The passage of a ban on gay marriage in California has unleashed a flurry of wrong headed and racist thinking about black heterosexual attitudes towards gay people. Proposition 8, which defined marriage as being lawful only between men and women, passed by a 52 to 48 percent margin. Much has been made of a CNN exit poll which indicated that more than 70 percent of black Californians voted in favor of the ban.
After the ban was approved, many white gay men and lesbians then proceeded to act, well, white. They blamed black voters exclusively for the proposition’s passage. Few of them bothered to investigate whether CNN’s poll was an accurate reflection of what happened inside voting booths across the state or question their ability to form coalitions with others.
If gay activists had bothered to ask these questions, they would have seen pretty quickly that it wasn’t possible for black votes to have single handedly provided the margin of victory for the proposition. California’s black population has fallen to a mere 6% of the state’s total. A quick calculation should have made it clear that the number of eligible black voters in the state could not by themselves have defeated gay marriage rights. Indeed, more thorough research indicated that black support for Proposition 8 was in fact closer to 57 percent. As always, facts count for very little where black people are concerned.
Proposition 8 failed among every demographic group. A majority of whites, Latinos and Asians all voted for the initiative. Progressives made the same mistakes with Proposition 8 that they made with nearly every other failed effort they have on their resume. They hoped they wouldn’t really have to organize or God forbid, truly be activists.
Their strategy, such as it was, consisted of making black people, heterosexual and gay, responsible for the outcome of the vote. White progressives voted for Barack Obama, so black people should join them in defeating the proposition.
Political coalitions are valid, but must be based on mutual needs and sometimes difficult debate. In the case of Proposition 8, black people were never approached for their support beyond guilt tripping over white support for Obama. The gay community’s outreach consisted of seeking endorsements from celebrities and like-minded clergy, a sad substitute for the hard work of coalition building.
Those black voters who approved of Proposition 8 did so for the same reasons that people of other races did. They disapprove of gay marriage often because of religious beliefs. Many disapprove for other reasons but use religion as a convenient and acceptable fall back position, just as in other communities.
It must also be pointed out, that black people have unique views on issues that may effect families. Despite popular beliefs to the contrary, the state of black family life is of deep concern, but the true problems causing low rates of marriage, high rates of divorce and high rates of out of wedlock birth are rarely discussed.
Black unemployment, a major cause of family disruption, has been taken off of the table of allowable political discourse. The mass incarceration of black people is another forbidden topic. Embarrassment maintains silence, and the direct connection between incarceration and family poverty disappears from discussion.
Black Americans have no language, no voice with which to discuss the issues that tear their families apart. They are left with old terms of discussion of family issues and relationships between men and women. The result is discussion that is all too often useless and nonsensical. It is little wonder that fearful African Americans deprived of the opportunity to reason clearly, may believe that gay marriage will keep the heterosexual population from getting and staying married.
Gay activists are facing an old, never ending struggle. They are not the first group to seek the protection of civil rights from a hostile or indifferent population. Ironically, the black struggle for justice and equality has lessons to teach other groups. Amnesia about the black civil rights movement and the failure to understand its history is a loss to everyone and causes political failures that could be prevented.
Proposition 8 in California will not be the last gay rights battle. If the white gay community can put political acumen ahead of their whiteness, they may see victories ahead instead of the usual defeats.
MARGARET KIMBERLEY’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgandaReport.Com.