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Editor's weekly: St. Louisans wrestle with equality and inequality

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 8, 2013 - Dear Beaconites - Equality and inequality came into sharp focus in the news this week.

In Illinois, same sex couples won marriage equality. While the symbolic significance is sizable, the legal impact is unclear. Illinois already recognizes civil unions, and the federal government already is adjusting its regulations in light of the Supreme Court ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act.

Still, legal equality matters. "To have the protections as a spouse means a great deal,” O'Fallon, Ill., resident Colin Murphy told Beacon reporter Nancy Fowler. Murphy and Kurt Ross were married in Iowa and are celebrating full equality in their home state.

Expanding rights for some often leads others to feel that their rights are being impinged. Opponents of same-sex marriage expressed fears that Illinois business owners or religious organizations would be forced to act against their beliefs. The law says that religious organizations will not have to sanction same sex-marriages, but its impact in other areas is not entirely clear.

Marriage equality in Illinois means stark inequality for St. Louis area couples depending on where they live. As Nancy reported, Missouri same-sex couples may not be eligible to marry in Illinois. The action east of the river stirred talk of change in Missouri. But in the near term, I give weight to the assessment of Joe Ortwerth, former St. Charles County executive and now head of the conservative Missouri Family Policy Council.

"I do not believe what is happening in Illinois will have any impact whatsoever on Missouri, any more than what happened in Iowa did," Ortwerth told the Beacon. "The people of Missouri and their lawmakers remain solidly in support of the institution of marriage and the traditional family, just as the people of Illinois do outside of Chicago."

Robert Joiner's insightful coverage of a different topic this week offered a reminder that legal equality does not necessarily erase the legacy of inequality. Bob reported on the latest brief from For the Sake of All, a project that is taking a rigorous look at racial disparities in our region.

Public policies spurred segregation, said study authors Keon Gilbert, an assistant professor in the College for Public Health and Social Justice at Saint Louis University, and Melody S. Goodman, assistant professor at the Washington University School of Medicine. St. Louis remains among the 10 most segregated regions, and segregation continues to have negative affects on health and social and economic opportunity, they note.

In an unrelated study, economists at the St. Louis Federal Reserve came to some similar conclusions. "The most disturbing things we’ve found fairly consistently is that race continues to matter, even when you control for education and health status and marital status and all the rest,’’ economist William Emmons told Beacon reporter Mary Delach Leonard. "We consistently find that being black or Hispanic, independently of everything else seems to result in lower income and wealth. It’s an unpleasant topic for many people, but it is still there. We are not a post-racial society in that respect yet.’’

June Green, an African American resident of north St. Louis, spoke to Bob from experience. "You know you can have a better life than you see outside the community," she said. "But those opportunities are not going to drop in our lap. Some people may not know how to go get it. You’ve had to fight for everything you ever got and now you say, ‘I’m tired. I don’t feel like fighting anymore.’"

She said that she has conflicting feelings: "I always say that segregation doesn’t have to be a bad thing if we are all on an equal playing field. If I want to live around my people, that’s me.” But "the other side of me" recognizes that "when you are segregated, you are isolated; you only get one point of view. Diversity is important because we don’t exist by ourselves."

At the Beacon, we'll continue to explore the ways that equality and inequality affect us all.