Houston should be ashamed

Photo by Shelby Knowles

On Tuesday, Houston chose bigotry over equality.

You simply cannot vote against equal rights without voting in favor of continued oppression of marginalized groups. And that is what we have done. We ought to be deeply ashamed.

The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance sought to prohibit discrimination against many types of people, including those with disabilities, veterans, people of color, foreign-born Americans, and people of every gender and sexual orientation. By voting against this act, we voted in favor of continued institutional oppression of our fellow community members and loved ones — our neighbors, our teachers, our family members — and even of ourselves. By voting against this act, we made a statement that it is acceptable to treat some people differently than others. We said that a hierarchy of citizenship in Houston is okay.

By denying legal protections for marginalized groups in Houston, we're furthering their oppression in our city. While many of us would not express bigotry or hatred directly to another individual, many Houstonians expressed their intolerance anonymously and en masse at the polls on Tuesday.

Disadvantaged groups have to fight through history, public policy, institutional practices and personal behaviors for equality. This structural oppression is tricky in its indirectness — because it occurs through legitimate channels, individuals are less likely to feel the weight of responsibility for imposing oppressive conditions on other groups of people. Voting for policies that oppress people is easier, more anonymous and less morally offensive to us than directly oppressing people we think deserve fewer rights than we do.

Assigning HERO the moniker of the "Bathroom Ordinance" masked its true purpose: to prevent discrimination against many marginalized groups of Houstonians. Pretending that the issue at stake in this ordinance was that it would allow grown men to use women’s restrooms was a grotesque attempt to suppress the equality of all of those marginalized groups. It gave members of our community who enjoy the privileges of our current social hierarchy a convenient reason to explain why they voted against changing the status quo, and it allowed people to indulge their inner biases under the auspices of "doing what was right."

Many people have identified HERO opponents' strategy as a fear-mongering campaign, but it was more than that: It was a hate-mongering campaign. It associated marginalized groups — notably gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals — with frightening perpetrators of sexual assault. Ironically, demonstrating the very need for the protection of these groups, they are actually more likely to be victims of crime because of their gender or sexual identity.

As the most diverse city in the country, Houston can and will be better than this. We must commit to ending our participation in systems of oppression that allow for second-class citizenship of our siblings with disabilities, our transgender students, our veteran parents, our immigrant neighbors or our black and brown colleagues and leaders. Instead, we need to engage in activities that build connections between people with different backgrounds.

Research finds that one of the most effective ways to address implicit bias towards groups of people is simple interaction. Spending time speaking with someone from a group that you don’t know or understand is correlated with increased tolerance toward not only that person but the entire group they represent. This is a strategy that can be implemented personally, at the individual level, or in groups through institutions such as schools. Parents can be mindful to ensure that children have the chance to get to know people from diverse backgrounds. Workplaces and schools can offer training about implicit bias and encourage intergroup contact, tactics that have been identified as effective at reducing prejudice.

As John Steinbeck wrote in Of Mice and Men in 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement, "Try to understand men. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love."

In retrospect, 50 years later, we are able to see with great clarity the importance of the movement for racial equality during the civil rights movement. In another fifty years, we will similarly look back at the current movement for equality for all. Houston, let’s get on the right side of history.

Disclosure: University of Houston is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Rebecca Pfeffer

Assistant professor, University of Houston - Downtown