Famed actor and LGBTQ activist George Takei spoke out against Kentucky clerk Kim Davis for her now-famous refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, even after a judge ordered her to do so. Takei wrote an op-ed for MSNBC in which he slams the support she has received from bigots around the country and draws some very apt comparisons between the same-sex marriage fight and the struggle for desegregation, both of which are prominent issues in the South.
When I view her behavior, however, I am reminded of a different character from the early civil rights era: Gov. George Wallace of Alabama. For those who weren’t born yet or simply don’t remember, Wallace was a staunch and vocal opponent to racial desegregation. For him, the sanctity of white privilege was a cherished way of life. When he took the oath of office, standing on the same spot where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the President of the Confederacy more than 100 years earlier, Wallace famously proclaimed, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
As with Davis, supporters of the old order cheered Wallace’s brazen stand. And like Davis, Wallace was more than just his words. In 1963, he stood defiantly blocking the schoolhouse door of the University of Alabama as two African American students prepared to enter the premises to enroll. Federal forces had to be called in to forcibly permit the integration, and others like it in Alabama, to proceed.
Takei does a beautiful job of illustrating what is at play here- the dying throes of the old regime.
The people are reminded that un-elected judges are “making law” just as they have before, that these laws are wrong and are contrary to God’s will, and that the good people are only doing what is right by standing up to this threat to their way of life.
Here, marriage equality, like desegregation, tells an already wary conservative base that their belief system, and their exclusion of certain members of society from rights and privileges they themselves enjoy, is not only wrong but illegal. The weight of the law, once so firmly in their grip, has suddenly now shifted to operate against them, and now they are the ones who will go to jail if they don’t concede defeat.
After being the discriminators for so long, the conservatives of the South are feeling like they are being discriminated against. They recognize that changing demographics, progressive ideas, and shifting attitudes are wrestling away the social control that the white Christian male once held absolute. It not only explains Kim Davis but the rise of the Donald Trump phenomenon as well. Despite all their protestations and desperate struggles to resist change, America is shifting very rapidly. Time and time again, these conservatives and Republican lawmakers, some of whom are championing Davis as some kind of a martyr, choose to fight culture war battles they have no chance of winning in defense of the sanctity of white privilege- just like George Wallace.
Takei also heavily criticized the Republican candidates who are looking to shore up their
presidential book-tour-and-speaking-gigs campaign by pandering to the selfish fears of coddled white voters.
Gov. Wallace also understood the power of exploiting fear. He was once a candidate endorsed by the NAACP, but took a drubbing in his first bid for governor. Then Wallace discovered that Alabama voters were genuinely afraid of what desegregation would mean for their communities, and he shifted quickly to run on a staunchly segregationist platform. When asked why by 1962 he had started using racist messaging in his campaign, Wallace was blunt: “You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about n*****s, and they stomped the floor.”
The connections to Trump and his bigoted campaign are obvious. The American white male conservative, once the undisputed social masters of American society, is feeling very threatened by the disruptions to their idyllic vision of what our nation should look like, and it is glaringly obvious. Threatened by gay Americans and black activists who are rising up and claiming the rights they have been denied, carving out their own place in the sun. They are perpetually threatened by women and their sexuality, their control over his children. Threatened by the influx of immigrants who are diversifying our nation and destroying the right-wing fantasies of homogeneity with their queer religions and languages. Those same buttons are being pushed by Trump, who is playing them like a fiddle.
Happily, the days when overt racial discrimination and segregation are championed by social conservatives are long past. Imagine if instead of denying a license to a gay couple, Ms. Davis had sought on religious grounds to deny a license to an interracial couple. She likely would have been fired on the spot, and no politicians would have rushed to stand by her side, no matter what her sincerely held religious convictions were. Discrimination based on sexual orientation is headed to a similar, inevitable end in the dust heap of history.
But along the way there will be opponents like Davis to remind us that social change means social displacement and a recalibration of what is acceptable. And as with Gov. Wallace, decades from the day Davis stood her ground we will no doubt look back and wonder above all why so many stood with her.
The right wing has to accept reality at some point. In the meantime, the liberal and progressive side of American politics has a momentous task ahead of them: ensure that the dying thrashes of Caucasian hegemony don’t cause any permanent damage. Our nation has come too far to be humbled by the bitter obstinacy of old, bigoted white men.