As one children’s story goes, there was once a tree called The Racist Tree that sat atop a hill overlooking a town below. Whenever children came to the tree, they would shake its branches, sending apples cascading down below. For years, the children adored the tree. But one day, when a black child came looking for apples, the tree spurned him. Angry and upset that their friend had been denied, the other children ostracized the tree and agreed never to return.
As weeks passed and no visitors came, the tree grew lonely. Eventually, hoping that the townspeople would end their boycott, the tree decided that it would give all children apples—no matter what they looked like.
No, the tree had not become more tolerant. Instead, it simply masked its bigotry to avoid leading life as a pariah.
Over the last century, American society has made meaningful strides towards establishing social equality: women won their suffrage, Jim Crow and state-sponsored segregation were defeated, and same-sex couples earned their right to marry. The Nineteenth Amendment, Civil Rights Act, and Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision were certainly instrumental in allowing the government to protect the rights of traditionally marginalized groups.
Still, the idea that these actions themselves changed people’s minds and the culture of our nation is flawed. Did the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment suddenly eradicate sexism? Did the Civil Rights Act eliminate racial bigotry? Did the Obergefell decision alter the beliefs of those who truly believed marriage should be restricted to a man and a woman?
Doubtfully. As Libertarian politician Austin Petersen posited at a debate last April, “the government cannot stomp out bigotry.” Changing minds and ending bigotry cannot be accomplished by the stroke of a president’s pen. Instead, it is accomplished when fundamentally good, open, honest people come together and engage in difficult dialogue with those who share different perspectives and different life stories from their own.
The Nineteenth Amendment was ratified as a result of hard-working activists dedicated to achieving equality of the sexes. Figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony led movements that gradually changed the culture of our nation and caused others across the country to realize that women’s voices and contributions to society were just as valuable as those of men. These cultural shifts manifested themselves in admirable government policy. But amendments to the Constitution did not magically make people less sexist. Rather, as the culture changed and people became more open and tolerant, the government simply responded with forward-thinking action.
Similarly, individuals like Dr. King and Rosa Parks inspired Americans with their selfless acts of heroism in the face of bigotry and vitriol; their marches, their speeches, and their boycotts won millions of hearts and mind. As more and more people recognized that segregation and oppression were a stain on the country, they lobbied their representatives for change. Congress had no choice: it could stand on the wrong side of history or respond to overwhelming public calls for racial equality. Although the product of this lobbying—the Civil Rights Act—was an incredible piece of legislation, it did little to change the minds of those who stood by their racist ideology. Its passage was simply a product of positive cultural change in America.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges provides a contemporary example of this same phenomenon. For years, the court had allowed socially conservative states to restrict the definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman. Even the Democratic Party, whose official platform today wholeheartedly supports marriage equality, only recently adopted that position; both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton opposed same-sex marriage during the 2008 primary.
Over the last few years, however, many have recognized the inherent equality of people, regardless of their sexual orientation and reconsidered their positions. Liberal and progressive Democrats have become champions of the cause. Libertarian-leaning conservatives have suggested that the government has no right to prevent two loving adults from fulfilling their dream to marry each other. Most Catholics—particularly young ones—and even some evangelicals now support marriage equality. All across America, the culture towards same-sex marriage has shifted dramatically. If policies and laws are truly prior to culture, shouldn’t we have expected the Court to rule as it did in the Obergefell case? Of course not: the Constitution has stayed the same. But our beliefs and our feelings—our culture—have changed.
None of this is to say that policy, constitutional amendments, or legislation are unimportant. Policy has admirably and effectively protected marginalized communities, changed people’s bigoted behavior, and made this country a better place for all Americans; however, it has not truly changed hearts and minds.
If we look to the story of the Racist Tree, we can see that although the children’s behavior changed the tree’s behavior, it did not change the tree’s underlying beliefs. The tree, as a result, can represent the millions of people whose beliefs remain unchanged even when government policy is imposed upon them. Thus, we must recognize that change starts with us. It starts in our homes, and in our circles of friends. It starts in our schools. It starts in our churches, temples, and mosques.
Together, we can change the culture surrounding issues that are important to us. By embracing specific cultures, such as those that emphasize equality, we can solve the issues threatening our unity. Take, for example, the issue of sexual assault here at Stanford. It’s no secret that the last two years have been incredibly challenging for the Stanford community, especially as it has dealt with the heartbreaking Brock Turner case. As we move to eradicate assault on our campus, it’s important that we work to change the culture surrounding the issue by embracing the importance of consent. Of course, our university and student government must work in tandem and produce appropriate policy prescriptions, but at its core, the issue must be solved by us, the people; it must be solved by positive cultural change. Only when we engage in dialogue, tackle the tough questions, and become more open-minded will the appropriate policies follow.