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Dahlia Lithwick

The postgender generation

Every time I've been on a radio show on the subject of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's wardrobe/softball playing/marital status, some twentysomething caller has taken me to school. It turns out, they invariably tell me, that twentysomethings just don't care if their Supreme Court justices are black, white, Jewish, Protestant, gay or straight.

Every day someone under the age of 30 either sends me an e-mail or tweet or a Facebook post reminding me that those of us making a huge big fat media deal about the nominee's race, religion, sexual preferences or marital status are quickly becoming cultural dinosaurs.

Just as they embody Barack Obama's postracial America, they identify almost completely with Kagan's postgender America — in which womanhood simply isn't defined by skirts, babies or boyfriends anymore.

Never has my own obsolescence thrilled me more. As those of us in the media continue to relitigate the 1960s — from the Civil Rights Act to Vietnam — the people who will live through Kagan's decadeslong tenure at the court have moved on. What I hear on these call-in shows is pretty much what recent polling of the millennials reflects: They care passionately about the economy, and they are ambivalent about the government. They are far more tolerant than their parents about race and sexual choice; they aren't so in love with the idea of marriage; and religion just isn't as big an issue as we think it is. And they seem to be telling me, over and over again, that when it comes to a Supreme Court nomination, they value competence and intelligence over the check-the-box identity politics.

One thing, with respect to these young people, and maybe even to Kagan herself: It's worth reminding ourselves that part of the reason they are poised to inherit an America that isn't defined solely in terms of their differences on race, gender, religion and sexual preference is attributable at least in part to the doings of the Supreme Court — specifically the much-maligned Warren Court. These young Americans are, don't forget, the products of Brown vs. Board of Education, Cooper vs. Aaron and Bakke, which have filled their classrooms with students of other races; and of Loving vs. Virginia, which allowed their parents to marry; and of Frontiero vs. Richardson, which first called gender-based laws into question; and of Griswold vs. Connecticut and Eisenstadt vs. Baird, which allowed their parents to control their own fertility.

These open-hearted twentysomethings are proof that integrated schools and affirmative action and gay rights have created a more tolerant nation. But what today's twentysomethings should know — and what one hopes Kagan will remember — is that this tolerance is partially their own choice, and partially an inheritance they need to fight to protect.

The postgender generation 05/27/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 27, 2010 7:15pm]
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