Proposition 8 and Race Revisited
This commentary is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect that of other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin.
January 7th, 2009
It disturbs me that forty years after the death of Dr. King we still as a nation seem incapable of having frank discussions about race. And this seems to me to be particularly true within the gay community.
When exit polls reported that African Americans had voted in favor of Proposition 8 by a ratio of 70 to 30 percent, gays tended to respond in one of two ways. A small number of persons seemed to see this as some vindication of their own personal racial animus. But nearly all other gay writers, bloggers, and opinion spouters immediately sought to dismiss, discount, or deny this figure and what it had to say.
There was a lot of creative talk about outreach and errors and even some race-based self-justification. But what seemed to be lacking was much honest discussion about those truths that all seem to want to overlook:
- The Black Church is for the most part hugely homophobic
- Even non-religious African-Americans are disproportionately politically anti-gay
This week the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has released a report that seems to exist for the sole purpose of discounting the second fact. Now, I’ve long since come to see the NGLTF as more of an agent of spin than an advocate for honesty so it didn’t surprise me much that their report seemed more appropriate on the stage of a prestidigitator than in a news report.
But I couldn’t ignore this slanting of the story. Mainstream news sites jumped right on this, making such bizarre (and completely false) statements as this from Oakland Tribune reporter Josh Richman:
Neither African-Americans nor any other ethnicity were disproportionately in support of Proposition 8, which changed California’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage, according to a study of election results and post-vote surveys released Tuesday.
While the NGLTF report said no such thing, it did make two astonishing claims about the black vote:
- Analysis of the full range of data available persuades us that the NEP exit poll overestimated African American support for Proposition 8 by ten percentage points or more.
- Furthermore, much of African Americans’ support for Proposition 8 can be explained by the fact that blacks tend to be more religious than Californians as a whole.
The justification for the first assertion consists mostly of “because I want it to be true”. The NGLTF compares polling before and after the election to the exit poll and declared it to be an outlier. What they fail to notice is that the polling before the election predicted the failure of Prop 8 and the exit polls got it right.
Then they provide a graphic to support their claim:
This chart represents an analysis of the voters in four counties in which most black Californians live. This would seem to me to be a pretty reasonable way to verify whether exit polls got it right. But in order to gain value from such an analysis, one needs to avoid making claims that appear wacky from even the simplest glance.
The line you see on this graphic is a running-mean smoother, a way of showing a pattern in data. I don’t have access to the raw data, but something strikes me as peculiar about this line.
An “arithmetic mean” is what most folks think of as an average of numbers. You add up the totals and divide by the number of items. Considering this, take a glance at the right end of the chart – that which shows the larger percentage of African-Americans in the voting precinct. Does it look to you as though the line represents a mean average of the data points?
Unfortunately, I don’t have the skill or experience to refute the methodology of their line, but I will say that it does not, on the surface, appear to present a visual representation of Yes votes in the precincts shown.
NGLTF does admit that “a slight but unmistakable relationship exists between the proportion of a precinct’s voters who are African American and support for Proposition 8″. And they estimate that between 57 and 59% supported Proposition 8.
But that just doesn’t make any mathematical sense. In their Table 1, they lay out their breakdown of ethnic voting:
Well sorry, but those numbers don’t get us to 52.3% support. One of those ethnic demographics is understated.
Frankly, were this from a source I consider more credible, I’d delight in the reduction. I would very much like to believe that a majority of black voters are like the straight black folk I know who were all horrified that Prop 8 won. But based on the available information, I just don’t see the justification for this reinterpretation of history.
But what troubles me most about the NGLTF report is what they next assert: “much of African Americans’ support for Proposition 8 can be explained by the fact that blacks tend to be more religious than Californians as a whole”.
I do not know the credibility of the survey on which they rely for the claim, but I am pretty much willing to accept that African American Californians attend church more regularly than do other ethic groups. However, the graphic provided by NGLTF to show that religion is the reason that blacks voted disproportionately in favor of Prop 8 actually suggests exactly the opposite:
If the above chart is accurate, religion played less of an impact on the black church-goer than on any other demographic. And non-religious blacks were 12% more likely to favor Proposition 8 than non-religious whites. To suggest that it was religion rather than ethnically-shared community values that most strongly determined the outcome of the black vote requires a trip down the rabbit hole.
NGLTF then goes on to discuss how, as a whole, religion, party affiliation, conservative identification, and age are more important to predicting the state’s support for anti-gay positions than is race. There is no doubt that these played a great role. No one is surprised that conservative evangelical Republicans overwhelmingly voted for Proposition 8.
But all of that is a smoke screen. Because it is also true that liberal non-religious Democrats overwhelmingly voted against Proposition 8 … unless they were black.
And if the only difference between the voting patterns of liberal Democrats can be traced to their ethnic identity, then it requires magical thinking to say that ethnic identity is not an important factor.
Some of you, no doubt, are already crafting a reply calling me a racist. And, sadly, some are giggling while feeling justified for anti-black biases. Both of those responses are pointless (and wrong) and get us nowhere.
The fact is – regardless of how much NGLTF would wish otherwise – that the gay community does not truly have a strategic alliance with black voters. We do not have African American support. We can fully expect that unless something drastically changes, future votes on gay equality will have large percentages of African Americans voting against our rights.
Now there are a number of things we could do.
We could make a concerted effort to strategize and find allies for a long-term plan to educate and influence the African American community to recognize that discrimination based on sexual orientation is no more admirable than discrimination based on race. We know that many leaders, from Coretta Scott King and Mildred Loving to John Lewis and Al Sharpton, have been open to learning this message.
But we also know that there is a strong and unapologetic voice of harshest homophobia that has no hesitation in using race as a justification for denying that gay and lesbian Americans deserve civil equality. If we seek change, it cannot be haphazard or hesitant. It will be no picnic and we have to be willing to offend some who believe that they own the concept of civil rights and not be afraid to be called racist by those who oppose us.
Or we could also just write off this subset of the population and hope that we can sway enough whites and Asians to outweigh the African American vote. But while it may be pragmatic for winning an election, this approach strikes me as particularly cold. It not only leaves another generation of young black gay men and women growing up in a community that has pockets of severe hostility, but it also dismisses a lot of otherwise decent people as not being worth our time or effort.
There are no easy answers. And I don’t even begin to know how to go about approaching this issue in a way that is productive or appropriate.
But the one response that I believe is the height of foolishness is to say, as did NGLTF, “differences seen among racial and ethnic groups in support for Proposition 8 … do not merit the amount of attention they have received”. Ignoring it won’t make this issue go away.