Remember this game?
The logic of the game is simple: connect four of your red or black checkers before your opponent does. Diagonal, Vertical, Horizontal – all acceptable. Pretty basic, right? And yet it seems we are struggling to apply this basic principle outside of the sunshine yellow quadrangle. Let’s do a quick recap of four of this week’s SCOTUS rulings: Voting Rights Act: gutted Tribal Sovereignty: dangerously damaged Affirmative Action: received a shrug and raises bar based on race neutrality Gay Marriage: defended from two attacks While many felt that the week was a series of lows and then a high, I argue that actually reading these four decisions together tells us a more cohesive story about rights and humanity. Together, the decisions communicate that there is a strong and well-orchestrated effort on the part of the state to make sure that white colonial property rights are maintained. This effort has everything to do with the increasing racial ‘diversity’, or more accurately put, the decrease in those assigned with white status and increase in populations of color. There has been a great deal written about the affirmative action and even more about the Voting Rights Act, so l’ll focus more on the court’s decisions about gay marriage and the contested adoption case of baby Veronica. In the latter, a white couple was in essence given adoption rights to a Cherokee nation child, overriding the Cherokee nation’s Tribal sovereignty, disparaging the Indian Child Welfare Act, and securing white property rights. Even in the title of the case, As Aura Bogado points out, which read ‘Adoptive couple v. Baby girl,’ the white couple was granted rights, as they were not yet the adoptive couple but seeking to be. Justice Alito begins the majority ruling with stating that Veronica is 1.2% Cherokee, and in that one move, the baby girl’s Cherokee status has been named by the state in defiance of how the Cherokee nation decrees status. The ultimate move a state can make is to delineate the humanity and rights of its subjects, and SCOTUS endeavoured to maintain the state’s rights over Tribes’ own sovereign power. But what about gay marriage? Yeah, what about gay marriage. SCOTUS overturned DOMA and set Proposition 8 aside, in effect dismissing these attacks on gay marriage. This is certainly a victory for same sex couples, but from a few steps back, or maybe just one step, it’s easy to see that the court, and I would argue the nation, is not interested in affording human rights wholesale but in maintaining a piecemeal, selective inclusion model. The very premise of inclusion is that there are implicit criteria, typically leveraged through tropes of deservingness, read: humanness. It is worth noting that the gay rights movement has gained considerable momentum over the past years largely through a well-connected white gay lobbying effort. With the voting rights act gutted, where does the DOMA victory leave a poor black gay female living in Alabama? Not with clear and easy inclusion, to say the least. So it’s victory enjoyed only through race and class privilege. Not much of a victory. But isn’t it a step in the right direction? That question can only be answered if social ills are seen as separate and not intertwined as parts of systemic oppression. Don’t get it twisted. I am not saying that people of all manner of sexual identity shouldn’t be afforded human rights. They should, in fact, by simple virtue of being human beings, not of any gesturing through the state-sanctioned institution of marriage, whose origins and constructs have very little to do with love and more to do with money and state maintenance of gender norms. Tune into an episode of any reality TV show where “marriage” is the focus, watch the commercials that neatly teach people how to be cisgender men or women. Better yet, read any of Mia McKenzie’s writing on the topic. Or any topic. No, what I’m saying is that as long as rights are doled out on the basis of white interests, and even then in singular, one identity topic-at-a-time fashion, we are having a cauterized conversation and living complicit, sequestered lives based on implicit theories of rights and humanity for a select few at a time. It takes effort and commitment to maintain claims of baseline equality in the face of the prison industrial complex, the school to prison pipeline, the white corporate takeover of public education, and on, but that is in essence what the courts decreed in every ruling this week except gay marriage. Ginsberg said it best as she commented on the majority opinion’s premise that race neutral measures should first be used in college admissions: “only an ostrich could regard the supposedly race neutral alternatives as race unconscious.” In fact, that ostrich is busy across the nodes of race neutrality, tribal sovereignty, and the rights of the poor. To not see how the gay marriage victories are being leveraged on other losses is a concession to a structure of inequity. Mostly, I’m saying that context matters, especially a shapeshifting white colonial context. Reading any of these decisions singularly is a fatal mistake that allows the state to deny intersectional systems of oppression, thus maintaining them. One last note: Monday of this week also saw the deeply sobering but imminently obvious fact that one in four children in the U.S. are living in poverty, and it’s only getting worse. One in four. The overwhelming majority of those children are black and brown. How can we respond to these decisions in a way that fights for their rights as whole human beings, not as singularized identities. Collapsing systemic oppression into single tropes is paradoxically what sustains intersectional inequity.