As we in the LGBT community eagerly awaited the decisions on gay marriage from the Supreme Court, we watched in horror as the Supremes struck down the formula for determining which jurisdictions would have to get prior approval before changing voter laws. Because of historic discrimination in these identified states and cities, the U.S. Department of Justice had the authority to challenge changes in voter laws, which would disproportionately and negatively affect minority voters—usually meaning African Americans and Hispanics—before they took effect.
While the Supreme Court's ruling did not render the Voter Rights Act (originally enacted in the Lyndon Johnson administration, and recently reauthorized by an overwhelming majority of Congress) unconstitutional in its entirety, it did render unconstitutional the formula used to implement the legislation. Famed civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, got it right. He said the Supreme Court's ruling "drove a dagger into the heart of the Voter Rights Act."
The Supreme Court mortally wounded the Voter Rights Act in a particularly sneaky way, ostensibly allowing the law to stand, but demanding that the Congress update its formula for defining which jurisdictions would be subject to its scrutiny. That task, in a Congress that can't get a filibuster-proof majority for agreeing on what day it is, seems nearly an impossibly high hurdle for voter justice!
So, why should a white, gay man care so much or be so horrified at this ruling? First, because I believe in America, and the right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy. The Voter Rights Act is arguably the most significant piece of civil rights legislation enacted in the last century.
Second, as a white man who grew up in the segregated South, I do not want to live in a society that does not protect black and brown people from the all-too-present holdovers of systemic racism. In case you were wondering if racism is still alive in America, it took a mere two hours for states from Texas to North Carolina to announce that, in light of the Supreme Court ruling, they would now begin implementation of voter ID and other voter suppression maneuvers struck down recently by the Justice Department in the pre-decision application of the Voter Rights Act.
Third, as a gay man, this all has a familiar ring to it. Oppression of a minority in its many forms operates in the same ways, with the same negative effects. LGBT people know about the relentless and often insidious ways the oppressive system reminds us that we are second class citizens. The LGBT community should be outraged at this assault against our black and brown brothers and sisters, a good many of whom are LGBT as well!
But we need to be more than merely outraged. We need to take to the airwaves and the streets, along with people of color, to demand that Congress right this wrong perpetrated on us by a conservative court. We sometimes wonder why communities of color don't show up to support us in our own struggle for equal rights. Perhaps it's because we don't show up to support them! That has got to change. One of the ways an oppressive society gets to continue its discrimination is by getting us to fight each other, rather than fight injustice and discrimination together.
Our response to this latest injustice, coming at the hands of the Supreme Court, could be a defining moment for the LGBT movement. It will expose us as being "only in this for ourselves," or define us as a movement for and about justice for all. Maybe it's time to truly add black and brown stripes to our rainbow flag.
BISHOP GENE ROBINSON is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He is the recently retired Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, the first openly gay, partnered priest to be elected bishop in a major, historic Christian denomination. He was The Advocate’s 2003 Person of the Year.