As many commentators have noted, the pace at which equal rights for gays has been advancing in the US has been nothing short of remarkable. Within a decade we have moved from a time in which one state after another passed laws and constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriages to one in which public opinion has shifted so far that likely none of them would pass now, not to mention an almost unanimous string of judicial rulings overturning such bans.
In an interview, Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was a civil rights attorney before being appointed to the court by president Jimmy Carter in 1980, talks about why in comparison the pace of racial progress has been so slow, sometimes even reversing itself.
The Supreme Court was “once a leader in the world” in combating racial discrimination, according to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “What’s amazing,” she added, “is how things have changed.”
In what may become the most controversial part of her interview with Coyle, Ginsburg also suggests that public acceptance of gay Americans is eclipsing our ability to relate to each other across racial lines. “Once [gay] people began to say who they were,” Ginsburg noted, “you found that it was your next-door neighbor or it could be your child, and we found people we admired.” By contrast, according to Ginsburg, “[t]hat understanding still doesn’t exist with race; you still have separation of neighborhoods, where the races are not mixed. It’s the familiarity with people who are gay that still doesn’t exist for race and will remain that way for a long time as long as where we live remains divided.”
The impact of this kind of distancing does not apply only to race.
According to Pam Karlan, a Stanford law professor who now serves as the Justice Department’s top voting rights attorney, “very few upper middle class people wake up to discover that their children are poor. Very few citizens wake up to discover that their children are undocumented. Very few white people wake up to discover that their child is black,” but even the most staunchly anti-gay parent can wake up to a phone call from their child telling them that he or she is gay.
It is somewhat discouraging to think that many people cannot extend their circle of empathy and compassion to include members of groups to which they themselves do not belong unless there is a real possibility that someone close to them might end up belonging to that group.
In reality, it is very possible that at least some of one’s descendants will be poor or married to someone of a different race or even undocumented so if one can think beyond one’s own immediate family, the seemingly inconceivable becomes possible.