Hesitation and Hope

The 2008 election showed us that true progress in the struggle for equality is possible. Yet there is still much work to be done.

There is a story in this issue of Teaching Tolerance we were hesitant to publish — a story about a social justice movement being built by schoolchildren in Illinois.

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Students there have set out to tackle a problem pundits and politicos have long debated and never resolved — the gross funding disparities that fester between school districts, affording some students better educational opportunities than others.

Our hesitation was not about the children. They inspire us, and we hope they will inspire you. Our hesitation was about the adult who brought these children together — Illinois state senator and pastor James Meeks.

Meeks is surely on the right side of justice when he shines a spotlight on an educational system of haves and have-nots, a system our nation has knowingly created and maintained for far too long.

But he stands on the wrong side of justice on another important matter. Meeks once ran for governor on a single issue — a platform against equality for gay people. His homophobia is so strident that the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project has identified Meeks as one of the "10 leading black religious voices in the anti-gay movement."

On Election Day in November, we witnessed a change in our collective soul when Americans chose a man who is black and multiracial to serve as our next president. And on that same day, a majority of citizens in four states voted to deny equality to gay people, most notably in California where the passage of Proposition 8 erased newly won protections of civil marriage for gay couples.

The events of Nov. 4 surely soothed the wounds of racism in this country. But they did not heal them. When President-elect Obama takes his oath of office on Jan. 20, students in his home state will still be battling against educational disparities drawn along the lines of race and class. Much work remains.

We hope part of this work will be forging a new, and shared, understanding about the connectedness of difference in American life. Racism and homophobia are not the same. Yet they are both tools of oppression — the unjust and cruel practice of systemically elevating the worth of some human beings over others.

We proceeded with the story about the Illinois Council of Students because their cause is based on belief in human worthiness: Every child deserves a robust, rich educational experience. We lift up these students' efforts to usher in such a reality — and we denounce the homophobia of the man who first led them.

Two centuries ago, the French emperor observed, "Among those who dislike oppression are many who like to oppress." James Meeks is one of these people, and, if we are to learn a lesson from that special Tuesday in November, we must ask ourselves if we are, too.

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