To get from downtown Atlanta to the First Iconium Baptist Church, take Ralph David Abernathy freeway and follow the signs to the Confederate complex. Outside the church a welcome board states: "If you are headed in the wrong direction God allows U-turns."
Inside at a black church summit on gay rights organized by the National Black Justice Coalition, the Rev. Al Sharpton is trying to persuade black churches to rethink the path some have taken on gay rights.
Sharpton believes homophobia provided the Republican Party with the key to many a vestry door. In the last presidential election, the GOP boosted its share of the black vote to 11 percent, the postwar average, up from 8 percent in 2000, the lowest level in nearly four decades. (Following Hurricane Katrina it slumped to just 2 percent.) "The majority of the votes that Bush got in the African-American community was from his homophobic appeal," says Sharpton, who went on to invoke the spirit of Bayard Rustin, the gay black organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. Republicans "couldn’t come to black churches to talk about the war, about healthcare, about education, about poverty. So they did what they always do and reached for bigotry against gay and lesbian people."
At first glance this strategy seems to have paid off. In early January a black minister, Herbert Lusk II, hosted a huge rally supporting the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito–attended by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Focus on the Family’s James Dobson–at the Greater Exodus Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, where he is the pastor. The event laid bare the tensions between the black church and the broader progressive movement. As one of the few autonomous institutions allowed under segregation and slavery, the church has long been the principal tool for political advancement in black America. Throughout, even as its influence has diminished, it has continued to play an ambivalent yet decisive role in liberation struggles–a socially conservative institution leading a community whose fight for equality necessitates radical change. This problem is not new–the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. eventually had to leave the National Baptist Convention because of its reluctance to support the civil rights movement. But on issues like gay rights the contradictions are particularly acute and ripe for exploitation by the Christian right.
In 2004 Republicans did particularly well in key swing states, including Ohio, where voters approved a same-sex-marriage ban and where the GOP’s share of the black vote went up from 9 percent, in 2000, to 16 percent.
Whether homophobia in the black churches fueled these increases is debatable. Glen Ford, editor and co-publisher of blackcommentator.com, a left-wing webzine, says it was irrelevant. "The Bush regime poured tens of millions of dollars into the preachers who were pliable and amenable to Republican subversion," he says. "Homophobia didn’t have a thing to do with it." Sharpton argues it was pivotal. "I’m not dreaming this…[gay marriage] became the predominant issue in the 2004 election. It re-elected George Bush."
Both protest too much. There is little evidence of a direct causal link. The Republicans’ share of the black vote halved in Arkansas, which had a gay marriage amendment on the ballot, but more than doubled in Pennsylvania–which did not. Nonetheless, there is no reason to believe that blacks were any less vulnerable than whites to the homophobic virus spread by the Republicans.
Indeed, they may have been more so. Polling by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (JCPES) reveals that African-Americans are significantly less likely to support gay marriage and same-sex civil unions than whites. There is no point being in denial about this (Ford says he does not believe "white bourgeois polls"). If black people’s views can differ from whites substantially on the war and Hurricane Katrina, why should sexual orientation be any different?
There is nothing essentially progressive in the black American condition. The civil rights movement was riddled with internal prejudices. Shortly before his death CORE leader James Farmer told me that he excluded gays from the Freedom Rides. "We had to screen them carefully," he said, "because we knew that if they found anything to throw at us, they would throw it."
But likewise, there is no point in fetishizing black homophobia, for there is nothing essentially antigay about black Americans either. Whatever African-Americans think about gay rights, the fact is they don’t think about it very much. Of the thousands of black people interviewed by David Bositis, an analyst at the JCPES, not one has volunteered it as a priority. Other surveys show blacks are more likely than whites to support antidiscrimination laws that protect gays and lesbians. Indeed, according to the Human Rights Campaign score card, black legislators have done a better job of defending gay rights than white Democrats. In other words, when black people have the power to protect gay rights in law, they are more likely to use it than other racial groups.
Despite these facts many white liberals are peculiarly invested in the notion that African-Americans are backward on all social issues except race. What this assumption is based on other than an innate sense of superiority is not clear. What is obvious is that it will have to be confronted before any progressive coalition capable of mounting an effective challenge to the right can be built.
For while there is no axiomatic link between racism and homophobia, there are nevertheless connections that can and should be made about how to fight them. The civil rights movement was not only about the interests of African-Americans. Nor was it cut from whole cloth. It was part of a narrative of extending human rights to those who had been denied them, not least white women and Jews. It drew inspiration from Gandhi (among others) and can provide inspiration to yet more. Its roots, like its appeal, were universal.
There is no need for anything as drastic as a U-turn. We just have to consult the original map.