Court shifts ground on social issues

Pick your metaphor: The American melting pot was at full boil. Everybody got dealt a new hand. It was the end of an era. It was the beginning of an era.

The Supreme Court opined on affirmative action, the voting rights of minorities and same-sex marriage. The Senate passed immigration reform (though the House said it was having none). Women temporarily stymied Texas legislators’ attempt to limit access to abortion.

It was a week when nearly every Georgian probably felt the earth shift at least a few degrees on its political axis.

“We are on moving ground. We’re experiencing very rapid and important changes as a nation,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, an Atlanta Democrat.

For many, those changes are nothing to celebrate.

“I love this country, and I see it being torn apart” said Elaine Duffus of Marietta. Duffus, who is 67, has tried unsuccessfully to find work for four years and is on food stamps. She blames President Obama and his liberal supporters for caring more about the welfare of immigrants than of people like her.

On the face of it, the major players, the week’s purported winners and losers, were the groups that have pressed for decades or centuries for equal standing: African Americans, immigrants, women, gays and lesbians.

“What we’re really seeing as a society is very different definitions of what it means to be a democracy. That is the battle. That is the frame,” said Carol Anderson, an associate professor of African American studies and history at Emory University.

But American history is also an enduring tussle between federal power and state’s rights, several observers noted. And in that arena, it was a good week for the states — especially states such as Georgia, which are deeply rooted in conservative political thought.

“The decisions eroded federal power,” said Rabbi Joshua Lesser, of Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta.

Ed Lindsey, a Georgia House Republican leader, had a different take: “If you drill down and look very carefully at what the Supreme Court has done, they’ve actually shown remarkable restraint.”

For Gov. Nathan Deal, the weeklong spate of judicial rulings was a natural outgrowth of Congress’ seemingly intractable gridlock. “It’s probably an indication of how much these social issues have built up over the last 10 years,” he said.

“Could the legislative processes at the state and federal level solve it?” Deal mused. “No, because they are already so closely divided. The differences of opinion are so split.”

In effect, the week showed all the nation’s political institutions — Congress, the courts, the White House, state and local governments, the political parties — in the often tricky process of coming to grips with powerful demographic and cultural crosscurrents.

“It’s not surprising that the courts are engaging these gay-marriages cases now, because we see around us a larger culture — television and movies and our neighborhoods where gay couples are raising kids,” said Michael Perry, a professor of law at Emory.

“It also doesn’t surprise me that there are people who are raising questions about affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act at a time when we have our first African American president, and people are thinking, ‘Well, wait a minute. It’s not as bad as it used to be so let’s take another look at this stuff,’” Perry said.

Sometimes, when things happen at the same time, it’s coincidence. Sometimes, there’s a common thread, some larger shift that is taking place underneath. In this case, it’s not clear which we’re seeing.

Stephanie Davis saw it all of a piece, capped off by the furor over the racial views of Savannah celebrity chef Paula Deen.

“She’s part of what’s happening in terms of a cultural shift,” said Davis, executive director of Georgia Women for a Change, a nonprofit public policy institute that focuses on women’s economic well-being, safety and health.

“As a woman who has gotten a pass for her attitudes and maybe her secret thoughts, what does it say that she’s being called out right now? It’s part of the movement towards (all forms of) equality we’re witnessing.”

But Emory historian Patrick Allitt said that although American history has been punctuated by constellations of events that reshaped virtually every facet of the nation’s life — World War I, the Great Depression, the 1960s — this doesn’t have the hallmarks of one.

“I’m not sure there’s any real connection between these different sets of events,” said Allitt, the Cahoon Family Professor of American History.

“What’s happening now is the Supreme Court and various social movements are making adjustments to a new reality,” he said. “I don’t suppose we’ll look back in the future and say, ‘Wow, look at the year 2013. That’s when everything changed.’”

Rep. Holcomb concurred – to a point. “These movements aren’t like the ’60s,” he said, “but they are still powerful and can’t be ignored.”

Preston King, a professor of political philosophy at Morehouse College, said the Supreme Court’s seemingly incongruous rulings — thumbs down to affirmative action and voting rights; thumbs up to gay marriage — make sense as if considered as political decisions, designed to manage demands for social change.

“The Supreme Court is acting politically,” King said. “It’s aware of the importance of public opinion, and my assumption is that they are trying to tamp down on any rousing of this beast.”

The challenge for civil rights leaders in particular is re-framing their issue in the face of a narrative that says the battle is essentially won, several observers said.

“The South in the 1960s was a sharply divided black and white community,” said Allitt. “Now it’s very multi-ethnic and it’s much more difficult to make the claim that there’s this sort of systematic discrimination on the basis of race.”

Like the nation itself, King noted, the court is also “sharply divided between progressives and conservatives, and there’s relatively little consensus on it in regard to broader social issues.”

As a result, and because people don’t fit just one social category, it was a week in which a single person could feel both affirmed and rebuffed. Take Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

As a member of a group covered by the Voting Rights Act, the rollback of some of its key provisions troubles him. As an openly gay man, who has been in a relationship for 15 years, the blow to the federal Defense of Marriage Act heartened him.

The voting rights decision, he said, “is a step back in democracy. In the same breath, the movement in recognizing same-gender couples, nationally, is a huge step forward.”

Lindsey, the House Republican leader, had the same sense of political whiplash — only in reverse.

“If you’re unhappy with the Supreme Court, just stand around for a while and you’ll get an opinion you’ll like,” he joked.

Teddy Bedford, 34, who cuts hair at the First Class barbershop and Salon in East Atlanta, finds all the social ferment exciting. He likes, he said, that traditional notions “are being challenged in a different way.”

But Larry Starr, 68, of Jasper, has little use for the political process. “The last election proved to me that federal and state governments are concerned with their own agendas,” said Starr, executive director of a food pantry. “I’m not living by their law, I’m living by God’s law.”

Only one thing is sure, said longtime students of the country’s social evolution: The week’s events are part of a dynamic process, with no knockout punches and no final buzzer, in which every victory carries a potential backlash.

Roe v. Wade didn’t end the abortion fight; it kicked it into a higher gear. Conservatives’ success in passing measures to deter illegal immigration arguably helped Obama win re-election.

“Life goes on and changes,” said Perry, the Emory law professor, “and we’re going to have to address these issues.”

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This article was reported by staff writers Rosalind Bentley, Greg Bluestein, Craig Schneider, Ernie Suggs and Jill Vejnoska.