Divisions that Kill:

The Enemy Without and Within

by Suzanne Pharr, The Women's Project of Little Rock, Arkansas
When the verdict came down to acquit the cops who brutally beat Rodney King and people began burning their communities and attacking each other, I thought to myself, the right wing is achieving its goal to divide and conquer us as a people.

Then, when the media immediately turned away from an analysis of the injustice of the verdict to focus solely upon the violent response, and when George Bush told the nation that what was happening in L.A. was not about civil rights or protest or equality but the "brutality of the mob," I thought, the Christian Right is victorious in its strategy to strip events from their political context and to frame them as morality. They frame these events not as a matter of justice and injustice but of good and evil behavior of certain groups of people.

My outrage pounded in my temples as I sat riveted to the TV, and I saw my own face mirrored everywhere: in those who stole goods and torched buildings, in the white truck driver beaten nearly to death, in the Asian grocers armed to defend their shops, in the women who cried for the loss of their community. I felt torn apart. Horrified, I thought, these divisions are killing us, and they did not come to us by chance or through the natural order of things. These divisions have been encouraged and manipulated for decades by those who oppose our liberation.

As I watched buildings burn and people die during the long May Day weekend, I thought of other miscarriages of justice: the 1978 verdict to sentence Dan White to only six years of prison for killing gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. And then there was the 1991 refusal of California Governor Pete Wilson to sign into law legislation providing civil rights protection to lesbians and gay men. As with the Rodney King verdict, these actions came to symbolize decades of injustice and our people took to the streets in outrage. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, riot became the language of the unheard.

In the riots that followed these actions, we found ourselves without the leadership and vision for uniting our people to turn our rage against the source of our oppression. Instead, we turned much of it against each other. Our disunity had for too long been manipulated by our enemies pitting us against one another for the crumbs of access, resources and privileges; disrupting our work by FBI infiltration of our movements; destroying our leaders through police attacks such as those directed at the American Indian Movement and the Black Panthers, and through the relentless shifting of blame from those who benefit from oppression to those who suffer from it. Angry, frustrated, and on the defensive, we have been led to adopt their values and tactics and to oblige them by doing part of their destructive work.

While we turn upon each other in our frustration, pain, and rage, the Christian Right's "foot soldiers of the Lord" who oppose our very existence march on to increasing successes on every front. Creating a climate of division and hatred, they shape public opinion to oppose our liberation and, in the end, to kill us. It was not just coincidental that the Rodney King verdict came after a year of highly publicized racist campaigning by Pat Buchanan and David Duke and Bush's sniping against the 1990 Civil Rights Restoration Act.

Since the early 1970's, the Christian Right has launched a political attack against lesbians and gay men, people of color, and feminists that has affected every adult and child in this country. It has made significant headway in dismantling the gains of the Civil Rights movement and has become a major threat to the fundamental principles of democracy. The Christian Right is united through homophobia, racism, and sexism in pursuit of their goal of merging church and state, institutionalizing a narrow view of morality, and maintaining social control by eliminating rights and freedoms.

This broad coalition of highly organized Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals, politicians and businessmen has been a major force in creating the political climate we know today. It is backed by conservative think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and legal and legislative strategy centers such as the Rutherford Institute. Its message is delivered and funds are raised by Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting network, and hundreds of thousands of "foot soldiers" are provided by Operation Rescue, Eagle Forum and Concerned Women for America. Working on a variety of fronts, this network has created strategies to infiltrate and control all our institutions, from school boards to the Supreme Court.

While our racism, sexism, and homophobia have often separated us from one another, these religious conservatives lump us together because they see people of color, feminists, lesbians and gay men as standing in the way of their goal to merge church and state: to give legislated dominance to white Christian males who receive their authority from Biblical scriptures. Indeed, they see us as being the cause of the breakdown of the social order. According to their logic, those rights and protections which give us voice in a democratic society are the cause of immorality and social chaos and must be thwarted or dismantled. The Civil Rights movement's demand that power be shared by all is a block to their authoritarian vision.

Attacking the idea that some people are inferior by race and must be dominated, the Civil Rights movement issued a call to conscience and to reason. It said that true democracy calls for justice, participation, and freedom. For most of us, indoctrinated to believe in a democracy that supported the interests of wealthy white males, this was a new and profoundly moving idea. Imagine: a demand for justice, participation, and freedom. The words rang in our ears.

The call was heard by African Americans, and other people of color: Asians, Latinos, Native Americans. Other movements were born. It occurred to women that if racial discrimination prevented participation in democracy, so then must discrimination based on sex. It was a heady, movement-building idea. Lesbians and gay men looked at our lives, and everywhere we looked, we saw an absence of justice, open participation, and freedom to be who we are. Then Stonewall gave us the historic, symbolic moment to move toward liberation.

The Civil Rights movement not only marked the way for other great liberation movements, but its very successes led to a reaction to it and all who embarked upon the long and arduous path to equal rights. It was not by coincidence that it was in the late 1960's, during the presidential campaign of George Wallace of Alabama, that we began to feel the impact of the organized Christian Right.

Over the past two decades, the Christian Right claimed victories in a campaign against homosexuality led by singer and orange juice promoter, Anita Bryant; the effort to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment led by the Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schafly; a highly organized coalition of evangelical groups led by Pat Robertson to elect Ronald Reagan; a widespread attack led by Operation Rescue to dismantle abortion rights piece by piece; and an assault upon affirmative action laws led by Jesse Helms, among others. These are only a few of their efforts. The Christian right has created "armies of God" to infiltrate all of our institutions in pursuit of their goal of institutionalizing their narrow vision of morality. They have been at the center of the effort to restrict AIDS funding and prevention education; the attack on the battered women's movement as "anti-family;" the crusade for teaching creationism rather than evolution; and the drive to limit freedom of speech. Their efforts to infiltrate and dominate institutions have touched the lives of every person in the U.S.

Perhaps the worst danger to our liberation is that our fear, anger, and defensiveness lead us to take on the tactics of the enemy. As the right wing attacks our dignity and worth, we respond by attacking those within the movement who are different from us; as they invade our right to privacy, we respond by outing our own people; as they pit us against each other for the crumbs of benefits, we fight each other for recognition that our particular issue (AIDS funding, breast cancer research, civil rights legislation, hate crimes laws, domestic partnership recognition) is the most important; as they attack our leadership, we attack and refuse to support our leaders; as they distort and silence the voices of oppressed people, we shout down and silence those we disagree with; as they block equality and participation for oppressed people, we subordinate the concerns of women, people of color, and people with disabilities in our movement. In the end, we have to ask, who is served by our tactics? Who benefits most?

Our inability to agree on the answers to these questions fractures our vision and strategy. Each of us, still invested in making change, continues our participation in some way in "the movement" while fighting in disunity and horizontal hostility among ourselves. In particular, we have been divided by sexism and racism, with lines drawn between men and women, between white people and people of color. I fear that our disunity and lack of connection will kill us.

We must begin a process of doing what we jokingly call, "getting over ourselves" so that we can develop a vision and leadership that brings us together. This means that we will have to stop shouting, "Me, me!" and learn to harmonize on "Us, us." Developing the politics of inclusion will not be easy because we have many barriers to overcome and because we have no model for it. But I am convinced that this is the only road to both survival and liberation.

The Christian Right, on the other hand, has an easier time in creating its politics of exclusion. Recognizing that most people are disturbed by the social and political chaos in the U.S., they offer us a vision of the past. They ask us to look in the rear view mirror to the 1940's and T50's when white soldiers returned from the war with the G.I. bill to go to school, finding jobs plentiful, housing available, and there was a sense of stability and order. What they call for, of course, is a racist, sexist, and homophobic vision, for this was a time of legalized segregation, when male authority was unchallenged by women, abortion was illegal, and lesbians and gay men were invisible. They speak of this as the time of "traditional family values." For many of us, it was the time of family horrors when rape, battering, incest, and alcoholism were kept as secrets within the family. Nevertheless, the Christian Right is able to unite frightened and uninformed people in a nostalgia for the past when social order and benefits for the few were bought at the expense of women, people of color, lesbians and gay men.

Our vision of inclusion is built on the future, not the past; we are creating that which has not been before. If we can understand that the Right uses divisiveness to destroy our vision of inclusion, then we can learn that our most effective work of resistance and liberation is to make connections, both politically and personally. Making true connections may be the most cutting edge work for the 1990's.

I have seen this work taking place in rural Oregon communities this spring where people are coming together to talk about claiming their communities. Lesbians and gay men, people of color, feminists, ministers, social workers, labor unionists, domestic violence workers, blue-collar workers, etc., are gathering in common cause to say to each other that this attack by the Christian Right against the lesbian and gay community is actually a fundamental threat to democracy that affects everyone. These rural Oregonians are sick of the Christian Right framing the issues and controlling the public debate for the past two decades. It is clear to them from looking at their school boards, for example, that the Right has infiltrated deeply into their communities, and they are scared. Instead of allowing the Right to create the rules of community life and to determine who gets to participate, these community people want to work together for a common vision that includes everyone. This means that people who have traditio nally had little to do with each other are now sitting side by side and learning about each other's lives. This process gives me great hope. I think people are hungry for true information and for a way to work together for justice in every community.

While many progressive people agree that we must work against racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc., I'm not sure that we always understand how intricately these oppressions are linked and how deeply they are connected to our very survival. For instance, do white lesbians and gay men truly understand that fighting against racism is key to our freedom? As we pursue liberation, we will have to build politics of connection from those glimpses we get of our shared destiny with other oppressed people.

Sometimes I feel our work is like celestial navigation. Before directional instruments were invented, sailors navigated the seas by fixing their compass on the North star; however, if they fixed on the wrong star, then everything thereafter was off course. We are working against years of a society fixing on the wrong star. This nation has built all its institutions and policies from the starting point of a fundamental lie: that certain groups of people are inferior to others and hence should be subordinate d to them. Every direction taken from this fundamental lie puts us off course, and group after group gets lost. If one begins with the lie that people of color are inferior to white people, then it makes equal sense that women are inferior to men. And so it goes. It is our work to fix upon the truth: that all people are of equal worth and deserve justice.

We must do this work as though our lives depend on it. Because they do all of them, no matter what sex or race or sexual identity or class. There must be justice for all of us or there will be peace for none.

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