Race and the Religious Right

Scot Nakagawa, National Gay & Lesbian Task Force Fight the Right Director
The long history of right wing activism against the rights of people of color is reflected in their choice of tactics in all of their campaigns. Racist ideology and rhetoric are underpinnings of current anti-gay propaganda and strategy used in the right wing's latest attempts to subvert democratic potential in American society.

Activists organizing against the religious right wing's anti-gay attacks must come to understand how racism and sex oppression are connected in right wing rhetoric and strategy. This is especially important because the struggle to overcome race-based discrimination provides the legal and ideological foundation for our gay and lesbian liberation struggle and for the larger movement to realize the promise of full civil equality for all people. Any attempt to undermine the civil rights gains made by African Americans and other people of color will undermine the ability of all groups to achieve civil equality.

History of Race and U.S. Racism

The struggle for multi-racial democracy in the US is a fight against both interpersonal and institutional forms of discrimination that have deep roots in slavery. Racism in the US, as experienced by all people of color, is largely based on the justification for and institutionalization of slavery. Despite the abolition of slavery and the contributions of African Americans to the establishment of a more democratic society during reconstruction, its legacy persisted both on an interpersonal and institutional level into the 1960's. The historical effects of slavery continue even now to be a critical element of American social, cultural, political, and economic life.

Prior to slavery, Native Americans, Africans, Latinos, and Asians were regarded as subhuman based on religion. To white Americans and Europeans, the world's people existed in two categories: Christian or heathen. The human worth of any individual was defined according to their relationship to a Christian god.

The problem this presented to slaveholders and to those involved in the project of pacifying and destroying Native American nations is that the evangelical nature of Christianity allowed for people of color to "find religion." Hence, the development of the concept of race as a biological or "natural" determinant of human worth, and the subsequent development of a racial hierarchy in the U.S. Both the science of racialism and the institutionalization of racial hierarchy were constructed as more permanent answers to white America's presumed need for slave labor.

The civil rights movement of the 1960's and the continuing struggle against race-based discrimination is rooted in the struggle against slavery. In the 1960s African Americans led a fight to remove the legally codified vestiges of slavery from our constitution and from state and local laws. Most odious among these were Jim Crow laws that required racial segregation.

The right wing has popularized the misconception that the African American-led civil rights movement defines civil rights in the United States. In truth, the civil rights movement of the 1960's was a movement against only one kind of civil rights violation, race based discrimination. Right wing attempts to promote the myth that only people of color have civil rights are based in racism.

The right wing repeatedly states that "legitimate minority status" may only be conferred to those who can be identified as minorities because of "innate, natural characteristics" such as race. However, the concept of race in the US was largely invented, and justified through pseudo-science, by white Americans to rationalize the exploitation and slavery of blacks.

In short, the concept of race in the American context is a socially constructed system for placing people in a hierarchical structure of social and economic relations. There is nothing "innate" or "natural" about "race".

A Legitimate Minority?

There is no such thing as "legitimate minority status" as defined by the religious right. People of color are not defined as a minority on the basis of income or morality. In fact, right wing definitions of "morality" have been an obstacle to the achievement of equality for people of color throughout the history of the U.S.

The right wing has argued that gays and lesbians, and in some cases bisexuals, are not eligible for consideration for "minority status and all the privileges thereof...." This argument promotes the myth, popularized by the right wing, that being a minority in a majority rule society comes with privileges. As new right leader Paul Weyrich of the reactionary Free Congress Foundation has stated, "The politicians have been scared because the homosexual lobby, like the civil rights lobby, has exaggerated importance in Washington." When we hear the right wing talking about "minority privileges" and "minority rights," we need to ask just what those privileges and rights are, and whether poor education, substandard housing, and low life expectancy are part of this "special" benefits package.

Acting Affirmatively

Affirmative action has been associated with quotas and called a "special right" by the religious right. We need to understand just what affirmative action does and does not do.

Affirmative action is not a "special right." No one has a right to affirmative action. Instead, it is a program that intended to remedy some problems associated with a historical pattern of discrimination. Because affirmative action is a remedy and not a right, it is not intended to be permanent.

Affirmative action does not mandate quotas that require hiring unqualified people of color to take jobs away from white men. No quotas are associated with affirmative action. Instead, some employers are required to review the racial and gender composition of the qualified applicant pool when hiring new employees. The percentage of those eligible for affirmative action in the qualified applicant pool and the actual applicant pool set a standard intended to prevent discrimination. It is neither true that all people of color are employed because of affirmative action, nor that people of color are the only people to benefit from affirmative action.

More Right Wing Myths

The religious right claims that people of color "deserve" civil rights protections on the grounds that racism has resulted in disproportionate levels of poverty in communities of color.

Leaders of the religious right have simultaneously made the claim that racism no longer exists, and have even gone so far as to claim that racism has been reversed and whites are the new victims.

They further claim that Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, or Asians with higher than average incomes are indices that those people of color who are poor, particularly Blacks, are suffering from a lack of moral turpitude.

Facts they Ignore

How rich or poor someone or some group may be, all have civil rights, and the option of making claims of discrimination and demanding government redress of our grievances. While poverty is frequently the result of discrimination, the presence of poverty is not a test for whether any group may enjoy civil rights.

Not all people of color are poor. The proportion of African Americans families with incomes over $50,000 increased over the last two decades from 10.0 to 13.8 percent.

While the total number of African American families earning more than $50,000 has increased, the median income for Blacks overall has decreased since the 1970's.

These statistics are indicative of the lack of real civil rights protection and enforcement in the 1970s and '80s. Over this period there has been a rapid erosion of the gains of the civil rights movement. One key force behind this erosion is the new religious right wing.

Recognizing connections

The history of racism and the struggle for civil equality of people of color in the United States is far broader and more complex than can be covered in this brief overview. It is critical that we come to understand this history and its impact on contemporary society in order to effectively combat a right wing movement that has been an integral force in that history, and has as one of its goals a return to the "traditional values" of openly expressed and overtly institutionalized racism.

It is simply not enough for us to "honor diversity." We must recognize that we are the products of a history steeped in racism and sexism, and that our oppression as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people is one product of this history. Rather than simply honoring diversity we must build democracy.

For more information or to request a complete Fight the Right Action Kit, call NGLTF at 202-332-6483, TTY 202-332-6219.