Blacks versus gays in the culture war

Daniel Powell and Anders Bollingmo, both of San Francisco, are two of about 2,500 protesters who marched around the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 9, 2008. (AP Photo/Robert Durell)

Gay marriage supporters should not have been surprised when Californians voted on election day to place a gay marriage ban in the state constitution. California's reputation as a hotbed of liberal experimentation has never quite squared with reality. Just as they did on Proposition 8 last week, Californians have frequently voted thumbs-up on conservative ballot initiatives. In recent decades they have banned affirmative action at public universities, restricted government services to illegal immigrants, and (most famously, in 1978) capped local property taxes. Nor has California always been reliably Democratic in presidential years; between 1952 and 1988, the voters backed only one Democrat, and that was in national landslide of 1964.

And this time, with the gay marriage ban winning by half a million votes (and by a margin exceeding four percent), gay marriage supporters were vividly reminded that there are populous socially conservative communities, particularly in the inland counties east and south of Los Angeles, where the evangelical churches hold sway. The Mormon church, in particular, dipped into its deep pockets to help bankroll the pro-ban campaign. The gay activists are clearly aware of these countervailing forces, and were probably not surprised to encounter their resistance.

No, what most vexes them - in an ironic twist on this historical presidential election - is how their defeat was fueled in part by the landslide resistance of African-America voters, the same voters who cast their ballots for Barack Obama, turning out in far greater numbers than in 2004.

By supporting Obama, these voters helped turn the page in the civil rights struggle that began half a century ago...yet, by splitting their tickets and voting Yes for a gay marriage ban, they essentially sent the message that the aspirations of gay people do not merit consideration as a civil rights struggle in the new century. This is a fresh reminder, lest we need one, that political coalitions (in this case, the Obama coalition) are never monolithic, and that goals and interests can diverge on social, religious, or cultural grounds. That's what happened last week, in California.

Black support for the state constitutional ban on gay marriage was undoubtedly a big factor in the result. The math is inescapable. Roughly 10 percent of the California turnout last week was African-American - a four percent hike from 1004, thanks to Obama's presence on the ballot. Given the latest statewide turnout figures, that translates into roughly one million black voters. The exit polls report that 70 percent of the black voters supported the gay marriage ban; in translation, that's roughly a 400,000-vote margin in support of the ban (700,000 black yes votes; 300,000 no votes). So the impact of black voters is clear, when one remembers that the statewide margin of victory for the ban was 500,000.

Assuming that the gay marriage crusade will continue, it's clear that its advocates have a lot more work to do in the black community - as well as with Hispanics, who were far more populous on election day (18 percent of all California voters), and who also supported the ban (with 53 percent saying yes). Much of the resistance to gay marriage is religion-based; as one 25-year-old black woman told The Los Angeles Times the other day, "I think it's mainly because of the way we were brought up in the church...God doesn't approve it, so I don't approve it. And I approve of Him."

But, in the black community, there is also a persistent belief - outdated by the evidence, experts say - that gays volunteer to be gay, and therefore the gay civil rights movement should not be equated with the black struggle, and nor should gay marriage prohibitions be equated with the now-defunct prohibitions against interracial marriage. In the words of one black Los Angeles voter quoted in the press, "I was born black. I can't change that. They weren't born gay, they close it."

Gay activists are reportedly furious about the black voters (in recent days, there have been a few ugly name-calling incidents), but the attitude of the latter is hardly new. California pollsters have long documented black opposition to gay marriage; the respected Field poll, four years ago, reported 2-1 opposition, and that's basically what the voters said last week.

And two months ago, the liberal People for the American Way Foundation conducted focus groups among black California churchgoers - and found the same thing; as Foundation president Kathryn Kolbert now reports, "Even some of the most eloquent opponents of discrimination argued that marriage was somehow different because they saw it as an inherently religious act that God had designed to be between a man and a woman." Kolbert supports the idea of getting blacks "to think differently," but acknowledges: "That's a tough conversation to have in the midst of a heated political campaign."

It will take a lot more time. The potential upside for the gay activists is that time is on their side. Eight years ago, when a gay-marriage ban first appeared on the California ballot, it passed by a margin of 22 percent. This time, the margin was less than five points. It's not a stretch to believe that black resistance will wane in the long run, as younger voters replace the old, although some gay marriage supporters believe that Barack Obama can perhaps accelerate the black community education process once he becomes president, by prioritizing the gay marriage struggle. (A Huffington Post blogger, for instance, writes that Obama "must lead on this issue. He needs to help people see this for what it is: the cutting edge of civil rights in America today.")

But that won't happen; indeed, Obama already stated during the campaign that he broadly opposes the concept of gay marriage, and his remarks were used in some of the pro-ban California ads, to devastating effect. He probably wouldn't take on this issue even if he got re-elected in landslide. His last priority, for the foreseeable future, would be the tackling of a divisive social controversy - unless he has a political death wish and seeks to replicate Bill Clinton's first-term debacle over gays in the military. No, change on the gay-marriage front will need to be generated from the bottom up, because there will be no bully pulpit pleas from Washington.


On the free-lance writing front, I just authored some commentary on the death of Bush-Rove conservatism (which, more accurately, should be called Nixon-Atwater-Bush-Rove conservatism). It appears here, on Obit, a fine online magazine.