California has followed Massachusetts in allowing for marriage equality outright, America is poised to elect its first black president, and it’s tremendously tempting to use these touchstones to declare an end to America’s era of bigotry, to point to these attitudes and events and say, “See, we’ve come so far,” and pat ourselves heartily on the back. Long live the newly tolerant America!
Unfortunately, that’s premature. People may not talk about “Negroes” moving in on “their” jobs, as Helms did, but they do talk a great deal in campaigns about valuing the votes of “people who work for a living,” the sneer that accompanies such implicit comparisons needing no translation. People may not use homophobic slurs in mixed company, but they do talk about not wanting certain “lifestyles” shoved down their throats and paint visions for parents of their children living with gay teachers and day care workers, the same old bogeymen from 30 years back.
The Democratic Party may be nominating a black man for the presidency, but the Republican Party is running one who voted against designating a national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., who told a woman and her fiance that he disapproved of their “position.” The kind of racism and homophobia Helms practiced in politics hasn’t gone away. It has simply moved underground, buried under polite words that nevertheless suggest others should ask pardon for living.