Opinion

How the politics behind the bathroom wars hark back to old race-baiting

A protester takes part in a demonstration outside the state Legislature in Raleigh, N.C., on May 16, 2016. He carries a toilet seat mocking Republican politicians who approved the state’s so-called bathroom law. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jonathan Drake *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-HARTGROVE-OPED, originally transmitted on May 18, 2016.

(RNS) Some religious conservatives are circling the culture war wagons and calling on prayer warriors to petition heaven for relief from federal overreach in response to the government’s directive concerning bathroom accommodations for transgender students.

A protester carries a toilet seat mocking North Carlina's Republican politicians who passed and approved the state's so-called "bathroom law" during a demonstration outside the state legislature in Raleigh, North Carolina on May 16, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jonathan Drake *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-HARTGROVE-OPED, originally transmitted on May 18, 2016.

A protester takes part in a demonstration outside the state Legislature in Raleigh, N.C., on May 16, 2016. He carries a toilet seat mocking Republican politicians who approved the state’s so-called bathroom law. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jonathan Drake *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-HARTGROVE-OPED, originally transmitted on May 18, 2016.

Russell Moore, who has worked to distance himself from the racist inheritance of our shared Southern Baptist heritage, is one. He did not hesitate to join James Dobson, Franklin Graham and others in crying foul:

“The state here wishes to use its coercive power not simply to stop mistreatment of people,” Moore declared, “but to rescript the most basic human intuitions about humanity as male and female.”


RELATED: Russell Moore: The real meaning of transgender bathrooms


If this sounds like more of the same from the old religious right, it is. Brother Moore has sworn off the divide-and-conquer tactic of race-baiting only to bite the Southern Strategy’s most recent ploy.

I do not write to condemn my brother, but to share what I’ve learned by submitting to black leadership in my home state of North Carolina. There is a better way forward. Unlearning our past isn’t easy, but it’s essential if we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

As Moore and company have framed the “bathroom issue,” Gov. Pat McCrory’s defiance of the U.S. Justice Department over the bathroom law is nothing like George Wallace’s segregationist resistance half a century ago.

Back then, black people were “mistreated” when they were barred from white-only public restrooms. Today, the federal government and the liberal media are trying to “rescript” anthropology by insisting that transgender people are mistreated if they are banned from the restrooms they have been using without incident.

Standing in the door of the University of Alabama to protect white students from black students was bigotry, according to Moore. Standing in the door of the bathroom to protect “our women and children” from a transgender boogeyman who doesn’t exist, on the other hand, is religious heroism.

It would be easy to buy this line of reasoning. As a straight white man, I’ve only benefited from structural racism. As a Baptist preacher, I’ve not gotten to know many transgender people. (Wisely, it seems, they’ve stayed away from most of our churches.) I have no personal insight that would cause me to question Moore’s reasoning. But I learned 20 years ago that I was born a racist, and as part of my repentance, I came under the spiritual tutelage of the Rev. William Barber II.

Barber, who now leads North Carolina’s NAACP, has been clear since House Bill 2 passed in March that this discriminatory legislation is not really about bathrooms. It’s about politicians using fear to hold on to power.

Evidence for his point is in the bill itself. Proponents of the law have downplayed the fact that it also denies local governments the power to raise the minimum wage in their communities and takes away every citizen’s right to sue in state court for employment discrimination of any kind. Even on paper, HB2 is a blatant grab for power.

But Barber has also been clear that it’s a cynical attempt at dirty politics ahead of the 2016 election. Four years ago, McCrory and his administration came to power by leveraging the vote of so-called social conservatives through a proposed constitutional amendment that put heterosexual marriage on the ballot. The Rev. Billy Graham was persuaded from his sickbed to endorse the ban on gay marriage, and Christians and others who believed their “family values” were under attack came out to vote for Republicans.

McCrory and the Republican majority in our Statehouse, like so many in state governments throughout the South and Midwest, used their political power to attack public education, decry so-called entitlement programs, deny Medicaid expansion and suppress voting rights.

Absent any record to run on, many in Southern state governments believe the only way they can win re-election is to focus attention on an enemy. Transgender people, it seems, are the scapegoat of 2016.

No, transgender discrimination is not racial discrimination. But for the purpose of power politics, this is a distinction without a difference. In the 19th century, after African-Americans had won the franchise, the key political question was how ruling elites could mitigate their political power. It did not matter that stories of “Negro rule” leading black men to rape white women were not true. They were an effective way to scare the white majority into voting for Southern Democrats and letting the KKK wage its intimidation campaign without resistance.

Likewise, after the Voting Rights Act was passed, Republican operatives developed the Southern Strategy to play on the fears of white Southern Democrats to keep them from voting with African-Americans.

Then, as now, it wasn’t really about bathrooms. The “white only” signs could come down, but white men crossed the Rubicon and joined the party of Lincoln. They held on to power by demonizing urban violence, welfare queens and the “loose morals” of the counterculture that had supported civil rights.

The single most important political reality in America today is the emergence of white people as one among many minorities. Once again, we as a people face the basic question of our democratic experiment: Do we really believe in a government by, of and for all people?

Many who’ve sworn to uphold our Constitution are frightened by the prospect. They are doing the only thing they know to do: They are appealing to the fears of the religious community in a desperate attempt to hold on to power. We would do well to tell them what every angel in Scripture says upon descending from God’s heaven to the messy realm of human politics: “Fear not.”

(Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove lives in Durham, N.C., where he founded the Rutba House, a house of hospitality. He is the author, with the Rev. William J. Barber II, of “The Third Reconstruction.”)

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Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

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  • This whole bathroom law thing erupted awfully suddenly, but almost from the second it appeared on the radar in North Carolina, it was instantly picked up by pretty much the entire Religious Right movement and championed by them … complete with a variety of talking-points which were repeated ad nauseam and almost verbatim by politicians, clergy and pundits around the country.

    In other words … the pumps were primed for this. I’m interested in who orchestrated it and how they pulled it off. Was it some kind of smoke-filled back-room outfit like ALEC? Or someone else? What’s more … why is the media just reporting on this sudden “bathroom law” uproar without so much as a hint of such an investigation (that I’ve ever heard of)? The media are happy to report on the controversy … but not, it seems, willing to dig deep and discover its origins.

  • You’re right, most media have not tried to look behind the scenes, but a few have and uncovered some of the usual suspects and some new ones:

    Alliance Defending Freedom: http://mediamatters.org/blog/2016/03/31/north-carolinas-anti-lgbt-law-borrows-the-work/209657

    Pope Foundation: http://www.southernstudies.org/2016/05/art-popes-money-helped-create-north-carolinas-bath.html

    And the Benham brothers: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/04/ted-cruz-advisers-north-carolina-anti-lgbt-bill

    The Benham’s are someone new players, but the ADF is the most prominent and influential and dangerous, as the link highlights by pointing out how they were circulating draft bills to states in Feb 2015.

  • Some good and worthy points here, but wrong on a key factual assertion:

    “Four years ago, McCrory and his administration came to power by leveraging the vote of so-called social conservatives through a proposed constitutional amendment that put heterosexual marriage on the ballot.”

    I’m not defending Gov. McCrory on HB2, but he did not need Amendment One to get elected in 2012, when he cruised to a 10-point win, the largest victory margin in a NC governor’s race in decades.

    Perhaps fewer Republican legislators would have won without A1, but they enjoy the benefits of massive gerrymandering, which makes most of their seats safe, and the GOP would have kept large majorities.

    The biggest difference might have been in favor of Mitt Romney, who narrowly carried the state.

    McCrory, however, was going to win in 2012 no matter what.

    This year is very different — thanks in part to HB2.

  • I’m actually looking for something deeper than any of these articles describe. Art Pope’s donations, for example, don’t reveal the track that was taken by the Right to set this whole thing up. Nor does the fact that the North Carolinian Benham brothers advised Cruz. Those are just associations, and while they might seem compelling, in the end they don’t convey anything concrete.

    As I said, I’m talking about the specifics of the plan and how it developed. Who talked to whom about it? Who came up with the talking points, and when (and how) were they distributed in advance? What other states’ legislators were prepared to launch “bathroom bills” if North Carolina’s got hung up (somehow)? How soon after the Obergefell decision came down, was this scheme concocted? What other machinations were involved?

    There’s material here … a lot more than just who donated to and/or worked for who else … and it’s long past time for it to be investigated. The media need to grow a pair and get on with it already.

  • The writer is correct in this: “… this discriminatory legislation is not really about bathrooms.” What he misses in lamenting the alleged myopia of religious conservatives is his own blurred vision that this is about social justice for transgendered people. This never was about transgendered people, just as gay marriage was never really about marriage. It is a power grab of a kind he doesn’t write about: To impose a new sexual paradigm that wipes away the biblical horizon and opens up everything to the individual as God.

  • It’s called the Human Rights Campaign, pushing absurd LGBT laws on cities and states that even preschoolers realize are nonsensical and unnatural. It doesn’t take a conspiracy to get sane people to respond negatively to insanity.

  • First you have to ask yourselves when you look at a person of color and then a transgender person are they on the same platform of racism. Hell no 1 is of skin tone and latter is of sexual orientation (a choice ).

  • Re: “It’s called the Human Rights Campaign, pushing absurd LGBT laws on cities and states that even preschoolers realize are nonsensical and unnatural.”

    Please provide documentation for this, and which accounts for the fact that the Right was — as I pointed out — already primed for its offensive against transgenders.

    Also … am I to take it, then, that you’re part of the Ted Cruz “make ’em wait ’till they get home to use the bathroom” crowd?

    As for things “that even preschoolers realize are nonsensical and unnatural” … a lot of things could fall under that rubric, and people may not agree on all of them. What’s more, lots of Rightists have done things that many would call “nonsensical and unnatural”; just ask Josh Duggar and his sisters, for example, as well as Rightists George Alan Rekers and Lisa Biron … just to name a select few.

  • This article nailed it. Well done Mr. Hartgrove. PsiCop, I’d like answers to your very astute questions too.

  • So treating people with a scintilla of respect and dignity is just too much for you to bear. The sudden history to trans people by “Bible believing” christian bigots is not only extremely recent but clearly politically orchestrated.

    Your religious beliefs are no basis to our laws. Your personal prejudices have no place in such things either.

  • One has to ask is the hostility against trans people in any way rational or justifiable? Of course not.

    Bigots follow the same patters of behavior regardless of the objects of hate. They use the law to discriminate and demean. They claim religion justifies their attitudes. They get all whiny when public opinion stops supporting them.

    BTW “our hate is different from racism because race is different” is a really bonehead cliche.

  • Well said, Spuddie!
    I can understand how ignorance defends bigotry.
    But I cannot grasp how willfulness defends ignorance.
    I cannot comprehend how morality defends subordination.
    And I suppose I’ll never fathom how conscience defends cruelty.

  • Now Oklahoma’s legislators want to impeach President Obama over who uses whose loos.
    Seems like everyone’s crawling over each other to stick their noses where the sun don’t shine.

    Oh, to be a fly on the wall when those creepy crawlers’ grandkids learn what their grandfolks so contemptibly contemptuously tried to do in the good ole days!

  • Slow as the sloths in the Zootopia movie, but just saw your reply from several weeks back. Yes, the HRC met with the Charlotte City Council in 2014, on short notice to most of the council, and wanted them to agree to pass a new NDO with a bathroom-locker room provision that night. If Charlotte was to be a “world-class city,” they needed to do this. They paused, then a few weeks later voted on an HRC model proposal that was defeated because the bathroom provision was amended out of it. Several hard-left council members voted it down in an all-or-nothing move. I personally attended that meeting. This year, with a new mayor, it passed with the bathroom provision (another meeting I attended) before the state of NC preempted its going into effect with HB 2. Human Rights Campaign worked in Houston and is working in other cities to get these statutes on the books. HRC’s involvement is no big secret.
    As for Josh Duggar and anyone, for that matter, who harms kids or other vulnerable people, I have zero sympathy. One’s political views, left, right or middle, is not relevant.
    We should be compassionate and accommodating to all people until public safety or decency becomes an issue. Most transgendered people use the restroom with little fanfare. You and I probably don’t notice. But if a person with male genitalia or a bass voice is changing in the locker room with my wife, daughter, sister or mother, that’s a qualitatively different issue. Yet the activists on this issue go to the greatest extreme to further their cause. At some point, liberal folks will get tired of it and question this new dogma as well.

  • Re: “Yes, the HRC met with the Charlotte City Council in 2014 …”

    Great story. Documentation, please.

    Re: “HRC’s involvement is no big secret.”

    If it’s “no big secret,” then why do you regard it as so insidious and vile?

    Re: “We should be compassionate and accommodating to all people until public safety or decency becomes an issue.”

    Key words in that sentence: “… until public safety or decency becomes an issue.” It is not at all evident that allowing transgenders to go to bathrooms of their choice is a “public safety” matter. Sexual assaults in bathrooms are relatively rare and so far as anyone knows, never involves a transgender or someone posing as transgender. There was an assault here in CT some 3 years ago which was done by a hetero man who hadn’t posed as transgender. A NC-style law would not have prevented this assault at all, had it been enacted in CT.

    I also question the whole idea that criminals are somehow going to use the letter of one law to break another (because, after all, assault IS assault and will remain so). On its face, it sounds pretty asinine. Seems someone is whipping up a strange fantasy in order to justify a law that’s intended to harass.

    Re: “But if a person with male genitalia or a bass voice is changing in the locker room with my wife, daughter, sister or mother, that’s a qualitatively different issue.”

    Being a guy, I’m no expert, but last I knew, women’s bathrooms all have private stalls. No one in them exposes their genitalia to anyone else … again, as far as I know. Now I’m sure you and the rest of the R.R. are whipping up fantasies in the name of going after those hated LGBT types.

    Re: “Yet the activists on this issue go to the greatest extreme to further their cause.”

    I’d say that hurling out fantastic scenarios that will never come true, in order to justify harassing LGBT folks, is pretty “exteme” in and of itself.

    Re: “At some point, liberal folks will get tired of it and question this new dogma as well.”

    Maybe, but for now, we’re discussing your dogma about letting transgenders use bathrooms of their choice being a “public safety” matter. The idea that NC-style laws are going to prevent assaults and keep creepy men from whipping out their genitalia in women’s bathrooms is — quite simply — B.S.

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