Blogs > Steve Hochstadt > Arcing Toward Equality in 2017

Dec 30, 2017

Arcing Toward Equality in 2017

tags: racism,gay rights,transgender,Liberal,2017

Conservatives might celebrate 2017 as a year of triumph. I’m not sure, because I don’t understand the current American conservative mind. Having a man represent you as President who is a constant liar, an abuser of women, and an incompetent manager of people might outweigh the few conservative pieces of legislation he has signed, even if one is a big tax cut for rich people. But most conservatives rallied around an apparent pedophile in Alabama, so ideology seems to be more important than character on the right wing.


What I do know is that American liberals have been thrown into despair by the new nastiness of American politics, as Republicans have given up the principles they defended for so many years in order to force a few political gains over the objections of the majority of voters. The daily news about Trump’s latest tweet, about the real nature of the tax cut, about the desertion of science in the federal bureaucracy, about the attempts to blind the public to the necessity of an informed media, all make each day’s headlines another affront to liberal values. Even worse, truth seems to have been redefined as a liberal value.


But behind the headlines, our country has been evolving in directions that liberals could find encouraging.


Public disdain for homosexuality and discriminatory behavior against homosexuals have a long history. Opinion surveys show an unchanging and strong majority believing that homosexual sex was “always wrong” until about 1990. Over the past 20 years that disapproval, expressed as opposition to same-sex marriage, has been gradually declining, from about 68% in 1997 to 53% in 2007, until approval finally won out over disapproval in 2012. That trend continued in 2017, as support for gay marriage was expressed by nearly two-thirds of Americans.


There are significant differences among sub-groups, with white evangelical Protestants and older Americans showing the least support. But all groups show increasing acceptance of the right of gay people to fully enjoy their lives, and the jump in 2017 from 27% to 35% among white evangelicals and from 18% to 41% among conservatives (these groups overlap considerably) means that 2018 might continue this trend.


Similarly, public acceptance of transgender Americans is rising, although there have only been surveys over the past few years. Since 2015, the Human Rights Campaign’s surveys show positive feelings about transgender people rising from 44% to 47%. In 2017, the proportion of Americans who said that transgender people should be able to use the bathroom of their choice jumped by 10 percentage points. The Boy Scouts of America both reflected this growing acceptance and pushed it further by announcing in January that transgender boys would be allowed to join. Joe Maldonado, who had been rejected in 2016, became a Boy Scout in February 2017.


The most notable cultural shift of 2017 was the public outrage over male sexual abuse of women, symbolized in December by TIME Magazine making female “silence breakers” the Person of the Year. The public naming and shaming of many egregious abusers was the culmination of the gradual shift in public opinion opened by Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas in 1991, and accelerated by the prosecution of Bill Cosby beginning in 2015. 2017 may become known as the year in which sexual harassment became publicly unacceptable.


Discussion of the continuing racism in American society was heated in 2017, but it is harder to discern how much progress was made in the struggle for racial equality. On the positive side, the public glorification of the Confederate defense of slavery, which has been a fundamental feature of the way American history has been told since the late 19th century, may be coming to an end. Controversy over statues was the most conspicuous flashpoint of violence, but the reconsideration of the content of history textbooks and the naming of buildings at prominent universities point to a more lasting shift in the place of our painful racial history in American self-consciousness.


The public protests by black athletes at the beginning of the NFL season caused a significant backlash, as such protests did at the Olympics in 1968 and 1972, and in many less notable moments since then. In most cases, the athletes were severely disciplined, and Colin Kapernick’s 2016 protest was probably the reason for his continued unemployment as a professional football player. But in 2017, the protesters were not punished, perhaps a signal that public protests of racism, while not acceptable to many Americans, are now seen as within everybody’s democratic rights.


All of these long-term transformations in American culture and public opinion were condemned by conservatives, with Donald Trump in the lead. Backlash against the movement toward racial and sexual equality may have helped him win election, but even the power of the presidency has not been sufficient to stop it. 2017 was a difficult year for Americans committed to equality for all, but the long arc of the moral universe still bent toward justice.


May that continue in 2018.


Steve Hochstadt

Boston, MA

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 2, 2017

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