Monday, October 23, 2006


Monday's post from Daniel Olivas...

I have previously spotlighted the work of Michael Nava, the author of the award-winning Henry Rios murder mysteries. Nava, a Phi Beta Kappa from The Colorado College, went on to earn his law degree from Stanford University in 1981. From there, he worked with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, a prestigious private appellate law firm, and then as a research attorney first with the California Court of Appeal and now with the California Supreme Court as a judicial staff attorney for Associate Justice Carlos Moreno.

While studying for the California Bar right out of law school, Nava started writing his first book which began his seven-volume series featuring his openly gay Henry Rios. His novels were published to great critical acclaim and include The Little Death (1986), Goldenboy (1988), How Town (1990), The Hidden Law (1992), The Death of Friends (1996), The Burning Plain (1997), and Rag and Bone (2001). The novels are discussed in a number of critical and scholarly works including Contemporary Gay Novelists, Emmanuel Nelson, ed. (Greenwood Press, 1993), and Brown Gumshoes: Detective Fiction and the Search for Chicano/a Identity, Ralph Rodriguez, ed. (University of Texas Press, 2005).

Nava is also the co-author of Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to America (1994) (with Professor Robert Dawidoff). On October 7, 2006, Nava gave the Diversity Awards Address at the California State Bar’s annual meeting. Nava very kindly agreed to allow his speech to be reprinted on La Bloga:

Diversity Awards Address, State Bar Convention
October 7, 2006
Delivered by Michael Nava

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

I am honored and humbled to be asked to speak to you tonight and I would like to begin my remarks by talking about heroes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a hero is someone “who exhibits greatness of soul in any course of action.” Certainly, that definition fits tonight’s diversity award recipients, Alfred Jenkins and Bill Lann Lee. They are not the only heroes in this room, however. This room is filled with heroes.

Many of you who sit here tonight as lawyers and judges arrived at these positions against great odds. You persevered against the external challenges of poverty and discrimination, and the internal challenges of discouragement and doubt, to achieve a goal that, for most people of color, remains as out of reach as the summit of Everest. What makes yours a hero’s story, and not merely a story of rags to respectability, however, is that you knew that it was not for yourselves alone that you made this climb. You blazed these trails so that others like you, the children of the poor and of communities of color, could follow in your path. And once you achieved the summit, you extended your hands to those coming behind. You have all exhibited the greatness of soul that is the mark of the hero, not only in what you have accomplished for yourselves, but, like Alfred Jenkins and Bill Lann Lee, in what you have given back.

I do not make this point to flatter you. My theme tonight is diversity and democracy and a vision of America in which diversity and democracy are symbiotic. The point I want to make is that your story – which is my story, too – is the story of America. American democracy is an idea formed by the words of the Declaration of Independence that all people are created equal and that each person possesses the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These words encapsulate the promise of America , a promise made to everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. The diverse audience in this room is proof that this is a promise America can still keep. Our diversity is, in turn, evidence that American democracy is still a beacon to the world.

Our story – the outsider’s story – is not simply a story of personal success, it is a story made possible by the guarantees of equality, freedom and equal access to opportunity that are the natal values of our country. Therefore, creating a society in which people of all ethnicities and races, women as well as men, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons as well as heterosexuals can succeed is not just good policy or good politics, it is the very definition of America.

The American assertion that all people are created equal, and all equally entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, necessarily encourages a diverse population because it was not made to a particular group, but to all humankind. The American assertion licenses human beings of every stripe to pursue, not just their material dreams, but their deepest sense of themselves, and to assert that self with pride and dignity. Thus, our democratic values contemplate, welcome and encourage diversity. In the two-hundred odd years since America’s call has gone out, millions have answered from every quarter of the earth and in the process created the most diverse society in human history.

Diversity, in turn, is the life-blood of our democracy. America is a dream reborn in the hearts of every generation of outsiders, whether they are immigrants, or members of racial, ethnic or sexual minorities, or women. The promises of equality, freedom and equal opportunity are promises that beat most powerfully in the hearts of those who are in need of them. The great stories of our history are not the stories of the privileged few who enjoyed the fruits of their position and prestige. The great stories of our history are the stories of people who came from nothing and achieved greatness in some sphere of life. Today, as at every point in our history, the true test of our democratic ideals is how well they operate when they are invoked by the outcast, the marginalized and the discriminated against.

My linking of democracy and diversity may seem obvious to those of us here. It is, however, a point that often seems to get lost in the debate surrounding the future of America in light of shifting demographics that will ultimately make the rest of the country what California is today – a society of minorities. In this debate, it is crucial to reiterate the point that democracy and diversity go hand-in-hand to counter another, darker strain of American thought. This strain of thought rejects the idea that a diverse population is part of the democratic ideal. In this view, outsider groups threaten American democracy with their customs, beliefs, practices, and values. Proponents of this view would limit physical access to America by immigrants and repress their fellow Americans whose values or way of life are different than their own.

The desire to exclude immigrants has all too often been wedded to racist notions of who deserves to be an American. This racist ideology has found expression in such phenomena as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the 1924 Immigration Act that limited immigrants from Southern Europe, the mass deportation of Mexican immigrants during the Depression and the internment of Japanese-Americans. The repressive strain of this ideology has been expressed in the legal treatment of American women throughout much of our history, and the criminalization of sexual practices that served, until recently, as the justification for widespread discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans. And, of course, both the racist and repressive parts of this ideology found their fullest and most shameful expression in the segregation of African-Americans and the consignment of those Americans to second-class citizenship.
Our society’s shifting demographics and the assertiveness of people of color, women, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people have reawakened in many Americans the anxieties that have encouraged these destructive and oppressive responses to diversity in the past. As proponents of diversity, the task of understanding and countering these fears falls upon our shoulders. In our political culture, the burden of persuasion for greater inclusiveness falls upon those demanding inclusion because, while the democratic ideals proclaimed in the declaration are “self-evident,” they are not self-executing.

Before we can respond to the fears of our fellow Americans, we must understand them. There are, of course, still crude proponents of racism and repression. But I believe that relatively few white Americans consciously entertain a philosophy of white racial supremacy as the basis of their anxieties. Rather, there are two strands that create these fears. The first is simply a fear of the unknown which, in this case, means people from other races and ethnicities. The fear is expressed in unconsciously equating true Americans with Americans of a particular race and regarding everyone else as an intruder. I think of this not so much as racism, but as tribalism. The second strand is the fear that these people from another tribe will take away what you have or prevent you from getting what you want. Kofi Annan was referring to this second strand when he observed in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech that: “The obstacles to democracy have very little to do with culture or religion, and much more to do with the desire of those in power to maintain their position at any cost.”

How do we address these anxieties. Well, first, as I have already suggested, we address them when we uphold the alternative view of an American democracy that welcomes and embraces diversity, instead of fearing and repressing it. This vision of America, after all, has history on its side. Everyone in this country, except for the indigenous people, has been, at one point or another, an outsider, an immigrant. From the point of view of American history, there is no difference between the American child of Vietnamese “boat people” and the descendant of the English “boat people” who arrived on the Mayflower.

Another way in which the opponents of diversity assert their status as “true” Americans is to label the rest of us as special interest groups pursing a special interest agenda. This is a particular rhetorical trick of the religious right when it accuses gay rights advocates of promoting a “homosexual agenda.” When Professor Robert Dawidoff and I wrote about gay rights in our book Created Equal, we addressed this characterization directly by explaining that “what is sought by gays and lesbians is not new or special rights but the extension of existing rights guaranteed to all American citizens by the Constitution and identified by the Declaration of Independence as the purpose, not the gift of government.” This observation applies with equal force to people of color and women. Equality, freedom and equal opportunity are not items on a special interest agenda; they are the birthright and the sacred responsibility of all Americans.

We must also recognize the degree to which the exclusionary view is a firmly entrenched and insidious one. For example, media references to the Midwest as America’s “heartland” and the repository of “traditional American values,” can be read as a code that equates America with Anglo-Saxon, politically conservative, heterosexual Protestants and dismisses the rest of us as interlopers. This equation is wrong as a matter of history because the cradle of American democracy is in places like Massachusetts, not Kansas. Thus the Midwest has no particular historical claim on “traditional American values” if, by that phrase, we are talking about democratic values.

Moreover, I would argue that the laboratory of our democratic ideals is to be found here, in California, where the peoples of the world have gathered to create a multicultural society. In California, the very notion of ethnic and racial minorities itself has become a misnomer to the extent that that label applies only to non-white Californians. The fact is that white Californians themselves are simply another racial minority in a state now composed of minorities.

Where everyone is equally a Californian, no one can invoke the label of “minority” to denigrate another group or to imply that that group’s values and points of view are entitled to less respect than those of others. Rather, here in California, our different values and points of view rub against each other, sometimes, yes, provoking conflict, but just as often producing those sparks of creativity that have made this state one of the most dynamic societies on earth and a place we are privileged to call our home. (I speak here with pride as a third-generation Californian.) I submit that if the “heartland” of America is the place where America’s future is being played out today, then we should look for that heartland in Los Angeles, not in Omaha.

Inevitably, the objection will come that, if we are all Americans, why should race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation enter into our civic discussion at all. This was another argument Professor Dawidoff and I addressed in Created Equal, to counter the claim that gay and lesbian activists were making a public spectacle out of the private matter of sexuality. We observed that it was not gays and lesbians, but the state that had made sexual orientation a public issue by enacting laws that criminalized homosexual practices and discriminated against gays and lesbians. We argued that sexual orientation can hardly be characterized as a private matter as long as the church and state are on their knees peering through the keyholes into the bedrooms of gays and lesbian Americans.

Of course, the same observations are true of race, ethnicity and gender. If the state has singled out particular groups and promoted discrimination against them, the state cannot be heard to then complain that the effects of that discrimination are no longer relevant simply because discriminatory laws have been repealed and discriminatory practices banned. Justice Thurgood Marshall made this point eloquently when he wrote in his separate opinion in the Bakke decision that: “It is because of a legacy of unequal treatment that we must now permit the institutions of this society to give consideration to race in making decisions about who will hold the positions of influence, affluence, and prestige in America.”

Finally, how do we respond to the fears of those who believe that a diverse society in which everyone has equal access to opportunity will require them to surrender their privilege. I would respond that the unequal distribution of a society’s goods creates a volatile situation in which, ultimately, no one is safe in his person or property. We see already the growing concentration of wealth and power in this country into fewer and fewer hands, most of them white. Not only is this situation profoundly anti-democratic, it cannot endure without increasingly alienating America’s have-nots, most of them people of color, and leading to an explosion in anti-social behavior including criminal violence. This, in turn, will require more and more repressive measures to maintain an unjust status quo. The result is that we will end up creating in America a de facto system of apartheid. Surely, this is not the society imagined by the words of the Declaration nor is it a society in which any of us would want to live.

Diversity is a fact of life in this country. The choice we have as a society is whether to embrace or repress it. Our history teaches us that when we choose repression, whether, for example, in the form of Jim Crow laws or interning Japanese-Americans, both those who repress and those who are the victims of repression pay the price of their humanity. Therefore, at this moment of our history when the debate is again joined about who belongs to the American family, let us choose the path of inclusiveness. Let us remember that our history also teaches us that often it is the very people who have been rejected, marginalized and discriminated against who, rising above these challenges, have been responsible for America’s moral greatness. Over and over again we see in the American story, that “the very stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” For many of us in this room, this vein of the American story is our own personal story. Our responsibility is to ensure that the story does not end with us. Let us take as our rallying cry the words that the great, gay African-American writer James Baldwin wrote about America. He said: “This is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.”

Thank you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post Daniel! It was wonderful to be able to read that speech in it's entirety.

- Sol