occurred, society has created its own mechanisms to facilitate exclusion, either through extreme violence or through counter legislation at the federal level, or even through job discrimination and state-backed (police) repression of minorities at the local level. Even the same-sex marriage ruling has found local resistance by local public officials refusing to issue licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
For the U.S. today, the big question is how to reconcile the legal embracing of causes of social justice with the popular acceptance of these ideals to create a more equal society. For instance, while legalizing same-sex marriage offers equal protection to gay and lesbian couples under the Constitution, this does not mean that everyone in the U.S. has accepted gay marriage or are treating gay people with dignity. Similarly, while slavery has been abolished as an institution and affirmative action policies are in place to facilitate equal treatment of African-American people, this has not deterred resentment and exclusion of the community.
Perhaps America’s greatest victory today is that its Constitution is seen as a living transformative document. However, this alone does not guarantee the same to such groups at the local level. This disconnect is cause for concern. For every extension of rights, there is a movement to remove them. In the case of the same-sex legislation, the chief opposition comes from conservative Christian Evangelicals who see marriage as a union only between man and woman. What remains to be seen is whether Christian organizations can practice discrimination against same-sex couples by taking refuge in their right to religious freedom protected under the First Amendment, which will allow them to adhere to their belief that marriage is not a same-sex union.
(The author is the Chief Coordinator of Research at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council, Washington DC.)