Implementing still more laws that segregate and discriminate, Southern states showcase the worst of human fears and ignorance.
In March of 2016, Georgia passed a law that allowed tax-funded organizations to deny services to same-sex and unmarried couples. HB 757 was intended to protect ministers from having to perform same-sex marriages – something that has always been protected in the country’s constitution – but then the senate took the bill even further.
Georgia’s senate decided that the bill should prohibit the government from taking action against anyone at a state-funded organization who holds a “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such marriage.” Think Kim Davis. Just don’t think about her four marriages. Ironically, she could have been a victim to this law if it had gone into effect a few years earlier.
In spite of numerous businesses speaking out against the bill, with threats of moving out of Georgia all together, it passed. Fortunately, on March 28, Governor Nathan Deal vetoed the bill stating; “”I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia, of which I and my family have been a part for all of our lives.”
Not to be overshadowed by it’s neighbor, Mississippi passed a bill, which was signed into law on Tuesday, April 5, 2016, by Governor Phil Bryant. Like Georgia, this law allows businesses with “sincerely held religious beliefs” to refuse service to LGBT people, going a step further to state that gender is “determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.” The bill is called the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act.”
And North Carolina’s HB 2 was created out of a special session on March 23rd, then passed and signed by the governor on the same night. It repealed a new ordinance expanding LGBT protection passed in Charlotte on February 22nd. More than just removing those LGBT protections, it made the new state law the final word, which means the law cannot be expanded by cities or local governments to protect anyone outside of race, religion, national origin, color, age, biological sex and handicaps. LGBT people can lose their jobs, housing, and be refused service for food, or even protection by public officials. Someone only needs to say their “sincere” religious beliefs won’t allow them to serve. HB 2 goes further, also ensuring that the minimum wage does not go higher than the state’s $7.25 an hour.
South Carolina’s Senator Lee Bright mirrored the HB 2 bill, minus the economic restrictions, just this week, targeting transgender students. It states, “Local school boards shall require every multiple occupancy bathroom or changing facility that is designated for student use to be designated for and used only by students based on their biological sex.”
Senator Bright told WYFF news, “I’ve about had enough of this. I mean, years ago we kept talking about tolerance, tolerance and tolerance. And now they want men who claim to be women to be able to go into bathrooms with children. And you got corporations who say this is OK.”
Just for clarity’s sake, while there are no recorded incidences of children being attacked by a transgender person, laws typically don’t prohibit attackers from attacking.
If all of this sounds vaguely familiar to anyone with any knowledge of Southern history and the civil rights movement, that’s because it is. Historian Jason Sokol, noted in his essay, White Southerners’ Reactions to the Civil Rights Movement, “The ‘Southern way of life’ encompassed a distinctive mix of economic, social, and cultural practices… It also contained implications about the region’s racial order — one in which whites wielded power and blacks accommodated.”
Blacks were demeaned and dehumanized, Sokol says. “…white Southerners produced and absorbed cruel stereotypes about African Americans: that they were unclean and shiftless, unintelligent and oversexed. Blacks became either clowns or savages, with no area in between.”
There are two issues at work here: 1) A challenge to the social norm and 2) a lack of education. The consequent reaction is fear and retaliation, just as it was during the civil rights movement. In fact, in Florida, just last week, the Department of Children and Families removed LGBTQ-inclusive language from its rules. The sentiment expressed through this move is the same as Senator Bright when he said, “I’ve had about enough of this.” Unfortunately, according to Lambda Legal Senior Attorney, Currey Cook, about 20% of kids in foster care are LGBTQ, which leaves the most vulnerable children unprotected at a time when they need it the most.
Most of us get uneasy when our way of life feels challenged. Today people can barely have a political conversation without becoming defensive. Introduce protections for a class of people deemed “unclean, shiftless and oversexed,” and you have the makings of a rebellion. Throw in the fear mongering of religious and conservative news organizations and you have the makings of another civil war.
The lack of accessible education many people have in some of the more economically challenged areas exacerbates the problem. For example, Mississippi is second to last for the lowest high school graduation rates in the United States. Not surprisingly, Mississippi is also the poorest state in the nation.
Most of the college freshmen I’ve taught find it difficult to critically think outside of their narrow worldviews. Asking them “why” easily creates a deer-in-the-headlights reaction. They are prepared to spit back information they’ve learned, but not equipped to explain reasoning behind their gut instincts. When people are not exposed to ideas and experiences outside of their own, they create emotional and intellectual walls of “security,” or defense mechanisms to keep themselves mentally safe.
All of that said, I grew up in California after the civil rights era. My parents came from Southern roots and have little education beyond high school. Sometimes I heard racial slurs in my home, and I remember my father often shaking his head in disbelief at people or things he didn’t understand. He had strong feelings against interracial dating at the time. My grandmother, who didn’t have a mean bone in her body, usually referred to black people by the n-word. Never with malice. It was just how she grew up in poor, rural Missouri in the early 1900s. We were a Christian family who believed in the literal translation of the Scriptures.
Yet, no matter what was said or thought at home, I was taught to treat people with decency and kindness. As I grew older, Grandma changed the n-word to “negro,” or “colored,” and my father let go of his prejudices, usually defusing differences with his quick wit. One thing I appreciate about my family is their willingness to learn and grow.
It’s easy to get sucked into the political divisions we’re confronted with day after day. Creating controversy and stirring the pot is how media networks make money. At the end of the day, however, we’re all humans with the same need for love, security and belonging, irrespective of race, creed, sexual orientation, or even gender identity. We don’t have to agree with each other, or even understand, to support each other. It’s a matter of simple human decency.
As Rabbi Mark Sobel wrote in his church newsletter:
“First they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out,
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists and I did not speak out,
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out,
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
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