I was a young man fifty years ago, in 1965. It was a time of tremendous optimism about our ability to solve the major issues of American society, the overlapping problems of race and poverty. The Civil Rights movement had culminated in major court decisions and two key laws: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. President Johnson proclaimed the War on Poverty in 1965, expressing both determination and confidence that poverty could be eliminated.
There were also troubling clouds on the horizon. The Watts riot in Los Angeles occurred in the summer of 1965, to be succeeded by other urban riots in black ghettoes around the country. The commitment of combat troops to Vietnam happened in early 1965. It would turn out that the War on Communism would trump the War on Poverty. It would turn out that black and white radicalism (the Black Power movement and the New Left) helped to provoke a powerful, decades-long reaction that shifted the country decisively to the right.
There was one issue that wasn’t even on the horizon in 1965, but is every much on everyone’s mind today: rights for sexual minorities (gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals, or LGBT for short). Hardly anybody was talking about that back then.
After fifty years, how much has changed on each front? The present wave of protests in African American urban settings over police killings of unarmed black men tells us that race is still the biggest unsolved challenge confronting our society. While legal segregation is outlawed, de facto segregation of neighborhoods and schools is as pervasive as ever. Blacks still lag far behind whites on a wide range of economic and social indicators, such as per capita income, poverty rates, education, and health. There are still thinly veiled efforts to make it more difficult for blacks to vote. And poverty even among whites remains a stubborn reality in a context of escalating economic inequality.
It is true that the black middle class has grown, and has to a considerable extent integrated itself into the workplaces and neighborhoods and schools of the white middle class. It is true that racially mixed marriages and the resultant children are achieving unheard-of acceptability, even in the South. But for the vast majority of African Americans, race continues to be a barrier to well-being.
How is it, then, that sexual minorities have gone from virtual invisibility fifty years ago to rapidly accelerating public acceptance today?
How is it, then, that sexual minorities have gone from virtual invisibility fifty years ago to rapidly accelerating public acceptance today? The public, even in conservative places like the Deep South, increasingly sees sexuality as a private affair, and even same-sex marriage is now legal in most states. In the case currently before the Supreme Court, the question is no longer whether same-sex marriage is to be prohibited; rather, it is whether to declare a nationwide right to such marriage.
Perhaps the difference with race is that homosexuals cannot really be seen as “others” anymore, when our family members and friends come out. And they are always a minority (save in a few places like Provincetown, Rhode Island), so they are no threat to actually take over the country. Indeed, most homosexuals who are out of the closet are relatively more educated and affluent than average. They are hence more socially acceptable than the typical African American, who has less education and less money than average. The demand for the right to marry is fundamentally conservative: it is an affirmation of the value of one of society’s most deeply rooted customs. In 1965, it was progressive to live together rather than marrying. Homosexuals just aren’t seen as threatening anymore.
In contrast, the radical separation between black and white is part of our cultural DNA, going back to our founding colonies, north as well as south. Not for us is the Latino sliding scale, where virtually everyone is acknowledged to be a mixture—a mestizo.
For the sake of justice, we owe it to ourselves to own this racist heritage and always to do what we can to challenge it. But fifty years and more of struggle tell us that we can challenge it, but we won’t end it.