The ERA: What to Expect When We’re Respected

If we recognize on a federal level in the Consti-freaking-tution that women are entitled to equality under the law, then maybe we can understand the full potential of the United States. Maybe we can figure out what this amazing experiment of a country can do.

I come late to the ERA conversation. As a writer who concerns herself with politics, I find it as surprising as you do. But the truth of the matter is, I’ve never seen the social issues that I like to talk about through a particularly feminist eye. I didn’t identify that way. I just saw them through the lens of my experience. And because I have the right to vote, the freedom of the press and free speech, because we live in a pro-choice age, the ERA didn’t register on my radar. The fight had been fought and I could pay homage to the women who came before me by writing my viewpoints and publishing them widely, by reading, by voting, by making informed decisions and supporting my fellow women.

But that’s not enough.

Although I knew that the Equal Rights Amendment hadn’t passed, I didn’t really understand the implications. They are practical as well as immaterial. By that I mean that the fact that women are paid seventy-seven cents on the dollar to what a man is paid (sixty-four cents if you’re a woman of color) and that this is a federally recognized discrimination – carries out in myriad ways that tell women that they are paid less because they are worth less.

Worthless.

I didn’t really understand this, or believe it, until I started to consider it through the lens of a parent and to think of it in a racial context. I’l start with the first. In reading every single parenting book that came on the market and systematically throwing them out after I gleaned the one thing that made sense in each of them, I learned something about potential. Up until then, potential had been an enemy word to me. Potential was something I learned to hide in school because once a teacher learned I had potential, they expected me to live up to it. And that took work that I wasn’t willing to put in. My advice to friends from elementary school upwards was this: Never let ‘em see your potential. Once they do, you’re screwed. They are perpetually disappointed in you. A late assignment brings chastisement instead of shrugged shoulders. And if that bothers you, like it did me, potential makes you pick up a book and a pen just to quiet the mounting frustration of others. And it creates something else: a taste for praise. And if you’re anything like me, that taste, coupled with potential, might make you a writer. In other words: trouble.

Parenting books reinforced this, but from a far different perspective. They asked me to expect great things from my child – whether it be potty training or restaurant behavior – and to let that expectation dictate their potential.  Because the thing is, if you’re expected to succeed, it becomes more work to fail.

And I started thinking about Trayvon Martin. I wondered about how he presented himself and how perceptions of him dictated the events that led to the end of his life. I thought about potential again, about our former President, who, unlike Martin, wasn’t a good student. Yet being born into a successful family where privilege and stature fed the expectations of potential, George W. Bush became the leader of the free world. He believed he was worth more. And so he was.

And that’s the thing. Society seems to take on an active role about telling people what their potential is. We tell them through our culture, and we tell them through how we legislate. And that voice becomes internalized and affects behavior. It affects who we think we are. What we can do. And what we are worth.

Of course, not everybody. For every stereotype, there are exceptions. Not every white-bread mediocre son of American royalty becomes President. Not every dark-skinned son of an abandoned father and a mother on food stamps wears hoodies and are shot down: some become President. (As a senator, President Obama cosponsored the Women’s Equality Amendment. And when he was a state senator, he sponsored a joint resolution ratifying the ERA.) Some women internalize their diminished status. Some become dependent on men for safety and financial security. Some accept discrimination as a rule. Some think the fight for equality has been fought before us. But some become the COO of Facebook. Some carry on epic filibusters. And some will run for President.

ERA March

If we recognize on a federal level in the Consti-freaking-tution that women are entitled to equality under the law, then maybe we can understand the full potential of the United States.  Maybe we can figure out what this amazing experiment of a country can do.

Because progress has slowed. We’re at an impasse. We’ve lost sight of who we are and where we are going. We agree on little but that the system is broken. We don’t agree on where and how badly it is, or on how to fix it. We certainly can’t agree on who can fix it. But I think we can agree that by giving half of our population the tools – both tangible and immaterial – to help fix it, we can only go forward. Just ask Elizabeth Warren, Wendy Davis, Tammy Duckworth, Hillary Clinton and Allison Lundergan Grimes, to name a few of the latest rock stars on the national political radar.

With a law that cannot be repealed on the state level by backwards politicians who understand that the way to continue the status quo is to lower our collective expectations, what is possible?

But we have work to do. The ERA failed because a deadline for ratification was placed on it. There needed two-thirds of the states to pass it, yet only thirty-five did in time, just shy of the thirty-eight needed. A renewed effort is being put in place now to lift the deadline and with a three state strategy join the rest of the civilized nations of the world by legislating equality. NOW will only support candidates who agree to the three state strategy and on lifting the deadlines with their endorsement and financial contributions.Together we can get there.

And then we have to do the work.

The world is expecting us.

Obama Stands His Ground

By speaking forthright about his own experience as a black American, again he raised the level of discourse in the country to one above talking points and pretended offense. He opened himself up to the ridiculous misinterpretations that are plaguing the Internet, those who will take his words out of context, to reshape them into something unworthy of a President. But it wasn’t.

Obama made his first big splash on the national stage at the 2004 DNC. He gave a speech that invoked his white mother and black Kenyan father. He was young, articulate, smart. He sounded like we wanted our representatives to sound like, especially when we had the moronic bumblings of George W. as our face on the world stage.

But I wasn’t paying much attention then. I didn’t think he stood a chance.

It was only after Spitzer’s fall from grace (or whatever her name was, to steal a one-liner  from Colbert) that I tuned in to Barack Obama and started taking note. It was in March of 2008 and my political hero disappointed me, to say the least. Spitzer had been to me the guy to cut through all of the bullshit, to call Wall Street for what it was. I remember thinking, This guy must be squeaky clean. If he has made any missteps in his life, surely they would have gone after it. Spoiler alert: He did. And they did.

The democratic presidential race was still a muddle of candidates then, each tearing the other down, the media fanning the fires of divisiveness. Hillary Clinton was the front-runner. John Edwards was in there. Joe Biden. Kucinich. They were all making the late night talk show rounds, appearing on the Daily Show. I wasn’t too invested at that time. There were debates to come, scandals to be exposed, alliances re-aligned. It seemed pointless really.

Barack Obama was gaining traction and supposed dirty deeds and telling associations were coming out of the woodwork, most infamous among them, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. When Obama stood up and addressed that in March 2008, and made the effort to talk about race the way I’d never seen anyone do before, not anyone with so much to lose just by acknowledging this issue, I effectively replaced Spitzer with a new political hero. His words sought to make one culture and class of Americans understand the other, much like his did on Friday.

 

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

 

On television, they call it breaking down the fourth wall, the imaginary line that separates the character onscreen from its audience. They sit around a kitchen table, positioned around it to face a camera, but it’s a rule to ignore it, to pretend the audience isn’t there.

A similar rule has come into existence since the inception of Obama’s administration: he  is not to address race. To do so would be to give credence to every racist’s nightmare: admit that we elected a black guy, who sees things from a black perspective, and might dare to speak to that or legislate as such, undermining centuries of white aristocracy.

Obama has joked about it. When he made his entrance to the White House Correspondents Dinner, he swapped out “Hail to the Chief” for rap music. “Rush Limbaugh warned you about this,” he said. “Second term, baby.”

Yet by breaking down that wall we can all exhale and have an actual conversation that isn’t insulated by the pretense we were all participating in. In his impromptu speech regarding Trayvon Martin on Friday, the president had a real, off the cuff moment. It was heartfelt. There was no teleprompter. He spoke to the indisputable disparity between how laws are written and enforced along racial lines. He spoke about the violent history that informs the experience black Americans face. And he spoke about his personal experience.

It has the country up in arms because it was something we rarely see from someone in such high office. In fact, it’s something we haven’t seen Obama himself address since 2008. We see watered-down and contrived rhetoric, designed to offend the least amount of people possible. An impossible task, but a goal so many deem worthy. Yet, in its in-offense, so many words fail to stick. This is why Joe Biden resonates. He might be gaffe-prone, but only because he speaks in real sentences, unlike political robots of the Rubio variety.

By acknowledging that there’s a documented disparity to how our laws are enforced along racial lines, he’s now being accused of anything from fanning the flames of racism and exacerbating an already heated moment to being a blatant racist himself. I’m no Obama apologist. I’ve been equally vocal about how his policies as President have either expanded upon George Bush’s disastrous ones that preceded him or have shown a rampant dismissal of civil liberties. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that there are no political heroes.

Yet, by speaking forthright about his own experience as a black American, again he raised the level of discourse in the country to one above talking points and pretended offense. He opened himself up to the ridiculous misinterpretations that are plaguing the Internet, those who will take his words out of context, to reshape them into something unworthy of a President. But it wasn’t.

Because here’s the deal: the stains of the race issue touch each of us. If we’re not working to fix it, if we’re complacent, we add to it. We fix it by talking about it in real terms. By looking at it without unequal comparisons. By acknowledging our roles. We tackle this in real, unscripted moments.

This is where heroism could be found.

Why I Won’t be Wearing a Hoodie

White Americans can absolutely feel sadness, anger, and shame at the death of Trayvon Martin. We can empathize with a victim. But we are not the victims.

The George Zimmerman trial has arrived on the heels of the Jodi Arias trial with the timeliness of an NBC summer series, here to satisfy our bloodlust for the spectacle of murder.  And although it’s so darn hot, here come the hoodies to mark solidarity with the young black victim.

I sympathize.  I empathize.  I mourn.  I raise my angry fist against racial injustice.  But I won’t be wearing a hoodie.  Thousands of white Americans like me have risen up in a united front to protest the senseless killing of Trayvon Martin.  We celebrated the ripples of racial awareness that his death has brought to light.  We have flooded the blogosphere, changed our avatars, and posted to our Facebook walls for all to see that we are decidedly against the killing of innocent black children, in case anybody had thought otherwise.

I’ve kept on the sidelines of the Trayvon Martin coverage, watching and reading, with a sense of

Michele Obama

unease.  In the wake of what was supposed to have been the ushering in of a post-racial America with President Obama’s face and his wife’s strong and shapely arms, this shooting in Florida serves as an almost perfect platform from which to call attention to the blatant bigotry that still poisons this country.  It’s a way to say:  Hold On. We might have a black first family, but there are schmoes in Alabama who believe that they are better than that Ivy League-schooled, world-traveled, democratically elected man because they are white.  And what’s more, they might think that the country might just be a little better off if he is swinging from a high branch. And although these opinions might have been quieted or spoken about in the confines of that man’s home in the past, the fervor and venom with which we attack our political figures in the media has unwittingly  provided a podium for his racist speech, integrated into social media.  The black jokes of the prosperous eighties that were quieted by the liberals spreading “political correctness” are crawling their way back into the vernacular.  What might seem like harmless talk is the groundswell of the white American population, using a wink and a nod and now a gun, to keep the black folks in their rightful place, below us.

Is Trayvon Martin the obvious conclusion to the racial divide brought into the open by the election of our first black President?  Has this been coming?  The symbol of Barack Obama’s face has been replaced by that of a seventeen-year-old boy in a hooded sweatshirt, the target and the outlet.  By self-righteously donning a hoodie and trying to identify with Trayvon, is white America doing the black community or the country as a whole any favors?  We are not the victims, even if we are not either the aggressors.  But the hoodies?  They seem to be a cop-out from addressing what the real issue is here.  There is a color divide in the United States.  It is socio-economic and geographically and racially based, it is exploited by our politicians and our talking heads, for gains that have nothing to do with the public good.  It tells us that we should hate, that we are different than those of another color, that there is a fundamental disparity between what the blue states want and what the red states believe, and that the roots of those differences are evil.

The hoodies feel like a distraction.  The false unity of the hoodies distracts from what can be a true unifying thought: by listening to the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and fears of the “other,” might we realize that the answer is not simply black and white: I wear a hoodie, therefore I am not racist.  The more complicated answer might be that we are all a mix of red and blue, that our states are purple, and that to honor a young boy we need to look inside ourselves and see not just the stoicism of Trayvon Martin, but the seeds of George Zimmerman.