The Vagaries of Changing Popular Perspectives for Politics and Vulnerable Groups

            We often say here at the Institute that we disproportionately serve “vulnerable” populations. By this term we mean to convey that VTIPG and affiliated faculty and staff often are involved in seeking to help devise ways to implement, to evaluate or to research public programs aimed at assisting marginalized populations in our society or internationally. In the United States such groups historically have included, among others, those with mental illness, former prisoners, individuals with disabilities, those living in poverty, Native Americans, and/or those of ethnicities or race, religion or sexual preferences that place them in a minority status. Interestingly, these same categories apply internationally too. That is, historically, these populations have often been the objects of hatred, ridicule and discrimination and of successful attempts to enact those inclinations formally into law wherever they reside. In the U.S., for example, Jim Crow laws notoriously legalized Southern state populations’ continued systematic discrimination against African Americans, despite the Civil War and changes in the Constitution and national laws following that conflict aimed at preventing that result. Native Americans were forced to give up their lands and, in especially cruel “schools,” were beaten into relinquishing their “barbaric” customs and languages. Japanese, Latino and Chinese immigrants have likewise been the subjects of formalized and systemic discrimination. Many other groups, including Polish and Irish Americans, have been the targets of social hatred at various points in our nation’s history. Popular support for the discriminatory beliefs underpinning such actions was displayed dramatically during the Civil Rights era across the South, and has been seen since then in several states via continuing support for laws with discriminatory intent against immigrants, the poor and African Americans. Democracy is not an automatic guarantor of minority rights.             Internationally, Hitler vilified Jews and enacted his twisted perspective into law. The Nazi regime assumed a similar stance toward those with disabilities and a number of other groups. The government in Myanmar is currently doing all in its power to discriminate against the Rohingya population in that nation. There are many current additional examples around the globe of such choices and of their attendant consequence of robbing individuals of their basic human rights. In all cases, these decisions are justified to and by the majorities supporting them on the basis of arguments that those targeted are somehow “unworthy” or “less than” and therefore merit contempt.

            Historically, too, the Bible was filled with examples of discrimination against those with mental or physical disabilities. The New Testament repeatedly highlights the bitter rage that Jesus Christ reportedly unleashed when he dared challenge those prevailing beliefs. In short, systemic discrimination against unpopular minorities is not new. It has gone on for centuries, both here and abroad, and the prevailing justification has ever been rooted in “othering” arguments.

            That fact is worth recalling, as is the reality that few now believe that those who are blind or those coping with mental illness do so because they or their parents were being punished by God for some terrible behavior or evil and are in that state as a result. But people once made sense of these elements of the human condition on the basis of such claims. Understanding that fact is crucial. In a democracy, the public philosophy is ultimately driven by what the people at large believe and are willing to enshrine in law and in their behavior. Three recent events and their ensuing policy controversies reveal how quickly public attitudes can change, but also how difficult it can be to secure widespread, long-lived and deep seated shifts in prevailing popular beliefs notwithstanding.

            The first example is the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in a landmark case this past week that all of the nation’s states must permit same-sex couples to wed. Despite multiple decisions in the lower courts that had come to a similar conclusion, 13 states had not yet granted the right of civil union to same-sex couples and the Court’s decision requires that they do so. But this outcome, justified on the basis of a reading of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, is being sharply criticized by religious groups that believe God ordained matrimony only for men and women, and/or that sexual preference is a choice and that people evincing different sexual orientations need not be so. None of the 2016 GOP presidential candidates, reflecting their reading of the attitudes of the population that votes in their party’s early primaries, endorsed the Court’s decision and many denounced it. They took this stance despite the fact that national majority opinion clearly favored this outcome. The candidates’ public statements doubtless reflected an electoral calculus, but they also suggest the deeper point that while they are now in the minority in calling for actively limiting state sanctioned marriage on the basis of sexuality, they are free to continue to embrace those views and to proselytize for them among those willing to countenance the continued deprivation of what the majority now views as a basic civil right. And the many churches that hold such views may also continue to teach and press them and need not permit same-sex marriages to occur under their auspices. Meanwhile, at least one judge, in Alabama, has elected not to issue ANY marriage licenses as a protest against the high court’s decision. The broader point is that despite a rapid shift in national public opinion and the legal conferral of this civil right to a new class of people, many Americans (but now a minority of the citizenry) will continue to discriminate against members of this population on the basis of their identity. Same sex-individuals may now wed as a legal and civil right, but many people will see and treat them as “less than” on the basis of the belief that their identity is, as one evangelical minister in Dallas, Texas put it in a sermon recently, “An affront in the Face of Almighty God.”1

            A second recent example of how difficult changing the prevailing imaginaries regarding vulnerable populations can be has arisen from the recent tragic murder of nine African Americans during a Bible study group at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. The alleged killer Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white racist extremist, was depicted in photos wrapped in a Confederate battle flag accompanied by hate-filled rhetoric. That discovery soon occasioned a firestorm of criticism of the fact that South Carolina still flies that flag on its capital grounds. Moreover, it has been flown and venerated elsewhere by many in the South, including, officially, in Alabama, on the basis of a belief in the “heritage” it represents. Once again, no active GOP presidential candidate called for South Carolina to remove its flag in the aftermath of Roof’s suspected hate crime, until that state’s Republican governor did so. Now, many GOP officials are calling for the standard’s removal across the South and such may occur. While that is so, it is not clear that the many citizens willing to honor a flag that historically represents treason and the preservation of slavery as somehow the symbol of a romanticized vision of honor will suddenly change their perspectives, despite formal regime action. In short, while official government law or policy may soon no longer endorse this symbol of enmity and violent conflict in many Southern states, that is not to say that many residents of the region will soon change their beliefs. If such a broad shift does occur, it is likely to take time despite the pain inflicted on those African Americans meanwhile, who overwhelmingly view the flag as a sign of willful and continuing social degradation.

            A final example of a recent event with policy implications for vulnerable populations, in this case the poor, once again involved a U.S. Supreme Court decision. The high court recently declared once more that the nation’s Access to Healthcare Act was constitutional in a second defeat for those who have sought to roll back the law, which has secured health care insurance for millions who had previously not enjoyed it. Opponents have argued that the statute represents national government overreach and deprives individuals of their freedom of choice. In this view, public provision of a benefit to the poor represents not a needed support, but a limitation of their freedom to choose, even though that “choice” would likely mean no or less comprehensive health coverage. The Court has now twice endorsed the law as constitutional, and in so doing earned the ire of GOP leaders and presidential candidates who have endorsed a deeply individualistic and neoliberal public philosophy. As I write this, it is unclear how strongly Republican leaders will continue to fight the law on the basis of these ideological arguments, but it seems likely that the battle over defining the role for government support, of the vulnerable especially, is not yet over.

            What unites these cases is how complex and layered the public imaginary may be in political terms and how “sticky” the current views of specific population groups may be. These three cases are also joined by the fact that policies aimed squarely at assisting disadvantaged populations have created furor with at least some groups, long accustomed to claiming the privilege of defining the “place” of those individuals even when those views resulted in the formal sanctioning of social discrimination against those populations. Majoritarianism does not insure justice, particularly when one realizes that what constitutes justice is itself constructed on the basis of social values and assumptions. Each of these incidents and their aftermaths highlight that signal reality. Finally, in its efforts to ensure that minorities of all sorts in its midst are guaranteed their rights to believe what they wish, the nation will continue to witness ongoing conflict concerning how the vulnerable are to be treated, even when majority opinion shifts and supports a new view of those populations. Ironically, such social change often finds the national government seeking to protect the rights of the previously dominant group, who had often perpetrated what is now viewed as injustice in the past. Whatever the vagaries of this fraught social process, the Institute will remain in the fray, seeking both to help illuminate the portent of the choices in play and to realize fully such policies as presently exist to dignify and support the nation’s and globe’s vulnerable people.

Notes

Rachel Zoll, “Conservative Churches Confront new Reality on Gay Marriage,” U.S News & World Report, June 28, 2015, http://www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2015/06/28/conservative-churches-confront-new-reality-on-gay-marriage