Prop 8 and Race: Who’s Really To Blame?
This commentary is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect that of other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin.
January 9th, 2009
When I first looked at CNN’s exit polling data on November 5th for Prop 8, my first reaction was pretty simple — and I quote, “We have done a very poor job in reaching out to the African-American community.” That was on seeing the exit poll which said that African-Americans voted for Prop 8 by a 70%-30% margin. Leave aside whether this figure is accurate or not, it was emblematic to me of a plain and undeniable fact, one that Andrew Sullivan recently backed up with other polling data — that “African-Americans are more opposed to gay equality than any other ethnic group.” And we failed yet again in reaching out to make a dent in that dynamic.
But to my dismay, that wasn’t the larger reaction. Instead, people pounced on those numbers and said, “Ah-hah! That’s why we lost!” The polling numbers became a sort of get-out-of-jail free card for many of us who fought to defeat these marriage amendments in California, Arizona and Florida. We get to wash our hands and say, “If it hadn’t been for those people, we would have won!”
The problem, of course, is that we know the dangers of blaming a minority group for someone else’s troubles. Graveyards around the world are filled with the results of that kind of scapegoating. And yet, that is what this morbid debate has devolved into. One side says it is the African-American community’s fault that Prop 8 passed. The other side says no it isn’t; the exit polling data is flawed.
Well thankfully, the NGLTF came to the rescue with a study which lets that besieged minority off the hook. Which is good as far as that beleaguered minority is concerned, because now everyone’s rushing to embrace it with a palpable sense of relief. See? It wasn’t their fault after all! Whew! Well okay then, let’s talk about something else…
But then, all of the sudden, this humble little web site stirred the pot again, and we’ve gotten an awful lot of attention around the blogosphere lately because Timothy Kincaid looked at the study and saw some things he felt didn’t add up. And now the grand debate is back on: are African-Americans to blame or aren’t they? And there’s an added twist this time: What’s the deal with Timothy not letting them off the hook? (For an answer there, I encourage everyone to re-read Timothy’s last five paragraphs — they deserve a post of their own.)
Let me say that I have not looked at NGLTF’s study, nor have I looked into Timothy’s analysis of it. That means I have some homework to do this weekend. I generally trust Timothy’s judgment and his analytical skills. But beyond that, I won’t comment on this particular study until I get a chance to look at it myself.
But I think we all can agree — in fact, I think it is indisputable — that there is a very large divide between the gay community and the African-American community. That the problem of homophobia is higher in the black community than it is among Latinos and Whites. (And that homophobia isn’t exactly a small thing among Latinos and Whites either.) I don’t think anyone who has been paying attention can dispute any of this.
We don’t need studies or polls to define the problem. All they do is throw quantitative numbers at it, and allow us to operate under the delusion that if we can only somehow change the numbers, the problem will somehow go away. NGLTF changed the numbers — or at least they gave us a study with numbers we’d much rather see. Okay, maybe the Black vote didn’t lose the election for us, I don’t know. But somehow I don’t think the problem of Black homophobia is any better. Yet it appears that too many of us like NGLTF’s numbers so much better that we’d rather pretend the problem just went away so we could go on whistling happily in the dark.
Or worse, we can conclude — as the No on 8 campaign did before the election — that the number of voters among African-Americans were small and not worth engaging after all. Even though Black leaders were at the ready to speak out against Prop 8.
So let me say this loud and clear: It is not the African-American community’s fault that Prop 8 passed. And I do agree with at least one point in the NGLTF’s press release: To say that African-Americans caused Prop 8 to pass is a myth. It is an evil, pernicious, odious myth.
It is axiomatic in politics that the glory of winning a race goes to the winning campaign. The corollary then is that the blame for losing a race goes to the losing campaign. And as one who served as chair for a grass-roots effort to defeat Prop 102 in Arizona, I bear the blame for what happened here as well. In fact, I’ll cop to a huge failure right now: I cannot even claim that many of my best friends are Black with a clear conscience. I suspect more of us White LGBT people share that failure than we care to admit.
If we aren’t willing to admit to our own failures, then we’re just doomed to more failures in the future. And our failure in not asking specifically for Black votes — using Black voices, Black media, Black leaders, Black entertainers, Black opinion makers — while addressing Black concerns and misconceptions, well that was a whopper. The black vote may or may not have ensured Prop 8’s passage. But our failure by not asking directly for the Black vote meant that we got precisely the result what we asked for.
That is clearly our fault, and we need to own it if we want anything to ever change in the future. In fact, we need to regard the entire failure of Prop 8, Prop 102 and Amendment 2 as though they were our fault. That is the only way we can generate the sense of urgency it will take to change how we deal with propositions like this in the future. Because after thirty some defeats, we clearly need to do something different, and we need to do it urgently.
So what do we do now? Do we continue to engage in the false debate over who’s to blame for Prop 8’s passage? Does anyone really think that such a debate gets us anywhere? Or do we instead roll up our sleeves and try to find opportunities to actually talk to Black people — including leaders and opinion makers — to listen to their concerns, address them, stand up with them, and show by example that we’re all in this together? That when one of us is diminished, we all are diminished?
Or do we continue to diminish someone else? Because right now, that’s the path we’re on. And that does nobody any good, especially Black LGBT people who are caught in the middle of all of this with all too tragic consequences.
So, who’s really to blame for Prop 8’s passage?
And I am committed to making the hard changes required to keep it from happening again. I am committed to changing what hasn’t worked before.
As long as there is anyone else we can blame, we will have an excuse to sit back and do nothing differently. And if we do nothing differently, then we will have no right to expect a different result.
Who else has the guts to join me?