Day 115: Don’t Leave It Behind, Not Yet

by Tom Noonan

Earlier this year, around the beginning of Spring, I sat in a professor’s oddly lit and agressively humid office, anxiously pitching an independent term paper topic I was pretty sure would get shot down.  The topic, at that point, read simply, “Dave Chappelle and the Post Hip-Hop Era”.  To be honest, I hadn’t prepared well for the meeting, a mistake attributed to the small chance I’d given the green light, but ended up making the sale based on my pedestrian depth of knowledge of the comedian’s widely overlooked (critically, at least) television endeavor Chappelle’s Show.  If I wanted to take the risk, my professor told me, then he’d be happy to let me.

“The only thing I’d ask,” he continued, “is this going to be exclusively about racism?”

I took his question with slight offense, responding almost a little too harshly “Chappelle’s Show is about racism, so, yeah, my paper is going to about racism.”

“I’d just be careful,” he continued, not phased by the tone of my answer, his pale white gut poking out from beneath his shirt and spilling under the desk as he sat upright, “racism isn’t the same type of subject it was before.  We’re past the point where racism really needs to be discussed in art.  That’s all for the historical people now.  We’ve moved on.”  It was all pride, that ugly, white pride, each word, and suddenly I was sick.

I never really processed this interaction, not completely anyway, until I sat down today to write something about the Supreme Court’s recent decisions.  As I’m sure you know, as I hope everyone knows, the Supreme Court has been rolling out decisions on key social issue cases over the past few days, most recently striking down pretty much every law on state books discriminating against same-sex couples.  It was a beautiful example of the system working and certainly something worth celebrating.

But then there’s the other huge decision, the one that repealed key sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The action was taken, it seems, with what could be loosely classified as “good intentions”.  Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”  This argument, if taken logically, is declaring the racial context of unequal voting to be dead, apparently positing, like my professor did on that horrible Jersey spring day, that we’ve simply moved on.  It’s a decision that lacks humility, that is unwilling to admit to the problems still devouring our country’s soul, that doesn’t recognize the need for these laws in the first place, that ignores our original sin.

Even writing this, I have that same sick feeling, because I wish this decision were correct.  I do.  I wish that Justice Roberts’s argument that we’ve changed enough to repeal the safeguards against racist poll skewing were actually the case.  I wish that we no longer needed the government to tell us that we’re equal.  I wish we just kind of, you know, knew it.

But we don’t know it, not yet anyway, because we still need the government to tell us that two citizens can legally get married.  We still need them to remind us women should be paid the equivalent of what their male counterpart takes home.  It is we the people who still divide and discriminate, so the government maintains its role.  It would be nice if we could take anti-discrimination laws off the books because they had become obsolete, because we no longer needed them as a reminder, because we knew, in our bones, in our souls, in the depths of us, that we really were created equal.

It’d be nice if we could just, you know, leave all these laws behind.  But not today, not yet.