Good conversations for society to have

by Dennis Coday

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On May 9, the U.S. Justice Department sued North Carolina for civil rights violations in the state's House Bill 2 -- which requires people to use the restroom that corresponds with their birth gender -- and North Carolina countersued claiming government overreach. The next day, David Greene, host of the National Public Radio program "Morning Edition" spoke with Theodore Shaw, head of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina School of Law at Chapel Hill.

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Greene: North Carolina is basically accusing the Obama administration of trying to rewrite laws. ... Does the state have an argument there?

Shaw: Well, the state makes an argument, and how strong that argument is is up for grabs. ... Civil rights advocates, they've been clear for some time now that discrimination on the basis of who and what people are goes against our most basic and fundamental laws. And even the Supreme Court, which has been a conservative Supreme Court, has, of course, moved with respect to sexual orientation to ban discrimination in the context of marriage.


Greene: ... [You have] said your vision for civil rights has shifted over time and that there was a time when you would've watched from the sidelines discrimination against LGBT people and thought that it wasn't your battle. What's changed now?

Shaw: ... What I meant was that I was focused on the battles on behalf of African-Americans. Over time, as a civil rights lawyer, I came to realize that we have to be opposed to the subordination of people because of who and what they are, even if we're not part of that group. But I simply think that discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation and, in this instance, specifically transgender people, is simply wrong. It should be wrong. It's a matter of law. And I think as a country, we've been growing in our understanding of our values and principles with respect to discrimination and how we treat our fellow citizens and how we want to be treated ourselves, all of us, whether it's on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, age, our religion, on and on. It's just growth.


Greene: When you say, "It's just growth," it makes me want to ask you if conversations around, you know, same-sex marriage that we've seen in recent years and the Supreme Court decision on that and the conversations around this law, I mean, are -- as sensitive and infuriating as some of these conversations can be to some people on both sides, I mean, is there an argument that these conversations are just good for society to have as time evolves?

Shaw: Well, I think these conversations are good to have. I think they're important to have as we deepen our understanding of what our national values and principles are. The question to me isn't whether we have these conversations. It's how we have these conversations. And I guess what disturbs me -- I know what disturbs me -- is when some people are treated as if they are not legitimate members of our society. That troubles me in its tone and its tenor. So that's part of a larger problem that we're having as a nation in this strange time in which we find ourselves.


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The full transcript of Greene and Shaw's talk is at

A version of this story appeared in the May 20-June 2, 2016 print issue under the headline: Good conversations for society to have.

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