No, Backing Marriage Equality Won't Cost Obama Support of Black Voters
President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to voice his support for same-sex marriage. Now, black people will refuse to vote for him
I’m being facetious, of course, but other pundits aren’t: this is one of the talking points circulating in response to the president’s courageous and historic move to publicly endorse marriage equality. The idea that backing same-sex marriage will cost a politician the support of black voters has gained currency since the 2004 election, when then President George W. Bush won re-election in part by kowtowing to his social conservative base and promoting a federal ban on gay marriage. That year, Bush captured 11 percent of the black vote, a sizeable portion for a Republican, perhaps due in part to his stance on marriage and the vein of social conservatism that runs through black America. In 2008, the year Obama was elected, California’s Proposition 8, a ballot initiative to take away same-sex marriage rights in the state, passed and again black people found themselves being blamed for rights being denied to the LGBT community, untrue as that was. Yes, a majority of black voters supported Prop 8, but only 10 percent of the overall vote in favor of the initiative came from black voters. And now, with Obama’s bold proclamation, the old fears that black people will simply be too homophobic to back a candidate that is in favor of same-sex marriage are resurfacing.
That’s ridiculous. Yes, according to a composite of ABC/Washington Post polling data, 55 percent of black people oppose same-sex marriage, but even with that being the case, in California in 2008 the black voted supported Prop 8 and Obama. It’s true that in 2008 Obama was not a supporter of same-sex marriage, and that at the time voters did not have to reconcile voting for a pro&endash;marriage equality candidate if they didn’t support it themselves. But as Keith Boykin points out over at BET, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and former New York Governor David Paterson (both black men) have both been vocal proponents of marriage equality and enjoyed support from the black community. It’s an unfounded idea that black voters reject black politicians that support same-sex marriage.
Even if some percentage of black voters did refuse to vote for Obama because of his support for same-sex marriage, this would hardly ruin Obama’s re-election chances. The math doesn’t work. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the 11 percent of black people Bush convinced to vote for him ‘04 did so solely on the basis of his anti–marriage equality stance. John Kerry captured 88 percent of the black vote. In 2008, Obama won 95 percent of the black vote. Assume that Obama will win at least the same percentage in 2012 as Kerry did in 2004, but no more than what he got in 2008. According to a Pew Research Center poll, in 2004 21 percent of African-Americans supported same-sex marriage and 67 percent opposed it. In 2012, that poll finds that black support for same-sex marriage has grown to 39 percent in favor, while the percentage opposed has dropped to 49 percent. Unless that 11 percent of the African-American vote that is in play represents the staunchest of anti–marriage equality activists, it’s safe to assume that some of them are among those who now support gay marriage. All told, Obama can likely count on at least 90 percent of the black vote.
The other fear is that Obama’s stance will depress the turnout. Black voters comprised 13 percent of the electorate in 2008, a record turnout, up from 11 percent in ‘04. But will his stance on gay marriage really keep voters home in an election in which the economy is on the top of voter’s minds?
What will any of this mean in November 2012? Absolutely no one knows. This is why we have elections. But I find it very hard to believe that the first black president has to worry about a costly exodus of black voters this year. The polling evidence we have doesn’t support that theory.
That said, the reality is that somewhere between 49 and 55 percent of black people in this country oppose marriage equality. That frustrates me. The most popular narrative regarding black people’s lack of support for same-sex marriage might have you believing we’re either the only or the most homophobic community in America. That’s far from true, but that doesn’t mean homophobia isn’t an issue. I choose to speak homophobia among black people for a simple and selfish reason: they’re my people. I’d like to see us do better.
Opposition to marriage equality among black people supports the preposterous notion that the black and LGBT communities are separate and exclusive, as if one cannot be a member of both. We have and always have had (despite what any Twitter prophet tries to tell you about homosexuality not existing in “Ancient Africa”) lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender members of the black community. The heteros among us owe it to them to fight for their specific set of issues as deeply and forcefully as we expect non-black LGBT people to fight against racism.
It also irks me that any marginalized group would actively attempt to legalize the discrimination of another marginalized group. No matter the teachings of your religious tradition, if we cannot connect through our experience of oppression, we don’t stand a chance at challenging and/or dismantling any of the institutions that serve further deny our human rights.
So while I find it ludicrous to suggest that Obama, or any other politician, will face a referendum from the black community if they choose to stand on the right side of history and support marriage equality, it’s true that too many of us are standing on the wrong side. Freedom may move on without us, but I want my people to be along for the ride.