In America, not all kinds of inequality are created equal.
For the past half-century, the de jure inequality of demographic groups has proven increasingly vulnerable to public pressure. From the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to last week's Supreme Court decision striking down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, legal barriers against racial and sexual minorities as well as women have crumbled. Changes in the law have followed the same pattern: First, a handful of generally radical activists brought attention to the existence of a legal double standard; then, a mass movement grew in support of eliminating discriminatory laws and practices; only after this did government respond with legal remedies.
In each case as well, the movements' success in diminishing their "otherness" that is, establishing their full humanity in the eyes of the majority of their fellow Americans has been key to ending legal discrimination. The shift in public opinion on samesex marriage, for instance, follows decades when growing numbers of gay men and lesbians felt just secure enough to out themselves to their families, friends and co-workers, in the process normalizing what had been a concealed, and presumably shameful, status. The immigrant rights movement's focus on the Dream Act kids young people, many of whom are talented students, brought here as children and still forced to lurk in the shadows put the most appealing human face on undocumented immigrants. That is at least partly responsible for what is now majority public support for enabling the undocumented to become citizens. (Whether that majority support carries any weight with xenophobic House Republicans, secure in their gerrymandered districts, is another question.)