Editor’s Note: Daniel Martinez HoSang is a professor of political science and ethnic studies at the University of Oregon, an expert on racialized policy and ballot measures, and a long-time supporter of MRG Foundation. We’re grateful that he’s taken the time to share his thoughts on Arizona’s SB 1062.
When Arizona Governor Jan Brewer announced in late February that she had vetoed the odious SB 1062, activists across the country found good reason to celebrate. The bill would have would have broadened the state’s 13-year-old “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” essentially establishing a right to discriminate for businesses and individuals — even on the basis of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation — in the name of religious liberty. The bill was in many ways connected to a political movement ascendant since the 1970s that has sought to make homophobic discrimination a state-protected practice.
The quick opposition to the bill from many business and tourism interests demonstrated the lasting impact of a boycott organized by immigrant rights activists three years ago after the state passed its notorious “show me your papers” legislation. Even in a state long hostile to civil rights legislation, collective action by many thousands of people to advance human dignity has made an important difference.
To many observers, the idea that anyone could assert a “right to discriminate” in the name of personal freedom seems almost absurd. What kind of freedom is secured by demanding the subordination of others? But it is useful to remember that the linking of freedom and subordination has long-standing roots in the political traditions of this nation, and continues to be bound up in many of our contemporary practices and laws.
The Genealogy of the “Right to Discriminate”
Since the nation’s founding, the principles ideas of freedom, individual rights, and democracy evolved in tandem with explanations for slavery and mass death. The nation’s founders held that nature had not endowed all people with the same capacity for freedom; thus, subordination for some was the condition that made freedom possible for others.
It was this same idea of freedom that led early white settlers in Oregon to banish or annihilate the indigenous people they encountered, and to vote to exclude Black people from the state altogether. These settlers also believed that their freedom was dependent on the subordination of others.
In the 20th century, the expansion of Jim Crow segregation in the North and South was similarly justified through appeals to “freedom of association.” In 1964, nearly two-thirds of the California electorate approved a ballot measure (Proposition 14) that overturned the state’s new fair housing laws and made racial and religious discrimination in real estate a constitutionally protected practice. Proponents declared they were restoring “freedom of choice” to (white) landlords and homeowners.
The U.S. today has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners, an incarceration rate unmatched in the history of modern nations. The justification for imprisoning more than two million fellow citizens has similarly turned on appeals to freedom — we must put some people in cages so that the rest of us can be free.
And our military, in its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and in the drones that fill the skies of Northwest Pakistan, always acts in the name of freedom — our freedom. The scholar-activist Chandan Reddy has described this condition as “freedom with violence;” the claim that that in order for the nation to protect its citizens against violence it must deploy violence against those who are alleged to be irrational, immoral, or uncivilized. Guns, soldiers, and veterans, the bumper stickers instruct us, are responsible for our freedom.
Freedom and subordination share the same complex political genealogy. It is for this reason that the proponents of Arizona’s SB 1062 saw nothing sinister in their attempts to win further guarantees of their religious freedom. As the conservative Center for Arizona Policy explained in defense of the measure “In America, people should be free to live and work according to their faith. Our nation was founded upon the ideal of religious freedom and the right to freely walk your faith.” In this view, any action done in the name of freedom, no matter its impact or intent on others, is both legal and moral, even when predicated on the subordination of others.
Contesting Arizona’s Twisted Vision
Indeed 29 states still have no laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Nine other states are now considering various iterations of “right to discriminate” legislation, including Oregon, where proponents are attempting to qualify the “Protect Religious Freedom Initiative,” known now as Initiative Petition 52. The measure would permit commercial wedding service vendors to legally discriminate against same-gender couples on the basis of religious freedom.
Fortunately, this twisted vision of freedom has always been contested. The enslaved people who fought for abolition 150 years ago envisioned a much wider type of freedom than the Founders ever imagined. This concept of freedom been carried on in the politics, ideas, and culture of many social movements. Across a wide range of issues today — prisons, reproductive health, jobs, housing, immigration, anti-militarization and many others — we are challenged to work for a vision of freedom, a collective freedom, that is not linked to the subordination of others.
The defeat of SB 1062 is a small but important reminder of this ever-present task.