I kind of hate that this topic pretty much only comes up when MLK day rolls around. I am (mostly) privileged enough to not have to think too hard about civil rights. I got pulled over by the police the other day, and I didn’t get nervous at all. I have friends and students who would be seriously worried, even if they didn’t do anything wrong. So, it sucks that most of the time I don’t have to think about it, but I’m glad, I think, that at least once a year, many of us do pause and take stock of where we are and think about what needs to be done to make things better.
This election cycle and upcoming presidency have raised the issue of civil rights to the forefront of many people’s minds. The rights of many have been questioned over the last few months and many are left wondering what the new administration will really do. They’ve said, for example, that they might ban Muslims from entering this country, that they will deport Hispanic and Latino/a immigrants, that the work the current DOJ has done to investigate policing is misguided and unnecessary, and they’re looking at cutting provisions in the ACA that support women’s health. And that’s not even touching what might happen to education and housing, both key areas where civil rights are either upheld or not.
What does it really mean to have civil rights or equal rights for all? In my mind, it’s relatively simple. In terms of the law, everyone gets treated the same, regardless of their race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. That basically, they’re human first and whatever else they might identify as has nothing to do with how they can operate in the world. Thus, in my mind, two women have the right to get married and afterwards, have the same kinds of rights any heterosexual spouses would have: right to health and survivor benefits, hospital visitation rights, and yes, right to divorce. I have a hard time understanding why people want to deny a right to someone based on skin color, religion, and gender. I know there’s an underlying feeling, which came out during this election cycle, that the “rights pie” is limited and if we allow, say, a black person the right to vote, then there’s what, less votes for others? Well, I know where that comes from, but when you lay it out like that, it starts to sound ridiculous.
I do get that there are people out there who hold certain beliefs (that homosexuality is evil, for example) that they feel are being trampled on, but you know, beliefs are meant to be challenged. They’re meant to be scrutinized in the light of day, against logic and evidence. And you may, indeed, still hold that belief, but the country doesn’t have to. We actually have a law on the books that blacks are only three-fifths of a person, and yes that was a political thing, put in place so that southern states would have less representation, but it was also a real belief that people held (and sadly, some still do) that black people were literally less than human. That law got repealed and while there’s a fringe of people who still hold the belief, the belief has been outlawed now.
To me, civil rights is all about examining the beliefs behind laws that make certain groups less than human. To support the rights of a fetus above those of a woman supports the belief that life at any stage (viable or not) has the full rights of a living human. You can still hold that belief, but the belief is (tenuously) outlawed, giving the pregnant woman full humanity. Any time, I think, that you put a white man next to someone other than a white man, there should be equal status for both written into the law. Sometimes, laws have to be written to ensure that regular humans going about their regular business don’t impose their beliefs (conscious or not) about inequality. So, we have affirmative action and voting rights laws and housing discrimination laws and employment discrimination laws. And sometimes, we have to fight to get these kinds of laws passed or enforced or changed. Sometimes that’s a legal fight, and sometimes, it’s a fight taken to the streets in the form of protest. MLK day reminds us that there are still things to fight for, but it also reminds us that we live in a country where we can fight, where we are specifically constitutionally allowed to fight. It is up to all of us to continue the fight King started.