What is the relationship between race and social change in the U.S.?
One of the many unfortunate realities of our society is that race has played a major role in how people are treated—that is, how they have been allocated power, given service (i.e., at restaurants, through government aid, etc.), and acknowledged on the street. Historically, at least in Western cultures, Black people have been targeted more than virtually any other racial group. Before the passing of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, white people in the U.S. were able to enslave Blacks and essentially do what they wished with them without any consequences. Blacks were stripped of their natural freedoms, such as the ability to vote, take part in societal functions, and ultimately enjoy life without the fear of anyone taking that right away. In the white man’s world, Blacks were seen as subordinates—people who didn’t deserve to be recognized as human, those who didn’t deserve to live a normal life.
However, in the 1950s, Americans gradually started changing their minds about Black rights. One of the first domains where people saw a problem was in the school system In Brown v. Board (1954), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided that schools would cease to be segregated. The educational arrangement was supposed to ensure that students were separate-but-equal; nonetheless, it grew apparent that those in Black schools were not given equal resources as those in white schools. Therefore, segregation in schools was deemed unconstitutional as it went against the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Schools and other public spaces didn’t desegregate immediately, though. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, law enforcement agencies in the South were hesitant to make changes. Protests ensued, such as the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, following Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to give up her seat. Eventually, more protests sparked across the country, creating public unrest that made the government pay closer attention to what was going on. This led to Lyndon B. Johnson’s ratification of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which put an end to segregation in public spaces as well as prohibited hiring discrimination toward individuals of various races, religions, sexes, and national origins. Finally, Blacks were allowed to enjoy theaters, sports facilities, hotels, restaurants, and other areas where they were previously restricted from experiencing. Within the next couple of years, southern schools started integrating, signs saying “WHITES ONLY” or “COLORED ONLY” were taken down from bathrooms and waiting rooms, and discriminatory practices started receiving more legal scrutiny.
Blacks didn’t legitimately achieve the right to vote, nonetheless, until a year later when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came into effect. Before then, many southern states used literacy and other “IQ” tests at the polls to let African Americans vote. This disenfranchised much of the Black population—especially those who didn’t have the resources growing up (e.g., adequate education) to pass these tests which really didn’t indicate whether or not an individual had the intellect to vote. While it took some time before law enforcement agencies started implementing this ban, eventually the majority of colored citizens in the South successfully registered to vote and were able to do so without much of an issue.
Evidently, the Civil Rights Movement has fought many battles in the U.S.—most of them successfully. However, there is still a long road to go before people of different races are treated altogether equal. Next, we must manage our implicit biases, take race off employment application forms, and treat one another with full respect if we are to overcome the problem of race in our country.
What is the relationship among gender, rape reform, and social change?
Involved in America’s dark past, as well as much of the rest of the world, is the repression of women, transgender and nonbinary individuals. Minus a few specific cases, before the passing of the 19th Amendment, women in the United States were unable to vote. Before this ratification, only men had the right to take part in our nation’s politics. As mentioned previously, Black men were only allowed this privilege starting in 1870; thus, for nearly a hundred years, only white men could take part in elections. The 19th Amendment, nonetheless, was not signed until August 1920; women have only been able to vote for a hundred years! But to clarify, women did not start fighting for their rights around that time; the history extends at least back until the 1840s. Similar to how protests surged in pursuit of racial justice, women gathered at conventions (such as one of the first ones in Seneca Falls, New York) to express their right to equality. Eventually, larger organizations formed such as the American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman Suffrage Association.
Similar to other social movements, states gradually let women vote; Illinois and Montana were two of the first to do this. As public opinion grew in support of women’s rights, more women secured positions of power such as congressional seats. The first World War also had a major impact on the cause, since women were asked to step up and work outside of the home for a change. The evolution of women’s roles greatly strengthened the argument that women should be allowed to vote.
Allowing women to vote was a great step in America’s progress; however, this was a matter of sex and not gender. People who identified as genders that didn’t align with their biological sex (i.e., determined by their body parts and/or chromosomes), were still denied many rights in our country. Men who identified as women had to use male restrooms, register as men on government forms and identification cards, and were limited to what government programs they could participate in. Furthermore, people of certain sexes/genders were discriminated against in the workplace; specific jobs were reserved for certain genders and abusive behavior based on sex/gender was allowed—specifically toward women.
In the May of 2019 (just this past year), the House of Representatives finally approved an updated Equality Act, which amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ‘prohibit discrimination on the basis of the sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition of an individual, as well as because of sex-based stereotypes’ (Schell-Olsen, 2019). Now, women, transgenders, anyone who falls on the LGBTQ spectrum, and even expectant mothers are further protected. Nonetheless, it’s up to the people to uphold and refrain from circumventing these new parameters.
When it comes to how different sexes/genders interact with one another in the U.S., rape is one of the last major issues that still needs work. Prior to the 1900s, ideas of consent differed from state to state; some states even permitted 14 years old as the acceptable age of consent. Additionally, rape shield laws weren’t put into effect until 1975, which “limit the Defendant’s ability to probe into the sexual behavior, history, or reputation of the alleged victim” (Bishop, 2018). Thus, juries were no longer able to be misled into thinking that a female victim was “asking for it” when the perpetrator assaulted her. Despite some of the protective legislation, men are still thrown a bone in many rape cases; Brock Turner is one example, a Stanford swimmer, who sexually assaulted a 22-year-old woman and only received a three-month jail sentence. Clearly, much more change needs to occur to seek justice for women who are sexually abused.
How has the law reflected the social construction of same-sex marriage over time?
One of the more recent social changes in the United States regards the ability of same-sex couples to get legally married. In 1970, two men—Richard Baker and James McConnell—sought a marriage license in Minneapolis, Minnesota. However, the Clerk of District Court, Gerald Nelson, rejected their appeal because they were the same sex. This grew into a case that made it all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court; nonetheless, Baker and McConnell were ultimately denied the right to marry each other and the Court didn’t find Nelson’s decision unconstitutional. This came not long after the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969, in which a raid at a known gay bar “sparked a riot among bar patrons and neighborhood residents as police roughly hauled employees and patrons out of the bar, leading to six days of protests and violent clashes” (History.com Editors, 2017). Despite the publicity the Riots received and a bolster in general appreciation of the gay community, legislators and judges were not yet pushed to fully accept the gay community.
By the late 80s/early 90s, however, gay couples were afforded the opportunity for legal partnership. San Francisco paved the way in 1989, being one of the first cities in the U.S. to allow same-sex couples “to register for domestic partnerships, which granted hospital visitation rights and other benefits” (History.com Editors, 2017). Here and there, more cities (and even whole states) started to gradually move toward marriage equality.
In 1993, however, Bill Clinton signed a law that seemed to dampen the progress of the gay community—the Defense of Marriage Act. This Act made it so that states that didn’t give marriage licenses/allow gay marriage (or domestic partnerships) in general didn’t have to recognize civil unions between those who were able to register for domestic partnerships in other states. Additionally, it clarified that the United States federal government did not have to acknowledge same-sex marriages and thus they did not have to provide federal aid to those couples like they would for those in heterosexual marriages. Some of these benefits that were withheld included things such as “social security benefits for widows and widowers” and “health insurance and pension protections for federal employees’ spouses” (Davidson, 2012). Consequently, the U.S. government and certain states treated same-sex couples essentially as strangers or simply friends; just like how friends can’t gain federal benefits if one were to pass away, or like how friends can’t visit each other in the hospital under certain circumstances, gay couples were denied these opportunities.
Following DOMA, the nation was fairly split on same-sex marriage legislation. Some states, like Vermont and Massachusetts, started permitting gay marriage and/or civil unions while others, like Oregon, Kansas, and Texas, either completely banned the practice or restricted it in other ways. However, homosexual couples finally earned a big win in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled DOMA unconstitutional. Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer were two New Yorkers who were together for a very long time—eventually, they got married in Canada. When Thea died shortly after, though, the U.S. taxed the inheritance Edie received from Thea—they were treated like strangers in the eyes of the law. As a result, Edie took this case up with the courts and “[alleged] that DOMA violates the Equal Protection principles of the U.S. Constitution because it recognizes existing marriages of heterosexual couples, but not of same-sex couples, despite the fact that New York State treats all marriages the same” (“Windsor v. United States,” 2014). The case climbed up to the Supreme Court, and Windsor ultimately won.
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court finally made gay marriage legal across the whole country following Obergefell v. Hodges—a case that was concerned with the recognition of a same-sex marriage for a couple who got married in another state. Thus, in a 45-year-long battle, the gay community achieved not only the right to marry, but the right to be accepted throughout the country. Now, the majority of Americans believe that gay marriage should be accepted in society and there are legal barriers that prohibit certain institutions (including the federal government) from denying those rights to same-sex couples.
- Bishop, K. (2018, April 15). A Reflection on the History of Sexual Assault Laws in the United States. Retrieved April 3, 2020, from https://ualr.edu/socialchange/2018/04/15/reflection-history-sexual-assault-laws-united-states/
- Davidson, J. (2012, November 27). What is DOMA and Why Is It Bad? Retrieved April 3, 2020, from https://www.lambdalegal.org/blog/what-is-doma-and-why-is-it-bad
- History.com Editors (2017, May 31). Stonewall Riots. Retrieved April 3, 2020, from https://www.history.com/topics/gay-rights/the-stonewall-riots
- History.com Editors (2017, June 9). Gay Marriage. Retrieved April 3, 2020, from https://www.history.com/topics/gay-rights/gay-marriage
- Schell-Olsen, S. (2019, September 19). Opinion: The Equality Act deserves a vote. Retrieved April 3, 2020, from https://www.newsrecord.org/opinion/opinion-the-equality-act-deserves-a-vote/article_b9e17cd0-d9ac-11e9-b5eb-9775401efe6e.html
- Windsor v. United States. (2014, April 25). Retrieved April 3, 2020 from https://www.aclu.org/cases/lesbian-and-gay-rights/windsor-v-united-states