Slavery effectively ended in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The racism that built and sustained American race-based slavery did not vanish. Despite the legislative gains made during the Civil Rights Movement, the very racism that kept slavery alive for hundreds of years now manifests itself in modern institutions and ideologies. We see it in the discrepancies in treatment of minorities and white citizens by police officers, in pay inequalities on the basis of pigmentation, at the Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally, and veiled in many more ideologically-rooted mistreatments.
Such is the story of the continuing battle for equality. Women, the BGLTQ+ community, Muslims, immigrants, and other minority communities have witnessed legal gains since the founding of the United States. Nevertheless, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and hatred for identities different from one’s own still exist. Minority groups have complicated histories in the United States, and while social equality progresses with legal protections, the legacy of struggle and inequality cannot evaporate upon the introduction of legal protections. Codified laws are only a first step to unraveling traditions of hate.
It’s easy to think that once legislation is enacted, divisive inequalities will be erased. Mass mobilization is an effective actor in creating legal change, as it pressures lawmakers. The gains made by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Movement, and the women’s suffrage movement were monumental in extending and protecting civil liberties. However, the fight does not end there.
While protests affect the acts of legislators, who are often isolated from the general population, they do not combat long-existing sentiments of hatred. Legislation is not a guarantee of liberation from societal subjugation. Freedom of religion is guaranteed under the First Amendment, yet Muslims continue to face widespread discrimination from fellow residents in the United States, and indeed even from the President of the United States.
People with minority identities deserve more than solely legal protections. They, like all other people, deserve to live without fear of discrimination from anyone. Social equality should be the law of the land; more so, it should dominate public sentiment. Nobody should be born into socially “disadvantageous” positions kept alive by archaic, bigoted belief. More often than not, these conditions are socially, not legally constructed.
Despite major movements and gains in civil rights legislations for minorities, people of color are still subjected to more severe sentences in prison than their white counterparts, women are still consistently compensated less than men, and suicide rates are still much higher among the BGLTQ+ community than in cisgender and heterosexual communities. These are facts that cannot be contested, and they are direct results of American historical white, cisgender, male, heteronormative domination.
In addition to fighting for legislative gains, we must also fight to change the hearts of those around us. Those with privileged identities need to remember that identities cannot be compartmentalized: Discrimination against one is discrimination against all because of the inherent intersectionality within personhood. We need to leverage the privileges that we have, we need to check them, and we need to check the privilege of those around us to create real change. No longer can people with a privileged identity sit by idly, complicit in societal oppression, as others struggle.
We need to create a dialogue, create exposure to minority identities so that those in positions of privilege see that politicized social issues are human issues. Struggles involve a people’s humanity; they are not just theoretical issues that appear on the news. The combined force of dialogue and personal exposure with the rallying that drives political change can help shift ideologies and create true liberation.
The growing acceptance of the gay community during the 2000s is evidence of such ideological change. Where in 1973 approximately 70 percent of people believed same-sex relations to be wrong, by 2010, the rate dropped to 43.5 percent. There is still a long way to go, but increased exposure to gay people encourages and catalyzes the process of liberation for queer people from structural oppression.
Nelson Mandela once said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion… People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Real change does not exist in legislation alone. It must be accompanied by societal and ideological change. Laws may enumerate and codify legal rights, but without the disappearance of hate from personal ideology, people are not safe in society. They are not liberated from the social subjugation that was built from years, decades, or even centuries of marginalization and oppression.
Ideally, legislation would be synonymous with liberation. That, however, is a utopian ideal. As long as people hold incongruous views to legislation protecting the basic human rights of minorities, freedom cannot exist in full. Ideological change must accompany legal change. People must unlearn their hate and learn love.
Elijah T. Ezeji-Okoye ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Lowell House.
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