“The Insidiousness of Oppression is that it Replicates Itself Among the Oppressed.”

[Photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin via The Kitchen Table]

Back when The Root debuted, I read it every few days (sorry, I can’t bring myself to read it now, not even for a pithy round-up). I generally went there to read “Down From The Tower,” a running conversation on politics and other musings, between Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Marc Lamont Hill. Harris-Lacewell left The Root a while ago, but I was pleased to come upon a blog she contributes to, with a similar format. The Kitchen Table is a call-and-response between Harris-Lacewell, an African American studies professor, and Yolanda Pierce, a theologian.

Recently, Melissa wrote a piece called “Race, Gay Marriage, and the 2008 Bigotry vote.” This was prompted by recent speculation that blacks voting for Obama in California will also vote for Proposition 8, a measure to repeal gay marriage. Often the argument for why blacks should support gay marriage goes something like this: “black people weren’t allowed to marry who they wanted 40 years ago, so now they should support other people marrying partners of their choice.” That argument, in and of itself, is perfectly sensible. However, people who make that argument often don’t recognize the fact that blacks have just as much of a “right” to be bigoted as any other group. Being formerly oppressed doesn’t exclude people of color from holding the same views as the oppressors.  It doesn’t make it right, but it doesn’t make black people any more or less wrong.

Melissa’s blog post is an exploration of why blacks should support gay rights, without taking a tone that is chiding or sarcastic.

African American gay men and lesbians have been critical and crucial actors in the fight for black equality in the United States. For example, Bayard Rustin (whose picture appears at the top of this post) was the architect of the March on Washington and was the intellectual and strategic force behind Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violent strategy in the South. As the brilliant book and film, Brother Outsider, chronicles, Rustin was repudiated by Dr. King, mocked by Stokley Carmichael, and largely forgotten by black history because he was unashamedly a gay man. When Barack Obama stood in Denver marking the 40th anniversary of the Dream speech, he was standing on the shoulders of Bayard Rustin. We cannot elect him while trampling on Rustin’s legacy.

Gay and black are not two different communities. They overlap and intersect. To deny rights, freedoms, and equality to gay men and women is to deny it to our own brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, choir directors, track stars, politicians, and preachers. Blackness need not have rigid and bigoted boundaries. Proposition 8 is an opportunity for black Americans to be a truly progressive force in American political history and a truly prophetic voice of Christianity in the world.

I completely reject the idea that God calls us to be bigots. I completely reject the notion that a ban on gay marriage is an act of Christian faith. I believe it is a betrayal of the fundamental requirements of Christian love.

Yolanda Pierce responds, thoughtfully, with “That Person Is Me”:

I am thinking about your post today on race, gay rights, and bigotry. And it is a difficult post for me to respond to because I am that person you indict: the liberal on social and political issues, but the conservative on social religious issues. Like some African Americans, I grew up in a very religious environment, where the teachings about morality, sin, and righteousness were very clear cut. Now, folks may have taken a different path! But I was taught that there was a narrow road, that good and straight path, and then there were all the other roads. There was only black and white, no shades of gray.


In my own maturation as a person of faith, I’ve come to understand the fullness of God’s love in ways that I could never have imagined. In this maturation process, I have used two fundamental questions to interrogate my theological beliefs and my political beliefs. First, does this position allow me to know God more and to love God more? And secondly, does this position cause me to love my neighbor as I love myself? Because this is really at the core of this issue: can we love, that is recognize the humanity, in the eyes and faces of those with whom we disagree, and want for them what we want for ourselves and our children.

So Melissa, I am not offering any excuses about your very astute observations. How can a group of people who have been historically denied some very basic rights ever replicate that wrong on another group of people? My answer: the insidiousness of oppression is that it replicates itself among the oppressed. And for your question: how do we not acknowledge that gay and black can be intersecting terms? My answer: because we forget that gender, sexuality, and class are as meaningful and powerful constructs as the category of “race.”

What I find intriguing about this exchange is that Melissa brought a logical argument to the table, without treating blacks as an aberration for holding the same bigoted notions as other groups. Yolanda responded from a religious perspective, without being reflexive.

One thought on ““The Insidiousness of Oppression is that it Replicates Itself Among the Oppressed.”

  1. Grump September 23, 2008 at 11:11 am Reply

    Am I wrong for reading this as a way to “get my fix in” for stimulating intelligent reading? I agree that Yolanda brought it home with the criteria for which many Christians should handle their theological and poitical beliefs whenever they come at a crossroads. Actually, I wish it would be like this for most religious people.

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