Unbroken Ancestry: Title IX, RFRA, and White Supremacy

“We believe that healing our world must start with healing our bodies because that is where we hold the trauma that constricts us from coming out fully to play. It’s a deep knowing that we are born with that comes through our bones, and our ancestors’ bones, and our ancestors’ ancestors’ bones.” We begin each gathering of our Soulforce House--a 4-day theology and politics intensive with our Movement Fellowship participants--by invoking ideas that will ground us throughout our time together. The above is an excerpt from the welcoming meditations at the November 2015 Southeast House retreat. As a practice-er of nonviolence, I think a lot about the ancestry invoked in this work through our study, language, and bodies in activist motion. I think hard on how to be careful about that “calling in.” Once those lineages are in the room, we have to answer to them. For example, it’s Black History Month. There’s a lot of posters and email signature quotations featuring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I am curious, Is every invocation of King matched with a full-bodied commitment to his cause of anti-militarism and anti-capitalism? That’s the kind of carefulness we need. The Southeast House members, on the strength of their training and healing work, will hit the road in a few weeks to visit universities throughout the South on the Beyond Equality Ride. Some of these schools have Title IX exemptions and some are Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and some may hold both titles one day soon. Simultaneously, we are convening students across the country who are implementing direct actions that push back against this recent wave of Title IX exemptions, most of which are aimed at pro-actively discriminating against transgender students and employees. All of this work happens on a “post-marriage” backdrop, in the movement slang. This moment has a lot of us in the movement thinking about for the first time, or in the case of Soulforce, doubling down on, what religion, race, bodies, and sex have to do with each other. In this post-DOMA world, it is no surprise that Title IX exemptions and Religious Freedom and Restoration Acts (RFRAs) are experiencing a simultaneous resurgence. They are two branches of the same tree. And that tree has its own violent and troubled ancestry. The shining moment that the language of “religious freedom” meant protection for the less powerful individual from state oppression was the original federal RFRA passed in 1993, which a conservative Supreme Court later overturned. Rarely before and rarely since has it been about protecting the weak. This is not about protecting the less powerful from state oppression: Both Title IX exemptions and RFRAs, on their surface, have the effect of drawing a state-backed circle around the powerful while pushing LGBTQI people outside that border of protection. Both advance a persecuted Christian narrative. Both act as an aggressive monitoring of the “sovereignty” of businesses and corporations to discriminate while using the language of “the downtrodden individual.” And both call in an ancestry of white supremacy by invoking “individual rights” or ‘states’ rights” in a very particular way. The states calling for RFRAs and dozens of schools seeking Title IX exemptions are invoking a legacy of trauma, violence, and oppression: the use of states’ rights doctrine to protect elitist economic strategies while masquerading as a martyr’s cry for individual rights. There’s an unbroken line from gun rights that protected planter wealth and armed slave patrols and militias to Jim Crow laws* and terror of that era that disallowed the economic, social, and political empowerment of Black people and People of Color to the attempts to shut down Obamacare by claiming the sovereignty of states’ rights, and finally, to the Hobby Lobby decision that, when “states’ rights” wasn’t enough, gave a corporation the semblance of personhood with a faith that was under siege. States’ rights doctrine is the pro forma argument they retreat to when they don’t want to own up to a racist agenda. The religious freedom model is built on the bones of the states’ rights doctrine, and states’ rights doctrine was built to maintain white supremacy. That long, unbroken thread weaves together the story of states’ rights and the economic interests of the most powerful white economic forces. These two stories have always been synonymous. The only folks who could ever take personal freedoms for granted-- with police and state support to back them up--were the people who had always had access to violence as a tool of their social, political, and economic agenda. The fresh angle on this vile ancestry is to weave in a third thread of the persecuted Christian** narrative, where the protagonist is being “attacked” by the presence of LGBTQI people and their rights, like the fall of DOMA which is what kicked off this recent twin waves of RFRAs and Title IX exemptions. The “Persecuted _____” narrative works handily to light up the neuronal pathways that lead from “my right to exercise my power over others is being impinged” to the knee-jerk defense under the tired but effective banner of personal freedoms/states’ rights. This is a part of American mythos. It is why it often makes sense to adversaries that when we visit schools on the Ride, for example, that we discuss property lines and the rights of private institutions and religious leaders to discriminate, rather than the substance of what harm is wrought by their discrimination. In short, the persecuted Christian narrative is a foil for a white supremacist agenda, with queerness as the bait. My spirit is grave and heavy with the racist and power-hungry lineage that these religious schools invoke. That web of long, complicated, violent histories now showing up as amicus briefs and soundbytes is what our Southeast House members and you, our family, who join us in spirit or on the actual Ride route, wade into this March. With our Movement Fellowship participants and the students who attend our Skill Shares, we often talk about sovereignty too. But it’s the spiritual, life-giving, 1993-federal-RFRA kind of sovereignty that can analyze power and deduce who is actually is need of state-backed protection.

*I am not attempting to compare Jim Crow laws to RFRAs, which has been a common and unfortunate comparison over the last year. They are categorically different beasts. The main commonality is that the both contain discrimination, which isn’t adequate to merit this particularly loose and dangerous comparison. **Not to be confused with actual persecuted Christians whose lives are threatened. Any attempt to connect the U.S. Christian Right Wing flirtations with loss of their traditional power is distasteful in the worst.

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