Thursday, March 6, 2014

The "Find Another Baker/Florist" Argument and Arizona "Religious Freedom" Legislation: A Critical Consideration

A persistent refrain of conservative commentators both defending and critiquing the recent anti-gay legislation in Arizona and Kansas has been that gay folks seeking cakes and flowers surely ought to cut bigots a bit of slack and take their business elsewhere when a baker or a florist chooses to dispense Christian-heterosexual-biblically-correct-only goods. Andrew Sullivan puts the point this way:

And finding another florist may be a bother, and even upsetting, as one reader expressed so well. But we can surely handle it. And should.

Find another baker. Seek out another flower vendor. It's all so simple. So American, don't you know, since we're a people who believe in our bones in maximizing freedom and choice. Aren't we?

As I read these suggestions, almost all of them emanating from people who spend their days in the thickly-populated urban corridor of the northeastern coastal area of the U.S., two recognitions leap out: 1) the people of the chattering classes who occupy the prescriptive seats in American journalism, none of whom live in the heartland to which they direct their prescriptions, just don't understand what they're talking about when they talk about the rest of us; and 2) the chattering prescribers of American journalistic elites don't remember much (and have apparently never learned much) about the history of segregation in the U.S.

Point one: while another bakery and florist may be around the corner throughout the urban corridor of the northeastern coastal part of the U.S., in much of the American heartland, one is hard pressed to find either. Anywhere. 

Most small towns throughout the heartland simply don't have "another" baker or "another" florist. This is the case because they doing have any baker or any florist. Period. 

A large number of small towns throughout the heartland don't have 1) any restaurant, 2) any theater of any kind, 3) any bookstore, 4) even any grocery store. For many people living in small towns and rural areas throughout much of the interior of the U.S., the only show in town, foodwise, cakewise, flowerwise, is a large Wal-Mart located in some larger quasi-urban town at a distance from home. 

And you take what you get when you get there. If your family tradition is to eat turnips and greens at Thanksgiving time, you should be thankful when you reach Wal-Mart and find that it's willing, out of the goodness of its heart, to offer you rutabagas--sans greens--instead.

Much of the interior of the U.S. has no choice of the kind that many of our elite pundits appear to imagine is right outside our doorsteps, as it is right outside their doorsteps on any given day. All those "freedoms." All those choices.

They don't exist for us because they're just not there. When they are there at all, in any shape, form, or fashion, increasingly, they're there only at the good pleasure of mega-conglomerates like Wal-Mart, which offer us the opposite of freedom and choice by dictating to us what we may or may not buy, whether we like it or not--since it's all we'll find on the shelves when we manage to make our way to Wal-Mart on what some folks in my part of the world now call "my Wal-Mart day" when they want to speak of their routine day to shop for groceries.

So, Find another florist, though I know it's a bother; you can handle it! 

Thanks for the good advice. 

But could you please help me locate that first florist before I seek out the "other" one? Pretty please?

Point two is interconnected. If those offering gay folks experiencing discrimination of the Christian-heterosexual-biblically-correct-only kind from bakers, florists, and candlestick makers advice had any knowledge at all of the history of discrimination against people of color in the segregated South, they might think twice about the glibness of their suggestion that gay couples should seek out another baker or florist. If they remembered anything of what racial discrimination meant concretely for black citizens of the South as they sought most any goods or facilities white citizens of the South took for granted during the period of segregation, they might be just a tiny bit abashed at reviving memories of the godawful system of racial discrimination and seeking to depict those memories as memories of "freedom" and "choice."

After he darkened his complexion and "passed" as a black man in the pre-integration South, John Howard Griffin informed readers of his book Black Like Me that he discovered that segregation exacted an enormous price from black citizens of the South in the following day-to-day ways: Griffin found himself walking in a big city like New Orleans.

He needed a bathroom. When he had been a white man, this had never been a problem. He needed, he found.

When he became a black man, it became an enormous problem. Bathrooms were all around him--freedom! choice! But none of them permitted him to use these facilities.

Because black.

And so he walked and walked and walked, his need more urgent, until he found the single facility in that particular part of the city that permitted him to use a restroom as a black man.

Ditto for food and hunger: he found, as a black man, that when he was hungry, he could eat only where eating was permitted to him--not in the multitude of restaurants offering delicious food all around him when pangs of hunger struck. In her memoir of growing up in Connecticut as the child of parents both of whom had mixed racial roots--The Sweeter the Juice--Shirlee Taylor Haizlip notes that when her parents drove her and her siblings back to the South to visit relatives, they stocked the car with prepared food before they set off on their trips.

Because they knew that most restaurants would not serve them if they detected that they had any drop of African blood at all. Freedom! Choice! The roadside was dotted with eateries as they drove into Virginia, but not one of them offered freedom and choice to any black traveler passing through many areas.

Friends of mine who grew up in central Arkansas routinely took a car trip each year to Washington, D.C., to visit family members there as my friends were growing up. Because these friends are black, they set out on these trips--so they tell me--with fried chicken stored in shoeboxes, with sandwiches, jugs of iced tea, food sufficient to last until they reached D.C.

There was no other option, if they expected to eat. As a white friend of mine discovered when she took a trip in the 1950s with several Catholic women all of whom were involved in a liturgical movement and one of whom was African-American . . . . As they drove from New Orleans to a conference in Ohio, my friend told me, the white women discovered something they had never thought about, which was old hat to their black friend: they simply could not eat. Not most places. Not when they were hungry and when they found a restaurant.

Because one of them happened to be black.

I wonder why we speak so glibly and so gloriously (and entirely uncritically) about freedom and choice, when this is our real history. And why we'd dare to apply those terms--freedom! choice!--to gay couples seeking bakers and florists today, why we'd dare to give cover to people seeking to resurrect a filthy, inhumane system that we ditched for moral reasons in the 20th century, when black people were the object of this treatment, only to resurrect it in the 21st century when gay folks are its object.

And why we'd dare to call anything about this religious when pseudo-religion was every bit as foundational to the discriminatory systems of racial discrimination as it is to the ones we now want to create in the name of God to protect us against gay cake-eaters or gay flower-admirers. As Virginia judge Leon Bazile made crystal clear when he sentenced Richard and Mildred Loving to a year in prison for marrying while white and black, noting,

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

A religious freedom argument for racial discrimination . . . . 

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