Tag Archives: racism

This isn’t just about SAE. Greek life has a problem with racism.

Photo: Flickr

Photo: Flickr

Content warning: racism, racial epitaphs, lynching, and violence against Black people

One of my dearest friends, Ethan*, is a Sigma Alpha Epsilon (colloquially known as SAE). He is also a person of colour. So as I watched the Oklahoma Kappa chapter gleefully chanting they’d lynch a Black man before they’d let him pledge their fraternity, my friend—someone I’ve known since we were freshmen living in the same residence hall, someone who has stood by me for over a decade now, whom I’ve grown even closer to since we both moved to Chicago, someone I’d rank as the sweetest, kindest man I know—must have felt when he saw the sheer vitriol and unadulterated racism of some of his brothers:

Warning: this video contains graphic, racist, violent language; viewer discretion is advised

I’ve frequently written about Greek life in my career. When I was working at Rise Over Run I did a feature on a sorority’s homecoming queen candidate. I interviewed a closeted fraternity president. And after the now-infamous (and largely discredited) Rolling Stone piece on rape at UVA, I dissected Phi Kappa Psi’s response. I consider myself something of an expert.

This is also because, as I wrote for Salon earlier this year, my college years—spent in Kentucky, not Oklahoma—were defined by Greek life. I rushed, but never pledged, encountering a different bigotry (homophobia) along the way. But I stuck around. My best friends are sorority women. My ex-boyfriends are fraternity men. Aside from paying dues and participating in ritual (some of which I still learned; drunks like to tell secrets), my collegiate experience was the Greek experience. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love it.

Which makes me wish I could say I was surprised by the SAE video. That would be a lie, though. Because the truth is that white Greek life, at least in the South, is a bastion of white privilege and segregation.

I say white Greek life because there is also Black Greek life. The “Divine Nine” fraternities and sororities of the National Pan-Hellenic Council were founded at the turn of the last century to redress the racial segregation enforced by white chapters. Today, most of the houses on Fraternity Row belong to the North-American Interfraternity Conference, while the National Panhellenic Conference serves as an umbrella organisation for what can safely be called the “historically white sororities.”

And never the twain shall meet. It wasn’t until some time into my college career that the Divine Nine began participating in Greek Week, which was still largely dominated by the white organisations. At some point after the university began selecting Homecoming pairings, white and Black Greek organisations would team up, but before then there was little mixing and mingling. I don’t remember a single instance of a mixer between an IFC fraternity and an NPHC sorority or vice versa.

There were a couple white kids in some of the Divine Nine organisations, and a smattering of Black people in white houses, but they were rare enough to become somewhat famous simply for existing; everyone knew who the Black AOP was, even if we didn’t know her name. There was, after all, just the one. And I can’t count the times I’d mention Ethan, only to get blank stares from white faces until I rolled my eyes and said “the Asian SAE?”

So I wasn’t the least bit surprised when Chrystal Stallworth, a mixed-race woman, found it difficult to impossible to rush white sororities at the University of Alabama. “I started noticing when I would see all the girls in sororities, there were no minorities,” Stallworth told Marie Claire last year.

There was a reason for this, according to AOP Yardena Wolf: “We were told we do not take black girls, because it would be bad for our chapter—our reputation and our status.”

In what now feels like some great irony, it wasn’t until Stallworth, who is originally from Oklahoma, spoke to a friend from back home that she realised what was really happening, though. “I probably wouldn’t have even noticed if I didn’t have a best friend who is in a sorority at the University of Oklahoma. Her sorority is so diverse… That was the point I realized, Whoa, people still do see race here.”

Which brings us back to SAE, which has a long, sketchy history of racism as reported by Think Progress yesterday. However, on my campus they weren’t known as the racist fraternity (that dishonour went to Kappa Alpha Order, which cites Robert E. Lee—yeah, the Confederate general—as their “spiritual founder”). They were the rich kids, the sons of the upper-middle-class; dressed in Ralph Lauren polos, chino shorts, and Sperry Topsiders, they were basically ripped from the pages of (what I hope to God is the satirical) website Total Frat Move. They were the rich kids, with a reputation for being somewhat snotty and a little coked out. But not racists.

That changed in my mind one night towards the end of my time in my college town. The fraternity house I spent most of my time at was right across the street from SAE. There was a Black pledge at the time, and while I’m not sure what prompted it, I remember sitting with him as he tearfully explained that the SAE’s across the street had started shouting the N-word at him. The entire group was incensed, but I don’t remember anything ever really coming of it, perhaps because it never got reported. I honestly don’t know.

I also don’t know the SAEs who called that kid the N-word, and I probably never will. But I do know Ethan. And I know several other SAEs from my alma mater and elsewhere, and I count a few as friends (and at least one was a brief romantic liaison). They are good men, stand-up men whom have shown me friendship and kindness.

This isn’t (I hope) about them. And that’s important to note, because I don’t ever want to see #NotAllSAEs trending on Twitter. In some ways, it’s not even about the young men from Oklahoma who sang that despicable song. It is, rather, about an institutional racism which is executed and perpetuated through a system of segregation and white supremacist thinking, as Derrick Clifton recently catalogued at Mic. This isn’t an isolated incident. This is a wider issue effecting white Greek life across the country.

Which makes this not just about individuals—though those in that video certainly need to pay—but about the culture which allows this type of bigotry to thrive, from the House Mom who shouts off the N Word all the way up to Nationals, which celebrates SAEs founding in the antebellum south without seeming to consider exactly what that means. Indeed, the message I’m getting is “We deplore racism, but we’re proud to have been founded in a time and place where Black people were chattel.”

It’s as much about these boys’ parents, many of whom were probably SAEs too (legacies, we call them), who in the South at least raised their sons with the expectation of Greek life and the entitlement of white privilege. It’s about the wider Greek system, an institution built on exclusion and supremacy and itself one of the most pernicious and blatant manifestations of white heteropatriarchy in modern America. This is about a nation that has long made killing Black people a national sport, something to be turned into a catchy little ditty sung by some of the most privileged people in our society.

But on a more focused level, if white Greek organisations want to eliminate the racists in their ranks, they’re going to have to first address the racism at their core.

*Not his real name

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Skylar’s Naughty and Nice List 2014

Top row - UKIP in LGBT, Theresa May, Ferguson Police Bottom row - Vicky Beeching, Michael Sam, Laverne Cox

Top row – LGBT in UKIP logo, Theresa May, Ferguson Police
Bottom row – Vicky Beeching, Michael Sam, Laverne Cox

Santa’s going to be coming down (but hopefully not in) a million billion chimneys tonight, and whereas last year I was expecting coal in my stocking, this year I’ve been a fucking saint. Seriously, thanks to the FDA’s reuqirements that gay men only be celibate for a year before they donate, I can now give blood. It’s been that kind of year.

Some have been equally as good this year. Some, though, have been very, very naughty. And with that, I give you my annual naughty and nice list!

naughty

3. LGBT in UKIP

Where the fuck do I even begin? Well, there’s their Aunt Mary MEP who is against equal marriage. Or the time UKIP Leader Nigel Farage referred to him as a “great big screaming poof” when using him as an example of how they’re not homophobic. Oh, and the branch chair who said gay adoption was tantamount to “child abuse.” And the list of homophobic UKIP comments just goes on and on.

That UKIP doesn’t like LGBT people is not news. But the fact that LGBT in UKIP, the LGBT pressure group within the party, exists, is. And the fact that they’ve continued to support the party despite its large opposition to LGBT equality and offensive rhetoric is deeply troublesome. To their credit, they stood up to UKIP HQ when Kerry Smith referred to LGBT people as “poofters,” though he was speaking specifically of LGBT in UKIP at the time, so that may have been more a personal than principled reaction.

UKIP stands a good chance of entering Westminster en masse at the General Election, and it’s entirely possible they could hold the balance of power in a potential hung parliament. That LGBT people are backing an anti-LGBT party which could determine the future of Britain is not only mystifying, it’s infuriating.

2. Theresa May

Theresa May hates me. As a gay foreigner, she’s made that abundantly clear in 2014. Only this month, a lesbian refugee from Uganda was nearly deported, despite fears for her life; she received a last minute reprieve, but the allegations that the Home Office ignored evidence and medical experts is concerning. When considered along the myriad of other cases involving LGBT asylum seekers, it’s evidence of a systemic problem within the Home Office. In October, the Guardian reported that “more than a tenth of Home Office interviews of gay and lesbian asylum seekers include ‘intrusive or or unsatisfactory’ questions about their sex lives.” This came in a report by Chief Inspector John Vine, who found some of the questions so graphic even I blushed.

This comes in a year where May has taken a hardline stance on migrants, refugees, and even students. Most recently, she has backed tightening restrictions on foreign students in the UK, requiring them to leave the country and apply for a work visa, as opposed to the four months foreign graduates currently have to find a job and switch from a student visa to a work visa. You can study at our universities, May is essentially saying, but you can’t contribute to our society.

The increasingly hostile rhetoric towards immigrants coming from the Home Office is concerning, and it seems unlikely to temper as we approach the General Election, which means it’s a shitty time to be a gay person, a foreigner, or a current or future international student. As someone who ticks all three boxes, this is some bullshit.

1. The American Police

Tanesha Anderson. John Crawford. Michelle Cusseaux. Tamir Rice. Yvette Smith. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.

These are but a handful of the unarmed Black people to be killed by American police this year. We need to have a national conversation about institutional racism within the ranks of the American police forces, and we need to have it now. We need to talk openly about white privilege and white supremacy, and how Black bodies are inherently viewed as criminal through white eyes. We, as white America, need to look in the mirror and see the ugliness of our own racism.White supremacy and structural racism are problems as old as America itself. Older, even, when you consider the transatlantic slave trade began more than two centuries before slaveowning Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence. These are not problems America has solved, because they’re the problems America was built upon. Racism is not just a founding principle of America, but the foundation of American society. It is handed down, generation to generation, an inherent trait in the American bloodstream. This country was stolen from the Native Americans and built on the backs of enslaved Africans. Yet white America denies it, denies it, denies it.

This year was no different, except we were forced to confront it. The institutional racism inherent in police forces—which are, in the end, agents of the state—was finally exposed. White America, and the police in particular, were quick to bury their heads in the sand as they continued blowing the heads off Black men and women. Instead of grappling with the realities of institutional racism (which, by the way, doesn’t mean all cops are racist), cops like New York City’s Patrick J Lynch, who heads that city’s police union, has been quick to cast blame—on Garner, on the mayor, on activists, basically on anyone but the police.

We have to attack institutional racism in this country, and police forces are as fine a place as any to start. Until we do, we will never truly get to an equal society.

Dishonourable mentions: The NFL, Russell Brand, Boris Johnson

nice

3. Michael Sam

Michael Sam shocked the world when, as an All-American football player who was named the AP Defensive Player of the Year, he came out. Sam went on to make history, becoming the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL. Things didn’t go so well from there; Sam was cut from the Saint Louis Rams and, later, the Dallas Cowboys. His future in the NFL remains to be seen, and what role homophobia played in slashing his prospects, first in the draft and now in the league, is hotly debated.

All of this matters. But none of it matters as much as Michael Sam matters, simply for existing. By coming out in the macho, misogynistic world of the NFL, Michael Sam provided hope and inspiration to countless young gay boys throughout America, and even abroad, who were struggling to reconcile their masculinity and sexuality. He became a role model over night, and blazed a trail which future openly gay athletes will follow. He also opened up a conversation on institutional homophobia within sport, one of which gay, lesbian, and bisexual athletes will benefit from in the years to come.

2. Vicky Beeching

Like Michael Sam, Vicky Beeching blazed a trail for LGB people this year. Long a public ally of LGBT* people of faith, Beeching sent shockwaves throughout Christian media when she came out in August. In the subsequent weeks, she has shown herself a tireless and effective advocate against the institutional homophobia of the Church, as her Channel 4 debate with the homophobic preacher Scott Lively shows. She has also been pivotal in reframing the conversation about the role of LGBT* people in Christianity, all the while teaching a more inclusive interpretation of the scripture.

In a year where the religious right redoubled its efforts to combat equality, in which LGBT* Christians fought to reclaim our own narratives, Beeching’s brave stand, and her subsequent tenacity, have been invaluable. She has shown what it means to live faithfully as an openly gay person, and she has opened a dialogue between LGBT* Christians and our sisters and brothers in Christ who wrongly condemn us. She is interested not just in advancing the cause of LGBT* people, but building bridges and mending fences, tasks for which she is uniquely qualified. Her importance will only grow in 2015, and I look forward to it, as she continues to offer fellowship to both those margianalised by the Church, and those responsible for it.

1. Laverne Cox

The Transgender Tipping Point.” That’s how Time described it when Laverne Cox, the Emmy-nominated star of Orange is the New Black, made history as the first openly transgender person on that esteemed magazine’s cover. 2014 has been the year of Laverne, culminating most recently when she became the voice of reason—by which I mean, intersectional feminism—in a debate on racism on The View. Laverne has consistently raised the concerns of trans* people of colour to the mainstream in a way that few, if any, others have.

She is, in many ways, a transformative figure, as Time pointed out. But she also seems so remarkably down-to-earth, the woman next door who says hi every day, and maybe pops over for a glass of wine and a Scandal binge. Laverne’s politics are on point, but its her personality—her wit and her warmth—which has endeared her to the American public.

2014 was big for Laverne, and 2015 looks to be even bigger, with a starring role in the film Grandma. As her star continues to rise, I look forward to seeing more of her talent, and hearing more of her succinct, biting cultural analysis.

Honourable mentions: Anitia Sarkeesian, the Ferguson Protestors, Owen Jones

I think we can all agree it’s been a shit year. But through it all, you lot have stuck by my side. For that, I am entirely grateful. I want to take this opportunity to thank a few of you in particular: Sara, Kellee, Vanessa, Michelle, Kayla, Jenna, Elizabeth, Nick, Robyn, Peter, Lily Jayne, Alex, Nathan, Wes, Derrick, Parker, Michelle, Sarah, Kat, Bryan, Kevin, and as always, Mamaw and Papaw. I am so grateful for everything you have done for me. Your friendship and support has been most humbling.

Now Happy Christmas you lot!!!!!

White Privilege and You: A few quick thoughts on Ferguson

michael-brown-darren-wilson

I landed in London this morning. While I was in the air, a grand jury in Missouri decided not to charge an armed agent of the state for shooting dead like a dog an unarmed teenage boy. He is but one of many innocent, unarmed Black people being gunned down by American police every year, as Derrick Clifton succinctly explains here.

I knew the decision was coming before I took off, and I knew what it would be before I even landed; there was no way Darren Wilson was going to be indicted. America doesn’t care about Black people, and we’ve shown it time and time again. But it’s not just the state. White America, our racism is showing.

I’m friends with a lot of white people. Like, literally thousands. And scrolling through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I’ve seen so many-far more than decrying the death of an innocent 18-year-old-criticising the riots in Ferguson. “Go ahead and destroy your town you fucking morons, that’ll make a point” is the basic refrain.

ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?

White America, here’s the point.

  Here’s you.

See how you’ve missed it?

If you’re more concerned, and more vocal, about the isolated rioting in response to endemic racial violence; if you’re more interested in policing Black responses to oppression rather than policing the police who kill Black people; if you’re more worried about protecting the rights of property owners than you are protecting the lives of Black teenagers; I need you to A) check your privilege and B) actually fuck off.

I know. I know. You think you’re being reasonable. You think you’re being pragmatic. How can rioting solve the problem? Why can’t we all join hands and sing kumbaya? Isn’t that what Dr King would’ve done? Huh? Huh?

Maybe listen to him. You know, that bit about how the silence of “allies” was more damaging and devastating than the words of enemies? Or that one time he talked about how deadly silence is?

White people who think themselves “colour-blind” need to wake up and see that colour still matters in America. Those of you who are posting statuses condemning the riots in Ferguson but had nary a peep to offer on the actual death of Mike Brown (or the myriad of other Black Americans gunned down by white police officers or white people) need to understand that this is not just a bunch of “thugs” (the modern day N-word, by the way) rioting. This is the steam blowing the lid off the crucible of racism and white supremacy which Black Americans are forced to live and, as Mike Brown shows, die by.

This is about oppression. Real oppression.

Instead of condemning the throwing of bricks, condemn the killing of unarmed Black Americans. Instead of condemning riots, condemn the racism. Instead of condemning the reaction to oppression, condemn the actual fucking oppression.

Otherwise fuck off with your privilege and racism.

What if Britain had a First Amendment?

There’s been so much talk about the importance of a free press and free speech lately that I feel as though I’m at a salon with Milton and Locke. In light of the Royal Charter regulating the press and furor around the Guardian’s reporting on and release of classified GCHQ intelligence documents , there’s been a lot of talk, including from former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, about the UK’s need for an American-style First Amendment. Indeed, I’ve spoken at length about my passion for the First Amendment and the freedoms it guarantees, and I realise that I can’t approach British politics through a British lens because my own perceptions are intrinsically coloured by these deeply ingrained principles.

You see, if in the canon of American civil religion the Constitution is our Bible, the First Amendment is most certainly our gospel. In one run-on sentence, the framers articulated the essence of the new nation, the core principles for which so much Yankee blood was shed and which would transform the world:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of greivances.

Now, I refuse to play the part of the arrogant American who feels Britain ought to adopt the First Amendment verbatim. Though our legal system stems from your common law, the two have understandably evolved differently since separation. I’m not even suggesting that our way is the best way. But I think it’s important to understand what the First Amendment means to Americans before discussing whether Britain ought to adopt it as its own.

The problem is, articulating the first amendment in tangible terms is a challenge. Like our taste for cold and flavourless beer and our belief that every household should be armed like South American guerillas, the First Amendment runs in our blood. We don’t really notice it on a daily basis, because it’s not something we often think about. It just is. The First Amendment is like the air around us-it isn’t really palpable; you can’t really feel it until a storm rolls in.

For that reason, it’s easier to explain what the First Amendment isn’t. It isn’t government intelligence agents ransacking a newspaper office and destroying intellectual property in an attempt to curtail publication. It isn’t sending the police to grandma’s house because she doesn’t like gay people. And it isn’t breaking up a peaceful protest and arresting a lawmaker. I’m not saying America always gets it right either. (See: my alma mater’s horrible policy on freedom of speech in e-mail ; the case of the Legal Schnauzer out of Alabama ; or all of the 1960s.) But by and large, it gets the job of protecting our liberties done.

The First Amendment doesn’t grant permission to be like Jeremy Clarkson on steroids, spouting off every inane thing that comes to mind. It doesn’t mean that you can threaten bodily harm to someone, or falsely report a crime, or the favourite example on this side of the pond, shout fire in a crowded theatre. With great freedom comes great responsibility. I think Spiderman said that, or something close to it.

So what does it all mean? I don’t bloody well know. Asking an American what the first amendment means is like asking a Canadian to define maple syrup. We know it tastes sweet, we know that we love it, and we know that it’s intrinsic to our national identity, but we can’t really tell you why. I suppose it means being able to crassly and tastelessly joke that Prince Harry got a handjob from an Abercrombie manager without fear of the guillotine. It means questioning whether your leaders are who they say they are without penalty or sanity, and it means being able to say the the most vile, repulsive things about me and yet have me defend your right to say it (while laying a verbal smackdown on you, of course).

That’s one of my biggest concerns with the British approach to hate speech. I’m choking on my words right now, but David Starkey articulated it quite well . Britain’s laws against hate speech would never survive under the First Amendment, and thank God for that. As Jonathan Rauch recently wrote in The Atlantic, the freedom to offend minorities is imperative, not only to the cause of liberty, but for the social advancement and acceptance of the minority itself-a similar, if not an exact, argument to that of Starkey. “The best society for minorities,” Rauch writes, “is not

Political cartoon by Robert Ariail. First published in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.
Political cartoon by Robert Ariail. First published in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.

 

the society that protects minorities from speech but the one that protects speech from minorities.” Indeed, its only by exposing bigotry and ignorance in the public sphere that we can attack it head on and continue to win not only legal but social equality. This applies to gay, Muslim and black Britons today as much as it applied to open disdain for the working class, suffragettes and papists in days gone by. It’s hard to attack an enemy in the shadows, and laws restricting speech push bigots into the night, where they silently seethe with contempt, stifling not only their own hatred but any chance for social growth. Or, to put it another way, you have to counter speech with more speech, not less speech.

Of course, the primary medium for speech has historically been the press. On last week’s Question Time, Paris Lees asked what made newspapers so special that they needn’t be regulated by Parliament. Well, it’s quite simple: for 300 years the British broadsheets have been the conduits of liberty and democracy, as outlined by more than 70 human rights organisations in an open letter to David Cameron. Similarly, Louise Mensch brilliantly makes the point while simultaneously taking the press to task for its own meandering failures. Laws regulate what is or isn’t shown on television, as they also do in the United States, because the First Amendment provides leeway for some censorship of material deemed contrary to public taste and decency, but it’s a fine line and one which is frequently challenged.

But saying that you can’t show nekkid people before the threshold isn’t the same as restricting what can be reported on; nobody dare argues that the journalistic integrity and independence of the BBC ought to be regulated. Likewise, as an American, the thought of a government agency-even one as loosely affiliated with Westminster as that established by the royal charter-sits very uneasy. As schoolchildren, Americans learn of John Peter Zenger, a German-American writer johnpeterzengerwho successfully defended himself against charges of libel and is widely regarded as the Ron Burgundy of the eighteenth century. The Supreme Court has upheld the freedom of the press to print the Pentagon Papers, and set the bar very high for plaintiffs to claim libel in New York Times vs Sullivan, birthing the so-called “Sullivan defence” mandating that the plaintiff prove “actual malice” was involved and intentioned, citing and strengthening press freedoms. The UK, on the other hand, has no Sullivan Defence, and it is much easier to prove libel in Britain than America. A First Amendment, though, could feasibly alter British libel law, and in the United States has continually prevented government (and any public figure) from meddling in what our newspapers report. Still, we’re by no means perfect, as evidenced by the arrest of journalists covering the Occupy movement and the treatment of Michael Hastings prior to his fiery and mysterious death led to an outpouring of shock and grief from journalists around the world, even though his family continues to insist he wasn’t murdered.

It’s for this reason that Reporters Without Borders ranked the United States three spots behind the United Kingdom in this year’s Press Freedom Index, though the US rose fifteen spots from 2012 in large part because of public outrage about the detention of the Occupy journalists. The United Kingdom, is it reasonable to say, should expect its ranking to plummet in light of the current fires of regulation and oversight the Government and Hugh Grant have stoked. David Cameron’s warnings of consequences to publications disclosing the Snowden leaks , as well comments by Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps’ on reforming the license fee, widely interpreted as a threat to cut the BBC funding unless it produced more favourable reporting on the government, are about as helpful as sending Pétroleuses or Mrs. O’Leary to put that fire out.

The debate about a free press and free speech isn’t contained to the broadsheets, though. As important as it is to protect the rights of the good and noble, it’s just as important to protect the rights of the tasteless and crude (here’s looking at you, Jack Whitehall.) In the United States, that means protecting the smut published by Larry Flynt, who recently gave an interview touching on free speech to the BBC’s Newsnight. In the United Kingdom, it’s Page 3. Despite an online petition to ban Page 3 (which, in case you’re gay or American or both, is a page in The Sun with scantily clad women), David Cameron has said he doesn’t support it, despite his admittedly noble but ultimately flawed plan to filter internet porn. That’s a good Tory, because curtailing the freedom of a paper to publish what it will and of consumers to vote with their pocketbooks is decidedly antithetical to small-c conservative principles. Oh yeah, and democracy.

A similar First Amendment argument can be made against the oft-debated banning of the burqa or niqab. This has come up a lot in the last few years, especially following France’s outright ban on full face coverings, and most recently in September, when a judge ruled that a woman could not give evidence in her own trial whilst wearing the veil. Ken Clarke seems to support it, but Baroness Warsi summed it up as un-British. “I think people should have the right to wear what they want in this country,” she said. “Women won the right on what to wear many, many decades ago.” Well, yeah. Baroness Warsi speaks pointedly of the feminist arguments, echoed earlier this fall by Laurie Penny, who drew the conclusion that this isn’t just an issue of sexism, but also of Islamophobia. But if Britain had a First Amendment, would this even be a topic of debate?

Probably not. Take, for example, the case of two Christian women who appealed to the European Court of Human Rights to be allowed to wear crosses on the job. This case would be easily decided in favor of the plaintiffs on this side of the Atlantic, as is evidenced by the prolific case law on religious freedom. Similar is the case of Celestina Mba, a Christian who was sacked for refusing to work on Sundays. She lost her appeal. Accross the pond, though, the Civil Rights Act 1964 requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for people of faith, as a nod to freedom of worship and the First Amendment.

Now, this isn’t to say Americans aren’t bigots. Duh. We’re the nation that produced Michael Savage and Mel Gibson. Look at the ongoing struggle of Muslims in Murfreesboro, Tennessee to simply have a mosque, which while being challenged on planning and zoning laws, is rife with religious subtext-and, also, less-subtle nods to Islamophobia, including the plaintiffs citing fears about “sharia law” and “terrorists.” The Tennessee Supreme Court refused to take the case, allowing for an appeal to the US Supreme Court. Then there was the furor of the pastor burning the Koran in Florida and the New York mosque built close to Ground Zero, which had striking parallels to the case of mosque being built on the eastend of London several years back.

Despite the wishes of the good denizens of Murfreesboro, the First Amendment doesn’t give way to a right to discriminate in the public sphere, though-at least not really. Your rights end where mine begin, and in 2009 I made the argument that it was right to sack a Christian registrar who refused to officiate same-sex civil partnership ceremonies. The same goes for the Christian couple that wanted to ban gay people from their bed and breakfast. If you’re offering a public service or operating in the free market, you must abide by certain rules, and one of those rules is that you gotta play fair. It’s oft said that freedom of religion is freedom from religion, which is why the Supreme Court banned school-led prayer but not prayer in schools. The distinction is fine yet clear-free exercise of religion in a public sphere is acceptable, but the public sphere exercising religion is not. Frankly, it’s always baffled me why the United Kingdom-with an established church-is so antsy about the former. (If I ever meet Owen Jones, I’ll ask him.)

Less convoluted than the muddy waters of religion, though, is the the freedom of assembly. Two years ago I was living with a rather senior member of the Occupy Chicago movement-well, as senior as a horizontal leadership structure can allow-who was arrested for refusing to leave Grant Park after hours. The Occupy folks didn’t have a permit, which led to quite a few of them spending the night in jail. Still, the right to freely assemble is often cited by those staging protests, such as the storied

Caroline Lucas, the Green party's only MP, was arrested for protesting fracking

Caroline Lucas, the Green party’s only MP, was arrested for protesting fracking

March on Washington. From what I can tell, Britain’s pretty good on this one too, and the aforementioned fracking protest with Caroline Lucas was busted for reasons similar to the Chicago Police breaking up and arresting the Grant Park occupiers. The difference seems to be that the Balcombe protesters believe the police were ‘heavy handed’, while shockingly, the folks in Grant Park thought CPD did a fair job of things. This isn’t always the case. Birmingham police turned hoses and attack dogs on children in the Civil Rights Movement, and Chicago Police notoriously brutalised protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention. And none of this has to do with the First Amendment and everything to do with alleged police brutality, though the First Amendment could feasibly be construed to ensure the people have a right to assemble in a public space. In fact, this was pretty much the mantra of the Occupy Chicago protestors, and regardless of what you think of them, the First Amendment allows a compelling argument to be made.

What’s also compelling, if only for both its blatancy and banality, is the right to petition. It’s oft overlooked in American discourse, because really, writing a Congressman isn’t nearly as flashy as giving a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and certainly less scandalous than posing on Page 3, unless of course you were writing to former Congressman Anthony Weiner. But it’s important to note that the right to petition grievances was one of the primary factors propelling the thirteen colonies to separate from the motherland. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, in the Declaration of Independence, that “…in every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury,” and provided just cause for insurrection and independence. That King-in-Parliament wouldn’t hear-or rather, validate-the concerns of the colonists was the driving force behind its inclusion in the US Bill of Rights.

What most Americans don’t realise-and would be loathed to admit-is that this right already existed under the British constitution. It’s included in the Bill of Rights 1689 (called the “English Bill of Rights” over this way). So that’s not exactly a novel American concept.

Really none of it is, as pretty much all of this has its roots in Magna Carta or subsequent acts of Parliament. But don’t tell my compatriots that, because it’ll just hurt their feelings. America likes to think it invented liberty. Of course, it didn’t. But it did codify it in a succinct and explicit way, providing the framework for American case law, in turn allowing for the growth of those freedoms, which developed in a way distinct of their British antecedents.

It’s for this reason that looking at what a First Amendment would really mean for contemporary Britain is so interesting, and frankly, needed. The roots are the same, but the blossoms quite different, and in the more than two centuries since our two countries parted ways, my side of the Atlantic has taken things on a slightly different trajectory, ensuring personal liberties over collective cohesion. This is purely anecdotal, but it seems to me the British public prefers it this way. From Question Time/Big Question audience reactions to debates about multiculturalism and secularism to broad support for the HackedOff charter (because really, that’s what it is), and even in conversations with British friends who just don’t understand why we allow the Westboro Baptist Church to picket everything from funerals to fun parks, the Brits seem to like things the way they are. And that’s fine. While I personally feel very concerned about press freedom in the UK, overall, it’s still a functioning democracy. Still, it’s an interesting notion, and as the debate over religious freedom, hate speech, and press regulation continues, I imagine one that will resurface from time to time. Best be prepared.

For an interesting, more learned, and British(!) perspective on this issue, see Jonathan Peters’ July 2012 interview with Lord Lester in The Atlantic.