A Thanksgiving time memory
November 27th, 2013
When I was in my teens, Thanksgiving time meant anticipation mixed with dread.
On the one hand, there was my late-November birthday and the big turkey feast to look forward to. But on the other, Thanksgiving was when Harold Colbert came to town for a four day revival.
Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night, and twice on Sunday, Brother Colbert preached fire and brimstone, railing against the evils of Coors Beer and White Owl Cigars (neither of which seemed to me to be the chief temptations of the congregation).
These were services in the true Pentecostal tradition: lots of singing, even more preaching, and ending with a prayer line in which those who felt the need for prayer for healing or blessing or reconsecration (which surely meant virtually every person in church) stood in line so that they could receive prayer with the laying on of hands.
Colbert would put olive oil on the index, middle, and ring finger of his right hand and touch it to the forehead of the one seeking prayer and call on the Almighty for blessing, deliverance or healing, whatever was needed.
Often the supplicants would be overcome by the power of the Holy Ghost, grow week in the knees and become slain in the spirit and, after being caught by those so assigned, would lie on the floor speaking in tongues. More often, should the supplicant not sufficiently feel the Holy Ghost, the power of Colbert’s right arm was there to assist.
While my father looked forward to Colbert’s revivals with excitement, I was decided less enthusiastic. As a pastor’s son, there was no chance of my skipping services, and as I didn’t find his sermons much instructive or uplifting, I had only hours of boredom to anticipate. But I did learn the art of stepping into a prayer line and mingling with the post-prayer parishioners returning to their seats, thus appearing to participate while avoiding strain on my neck.
And while I didn’t enjoy his sermons, I found the man charming and enjoyed the time he spent with our family. His stories took me outside of the small homogenous town and gave me a taste of something else, something bigger.
Colbert was one of the few African-Americans that we knew. Another was a church member and, filling out the roster, my sister-in-law’s nephew, whose father lived in Belize.
And based on this limited sample, we made our assumptions about black people.
You would think that this would result in universal adoration and a desire to rally against injustice. These were three people who we liked and about whom the only differences we could find was the hue of their skin. And certainly no one in our social circle would actively and intentionally discriminate or say hateful words or treat any of these people as inferior. That was un-Christian.
But quiet bigotry and long-standing prejudice are powerful things. Rather than see the physical examples of people in front of us and change the unspoken presumptions about what black people “are like”, our community subconsciously decided that there were two types of African Americans, our blacks, and those radicals down there in Oakland who were doing sit-ins and demanding bussing and protesting and causing all sorts of problems.
We didn’t actually know anything about the blacks in Oakland – other than what we read in the paper that scared and troubled us – but we liked our blacks. Probably more so because they weren’t the Oakland type.
It never occurred to us that the black people we knew and liked were just exactly like the ones who lived in Oakland, with the same opinions and the same anger about unfairness and indignity, and that the only difference was that they didn’t have the luxury of living somewhere that they could protest. It somehow even slipped our attention that Brother Colbert lived in Hayward, a stone’s throw from Oakland.
It was easier to just divide “them” into two groups. And though we didn’t use these terms, we did think in terms of the ‘good blacks’ – the few ones we knew and probably what ‘most real ones are like’ – and the ‘bad blacks’ who we read about in the paper.
I think that this is a common reaction when reality comes into contact with prejudice. Survival instinct has ingrained in our psyche a fear of the other people, the other tribe, the other cave. And letting go of the fear of the unknown is unsettling.
But we’re also geared to learn from experience. Which can set up a conflict.
Our solution is often to assign two entirely contradictory assumptions to the now-less-unknown group and arbitrarily assign its members according to how we perceive them to fit. That way we react from our experience – for some – but still cling to what we’ve read about or heard about or fear.
Even the gay community is not immune.
With regularity I hear about, how rural people “think”, what Republicans “are like”, what conservatives “want to do to us”, how Christians “really believe”. Sure we all know instances of rural Americans, Republicans, conservatives, and Christians (and even rural conservative Republican Christians) who don’t fit those presumptions, but seldom does that change our presumptions. Rather, we go by what we read about on the internet, what we fear.
And, to an even greater extent, we are the subject of this odd double-classification. Those who fight against the rights and equalities of gay people frequently do so while genuinely believing that they like gay people… just not the ones who are causing trouble.
Sarah Palin assures us that she has gay friends. Ex-gay groups for decades felt concern and pain for the poor person trapped in the homosexual lifestyle and railed against the militant activists who were forcing them to stay gay.
This month, when Rep. Jo Jordan, a Hawaiian legislator who is a lesbian, voted against equality, The Christian Post, Christianity Today, and Deseret News were but a few of those who rushed to tell the story and defend the woman from her homosexual critics, thus propping up their good gay/bad gay dichotomy.
But it is not only our opponents who have difficulty in letting go of presumptions and double-classification. Sometimes even those who have spoken in favor of civil equality can see gay people as either good or bad, depending on the extent to which we challenge their assumptions of superiority.
Take, for example, Alec Baldwin.
Baldwin, certainly no conservative, has long been a supporter of gay causes. If questioned, there is no doubt but that Baldwin would tell you that he believes – and genuinely so – that gay people should have all the same legal rights and privileges as heterosexuals and that those who disagree are biased and bigoted and hateful.
But Baldwin also has the bad habit of using anti-gay slurs or challenges to someone’s masculinity whenever displeased. Most recently he was caught on film by TMZ calling a photographer a “cock-sucking faggot”. He has since insisted that he called him a “cock-sucking fathead” or, alternately, a “cock-sucking maggot”, neither of which seem credible.
Personally, I don’t see this outburst as an indication of “secret homophobia”. I think it’s an example of a man who says things that he himself knows are unacceptable but who is emotionally out-of-control and has issues with masculinity.
But irrespective of whether Baldwin used the word “faggot” (he did), it is Baldwin’s latest assertion that illustrates that he, too, sees gay people not simply as people, but through the eyes of double-classification.
Baldwin, who was in negotiation for a show on MSNBC, has been dropped. And his response is sad, but perhaps to be expected. (Gothamist)
“Martin Bashir’s on the air, and he made his comment on the air! I dispute half the comment I made… if I called him ‘cocksucking maggot’ or a ‘cocksucking motherfucker’… ‘faggot’ is not the word that came out of my mouth. That I know. But you’ve got the fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy—Rich Ferraro and Andrew Sullivan—they’re out there, they’ve got you. Rich Ferraro, this is probably one of his greatest triumphs. They killed my show. And I have to take some responsibility for that myself.”
You see, the good gays are okay… but those “fundamentalist gays” are intolerant. They don’t accept it when you accidentally toss out “faggot”. They don’t let you backtrack and claim you used “maggot” instead. They even object to “cocksucking” as an insult.
Baldwin makes the same mistake that my town made about blacks. He assumes that the people who are not directly confronting him must surely agree with him. He fails to see that we all, nearly every gay person, finds his behavior and language choices offensive. Even the hairdresser he pulled out to vouch for his non-homophobia.
This is not to suggest that every gay person should confront or denounce Alec Baldwin. That would accomplish little other than reduce his double-classification to a single classification: his enemy.
Certainly there would have been little accomplished had the few blacks we knew in our small town taken up the role of activist. They would have personally suffered and probably only inflamed racial strife.
But perhaps someone will have the standing and trust to speak to Baldwin about the reality of his offense and let him know that he needs to get off the defensive. Perhaps a ‘good gay’, not one of the ‘fundamentalist wing’, can break through.
I recall Harold Colbert talking to my parents about race issues. And to their credit, they listened. And while they’ve never quite conquered their own racial consciousness (my father recently described his doctor as “an Indian fella from India” but assured me that “he’s the best doctor around”), they’ve come a long way.
The road to equality and decency always requires those who stand firm and lay out their demands and the terms by which they are willing to live. The activists and the militants. The “fundamentalists”. Without Dr. King and the many other civil rights activists, there would have been no change.
But it has also been largely the gentle discussion of the ‘good blacks’ that let their neighbors know that these demands were not unreasonable. That it wasn’t just “some blacks in Oakland” who objected to poor education and discriminatory housing lending and tiny daily demeaning acts. And it was their often overlooked efforts that paved the road for much of America to stop seeing African Americans in terms of ‘what kind of black’ they were but in terms of what kind of person they were.
Much of time, anyway.
NOM’s Schubert on gender and ethnic identity
August 14th, 2013
Frank Schubert, the national political director for National Organization for Marriage (theirs, not yours) and the architect of the campaign for Proposition 8 and other anti-gay amendments, has a new article on Red State, There is Only One Gender, in which he derides the idea of gender identity. Using the “what’s visible is all there is” argument, he claims that gender-identity is no more real than ethnic-identity.
You might look at my Caucasian features and wonder why I am claiming to be an African American. I may not be a natural descendent of African American lineage, but I feel black and have thus decided to identify as African American. Since I identify as African American, I am African American, and you must accept me as such. Because I claim my identity as an African American, I demand that the law recognize me as such and afford me all the rights and obligations of that ethnicity.
You may think that my decision to claim an African American identity is ridiculous. You would be right. Ethnicity is determined by ancestry and genetic lineage, not by someone’s identified perceptions and “feelings.” But it’s no more ridiculous than the latest craze from the left concerning something they call “gender identity.”
The truth, however, is that there is no such thing as “gender identity” any more than there is “ethnic identity.” There is only gender.
Well, no, I would not necessarily think that someone who looks white but who is claiming African American identity is ridiculous. Irrespective of whatever imaginary “rights and obligations” I might think come with being African-American, I understand that I don’t get to pick who is and who is not.
Perhaps it’s partly because I don’t live in a sheltered environment surrounded only by those who are just like me. Perhaps it’s because I know people who have a non-obvious ethnic identity. Perhaps because I’ve had all sorts of ethnicities assumed about me by other people.
But mostly it’s because of a personal experience.
Many years ago, I was working as an internal auditor for a major air and space company. As part of my job, I was assigned the task of auditing the company’s EEOC program to make certain that it was complying with regulations and policy.
I was working along with my randomly selected sample of employee files when I came across the file of a coworker in my own department. And while the paperwork seemed intact, there was one glaring problem. I knew this girl. And though she had checked “African American”, clearly she was not! Perhaps Latina. Perhaps some other ethnic mix or non-Western-European origin, but this girl wasn’t black.
Uncertain what to do, I discussed the problem with my supervisor, who clearly was black. And I learned something interesting, something that might have seemed counter-intuitive but made perfect sense. As far as the EEOC was concerned, race and ethnicity are not determined purely by the origins of one’s ancestors or the color of one’s skin. Culture, how one was raised, the people who you consider family, and many other factors come into play.
How one identifies is the preferred method under EEOC rules:
If I think I know an employee’s ethnicity, can I just write that in on the report?
A. No. The preferred method of identification is self-identification. Employers need to provide employees the opportunity to self-identify their own ethnicity. If an employee then refuses to do so, employment records or visual observation must be used.
Of course one must have a good reason for the ethnicity or race one adopts. And there is one exception; to legally be a Native American one has to trace to the Indian Rolls (which, due to politics dating back to the Trail of Tears, I cannot, but that’s another story).
But in this case, looks were deceiving. My supervisor knew my coworker’s family and although she “didn’t look African-American” her brothers did.
And as time went on, I met many other people who would not fit well in Schubert’s paradigm. I knew mixed race children adopted by all-white families. I knew two siblings, one of whom identified as German and the other as Black. And I learned that many of the people I meet in Los Angeles are as likely to have grandparents with four different ethnic identities than just one.
Perhaps in Frank Schubert’s world, things are segregated. Perhaps white is very easy to distinguish from black, good people from bad people, male from female. Perhaps he has limited his experiences to those which only fit his expectations.
But when he tries to discuss the real world in the terms of his own limitations, he reveals how truly ignorant he is.
Dodging a bullet
November 7th, 2012
This spring I had a conversation with a community activist who expressed concern that should the President not be elected, some might be able to spin the story to blame his loss on his support for marriage equality. I agreed that would be a real challenge to our ongoing efforts for equality, but I didn’t see that as a likelihood.
I posed to him another challenge, one I saw as having greater possibility. My biggest fear for yesterday was that we would lose in Maryland and that it could be attributed to the black vote.
When proposition 8 passed in California and exit polls reported 70% support from black voters, a certain amount of racism and resentment resulted. Things were tense for a while and I feared that should there be an appearance that African-American voters had blocked equality that hostilities would escalate.
We have been fortunate recently that tension between the two communities have diminished to a great extent – and this has been due mostly to the leadership and integrity of those who are greatly respected in the African-American community. Perhaps the largest share of credit goes to President Obama, whose administration has stepped boldly and strongly on the side of equality and encouraged many African-Americans to join him.
And while exit polls showed that less than half of the black vote supported marriage equality, it is a significant improvement over the vote four years ago, and there is no reason to believe that our communities will not continue greater support and cooperation.
The miracle worker
May 24th, 2012
From Public Policy Polling (pdf):
-57% of Maryland voters say they’re likely to vote for the new marriage law this fall, compared to only 37% who are opposed. That 20 point margin of passage represents a 12 point shift from an identical PPP survey in early March, which found it ahead by a closer 52/44 margin.
-The movement over the last two months can be explained almost entirely by a major shift in opinion about same-sex marriage among black voters. Previously 56% said they would vote against the new law with only 39% planning to uphold it. Those numbers have now almost completely flipped, with 55% of African Americans planning to vote for the law and only 36% now opposed.
-The big shift in attitudes toward same-sex marriage among black voters in Maryland is reflective of what’s happening nationally right now. A new ABC/Washington Post poll finds 59% of African Americans across the country supportive of same-sex marriage. A PPP poll in the critical swing state of Pennsylvania last weekend found a shift of 19 points in favor of same-sex marriage among black voters.
What happened in between? The President evolved. And then NAACP board endorsed equality. And now it appears that there were a large number of black voters who have also completed their evolution process.
To be honest, I did not expect this in the slightest. And (like the polls last year that suddenly and unexpectedly showed a majority of Americans support marriage) it seems too good to be true. And I’m still going to wait for additional polling confirmation (and perhaps even the Maryland vote) before I am fully convinced.
But these are huge and very significant changes and if they are real then I’m delighted to give credit where due. I think that discovering that the National Organization for Marriage was condescendingly playing up racism played a part, but it was the President’s announcement that I think really cued the change. (And I can’t wait for NOM’s response… I’m grinning already)
If Black Americans are supporting equality, then I’m ready to party. You bring Obama and I’ll bring the wine… no, scratch that… I’ll bring the water. Miracles are happening.
NOM’s problem: black people just aren’t as stupid as they thought
March 27th, 2012
In reading the language of the National Organization for Marriage’s race-based strategy for delaying the eventuality of marriage equality, two things immediately struck me.
First, in order for this strategy to have any success, it had to create a long-term division in America along racial lines. Their hope was that African Americans (immediately) and Latinos (as their demographic increased in the voting population) would have a permanent division from White Americans along social issues and that this would be a race-based pride point. Their entire hope was that we all continue to see race as something that makes us inherently different from each other and would continue to view each other through lenses of suspicion, hostility, and fear.
While cynical and evil, this is not the oddest of their prepositions. In order for their plan to have effect, African Americans (and subsequently gays and Latinos) were presumed to be so stupid that they not only wouldn’t notice the objective but would blindly fall for it.
Well some did. Stupidity comes in all sizes, shapes and colors. And there are a small handful of preachers in the community who see race as all important to whom such a message was appealing and who readily lent their name and voice to NOM’s campaign. And there were a few gay folks who read this as “blacks hate us” and sniped back.
But NOM misjudged. Most blacks weren’t interested in joining their anti-gay crusade. Even when their pastor was the celebrated speaker, virtually every face at a NOM event was white. And old. And, for what it’s worth, bored. Blacks didn’t fall for the ploy.
Despite their assumptions, melanin seems to have no inverse correlation to intellect. As it turns out, black people just aren’t as stupid as NOM assumed they were.
But I do believe that NOM has had an impact on the way in which the African American community has thought about the subject of marriage. Since they started their campaign (which we observed during their Tour of Mostly Empty City Plazas), I believe that I have seen a noticeable change.
In the direction towards acceptance.
Now it’s not all champaign and roses between the gay and the black community. The polls in Maryland show that black voters are FAR less likely to support equality (or, at least, were before today). But in the community the tone is different, the leadership message is different, the community voices are different, and things are changing.
It’s hard to put numbers on it, but there it’s there if you look.
A few years ago, if a black guy made a homophobic comment he might be called on it, but there was also an accompanying demand to understand his culture and not judge too harshly. I don’t hear that part anymore. What I read are black writers condemning blatant homophobia without any room for excuses.
Where just a few years ago it was presumed that a black actress might support us but certainly no black athlete wanted anything to do with gay issues. Now some of the most respected black men in athletics speak out in favor of full equality and do so with an attitude of “yeah, of course I do, why wouldn’t I?”
And where we did have the official support of many black leaders a few years back, now some of the icons of the community are willing to put their hard-earned reputation on the line in ways we frankly have no right to expect. They worked hard to make sure that what NOM wanted would not succeed.
Sure, some of this was natural flow with the tide. But I also believe that NOM’s efforts to make opposing equality a matter of “what blacks are like” got some African Americans thinking about the issue and about what being black is really all about. And they didn’t much like what NOM was suggesting.
And NOM didn’t have success with Latinos either. It seems that their efforts to get hip young beautiful latinos e latinas were met with a blank faced, “Lo siento, no hablo Inglés … ¡que condescendiente idiota racista!”
Their joint effort during the Carly Fiorina senate campaign in California (“Vota Tus Valores”) yielded one telenovela actress who thought she was there to talk about her religious conversion and talk up the values of chastity. When she found out she was supposed to do political campaigning against the evils of Teh Ghey, she hopped back on the bus and was never seen again.
Because ya know, the funny thing about race-based points of pride is that they are just that. They are issues or matters or traits or peculiarities that feel like home. They are things that are shared that make us into “us”. And Latinos and African Americans aren’t particularly receptive to white folk telling them what they should be proud about.
Ultimately, people pride themselves in what they feel good about. If it’s food flavors that go back dozens or generations, that’s community. Facial expressions that mom got from her mom who got them from her mom, that’s family. A sense of humor that no one else gets, that makes you feel like you are totally and completely accepted and loved. A sense of honor, decency, hard work, commitment to caring for those you are responsible for, charity for those who have less, the ability to always make room for one more, showing love when others may not, those are the values you pass to the next generation.
And those are the pride points that you see in all communities, be they African American, Hispanic American, Irish American, Native American, German American, or I-Have-No-Idea American. The most visible differences are the foods and the songs and the dances and the history, but look past it and really everyone pretty much prides themselves on the same thing: “we are who we are because we love each other.” That is a cultural pride point that happens naturally.
Making sure that someone else doesn’t have the happiness you have? Not so much.
Sure there are tensions. The gay community and the black community have been a bit at odds for a while. But no one is proud of that. We don’t define ourselves in terms on not liking the other. And nothing will heal our grievances quicker than having some outsider try and take advantage.
As NOM is in the process of learning.
Maryland marriage bill out of committee
February 14th, 2012
The House of Delegates’ Judiciary Committee and the Health and Government Operations Committee approved the measure 25-18 in a joint vote, a judiciary panel spokeswoman said. The measure is expected to go to the full House on Wednesday, she said.
Happy Valentines Day
I want to take a moment to thank Rev. Al Sharpton. On the issue of equality, Sharpton is not just saying the right words, he’s putting action behind them.
In Maryland, the factor holding back equality is race. Although Democrats control large majorities of both houses, there is a large black caucus. And in Maryland, black voters are not allies of the gay community and refuse to view disparities in treatment of citizens as discrimination or mistreatment under civil law as a civil rights matter unless the discrimination and mistreatment is directed towards racial minorities. The most vocal opponents of equality have been black ministers and there is about a 30 point polling difference between white Democrats and black Democrats on the issue.
Although the underpinnings of this hostility are old and have many complex contributors, anti-gay activists such as the National Organization for Marriage have deliberately played up and encouraged feelings of resentment. Falsely equating “civil rights” with “black rights”, they are deceptively seeking to suggest to black Marylanders that recognizing the equality of gay citizens is the same as unfairly grabbing what they have had to work so hard to achieve.
And the gay community is, like much of America, inadequately equipped to speak to the specific concerns of African Americans in an authentic voice. If we are to make inroads and find commonality and alliance with other communities, including the black community, we are stuck relying on the generosity of others.
And right now, Al Sharpton has stepped up and is using his voice and his reputation to lobby the Black Church and to speak to Maryland’s African American community. He is speaking not just as an activist, but as a civil rights advocate and, perhaps even more importantly, as a Baptist minister. Having someone of Sharpton’s status stand in for us may be the one ingredient that can make marriage a reality in Maryland.
I am very grateful.
Halloween and sensitivities
October 31st, 2011
As elsewhere, tonight the majority of residents of greater Los Angeles will watch TV and pass out candy to trick-or-treaters or go to parties thrown by work, church, families, or friends. The teens will flock to amusement parks, all of which try to outdo each other in the thrills and scares department.
But for many Angelinos, tonight has been the focus of a lot of time, planning, shopping and work.
Halloween is a very big ordeal here. While in much of the country Halloween is still seen as being primarily for children, here the gay community has adopted it as our very own unofficial holiday. Throw into the mix that Hollywood is home to an industry based on costume and that in this city image reigns supreme and Halloween takes on more importance than it might elsewhere.
So the city’s revelers won’t be at home waiting for the weekend. Rather, they will head out to one of two street fairs: Hollywood or West Hollywood. While the Hollywood festival bills itself as “kid friendly”, that is not the only difference. On Halloween, Hollywood Boulevard grooves to an urban street vibe and as the night progresses develops a slightly harder edge, while WeHo is a dancemix driven celebration of the absurd, wacky and tasteless (and more than a few simply fabulous illusions).
So parents have a choice, bring the kiddies to enjoy a night that is safer in the see-no-penis sense, or one that is safer in the see-no-fistfight sense. And it surprises me sometimes the number of parents who decide that they feel safer with their kids being exposed to gay men and women in downright vulgar costumes than to violence. Hundreds of thousands of people of all ages, races, and orientations converge on the street to make West Hollywood the heart of Halloween.
Sometimes the costumes go far beyond suggestive. For years, a staple has been the traffic cop at the corner directing the flow of pedestrians who is missing the butt out of her pants. And giant boobs and oversized penises – rubber, crafting foam, balloons, and sometimes real – are a certainty.
So at times I find myself wondering if we shouldn’t maybe tone it down some. But I don’t – yet – think it is necessary or even wise to do so.
Unlike Gay Pride, the Halloween Festival is not a declaration to the world about the gay community. It demands no attention and invites no judgment, it isn’t about us as a collective. It has no political element or statement about who we are. If anything, tonight is about who we are not.
And, after all, if exposed body parts offends your sensibilities, don’t come to West Hollywood on Halloween Night.
But nudity – real or comic – is not the only area where offense can be found. There will also be at least one Jesus, a flock of nuns, and politicians of various stripes (I expect more than a few Marcus and Michele Bachmanns). And there will be people decked out in costumes of other people’s cultures, using contrived “accents”, and playing on stereotypes.
Yet, for the most part, the offense gets a pass. And as cruelty is seldom the intention, it gets written off to ignorance or, perhaps, comedy.
But there is one rule that is observed, a rule I considered challenging this year – unless you are black, don’t come black. You can be Pharaohs with brown makeup, Aztecs in copper, or Greek Gods decked in bronzer (I’ve been all three), but do not show up in a costume of an African American of any age, gender, or period.
This rule developed as a result of Minstrel Shows, at one point the most popular entertainment form in the country. Minstrels were white men (though there were later black mintrels) who painted their faces black and delivered jokes, made bad puns, and sang songs written by or reflective of the style of African Americans.
Not altogether without positive characteristics, this art form introduced white America to black music (or, at least, a white impression of black music) and its influences can be seen today in a number of genres and the shows, which included both male and female characters played by men or male teens, kept alive a long “drag” tradition during the mid nineteenth century. And, more importantly, many shows in the 1830′s had themes which encouraged sympathy for black slaves and contributed to the emancipation movement.
However, many others were vicious or petty and deliberately portrayed African Americans as lazy and childlike and happiest when enslaved. And all minstrel shows, regardless of intent, relied on the assumption of white superiority and created or reinforced stereotypes of African Americans through the use of stock characters such as Lucy Long and Jim Crow. Considering their contribution to negative and demeaning attitudes, most African Americans consider minstrel shows and blackface to be emblematic of the racial inequalities experienced in this country.
Yet, even knowing the history and reason for the universal ban on going black for Halloween, I considered violating that rule.
A group of friends who always do Halloween together decided that this year’s them is “divas”. And they thought I’d make a good Whitney (from the “crack is wack” era). And I toyed with the idea.
Race, as defined in the United States, is fascinating and in many ways both amusing and frustrating. While racism is still active and present and far too easily identified when you look for it, social interaction and respect have made differences less charged and I wonder if it might be time to stop letting race be as restrictive as it has been.
I don’t think we are, as a people, anywhere near the place that blackface can be acceptable. The damage is still present.
But there is a difference between going on Halloween as “a black guy” and going as a specific person, such as Whitney Houston. The presentation is not about “being black” or “doing black things” but rather as a specific person with specific characteristics.
And it’s not exactly a drastic change. As my friend said, it’s just a couple spray tans from my own skin color.
But I thought about it. And asked myself how I’d feel about some straight guy being Carson Kressley for Halloween. It’s not like he could be that character without Carson’s flamboyance or over-the-top personality. And it could be too much. It could be offensive.
And just as a Carson Kressley impersonation could have all the stereotypical campiness of Carson with none of the charm that kept him on Dancing with the Stars for weeks (he too can’t dance), my Whitney could look an awful lot like “guy who darkened his skin and put on a dress”. In other words, it could rely too much on color to identify Whitney and too little on her own personal identifiable characteristics.
And I’m not the right person to make the call on when such a costume could be free of offense. I haven’t lived the black experience; store clerks don’t assume I’m there to steal, no one questions what I wear or drive, and I’ve not been the last one waited on in a restaurant.
I’ve never experienced being treated differently due to race. I’ve never even been – as my mother was just a generation before me – hesitant to admit my ethnic heritage. I don’t get to decide when is long enough.
So whether or not Black America is ready to tolerate a white guy playing black (as Tropic Thunder hints), I’m not the guy to pull it off. I would most certainly offend, and why do that.
So tonight I’m Cher. Half-Breed. Long hair, Indian headdress. My own skin.
I plan on touching my tongue to my upper lip, tossing my hair, and giving my best Cher-ala-Jack “whoooah.” And if anyone doesn’t like it, too bad.
Looking at HIV with a consideration towards racial and genetic heritage
This commentary is the opinion of the author and may not necessarily reflect that of other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin
March 31st, 2010
It has long been known that HIV and AIDS in the United States is not experienced proportionately across racial demographics. About 42% of all cumulative AIDS cases, and over 50% of new HIV infections are in African Americans, even though they only comprises about 14% of the population.
And results released last week about a survey of gay men in Washington, D.C. confirm the pattern. While the study found that 14% of the sample of gay men are HIV positive, this was not uniformly distributed.
Men of color who were 30 years or older had the highest rate, more than twice the overall HIV positivity rate. By race and all ages, over a quarter (25%) of black men who participated in the study were HIV positive, more than any other racial group. Over 10% of men who identified as multirace (11%) and other (10%) were HIV positive and 8% of white males who participated in the study were HIV positive.
In fact, this difference was most notable in participants under 30. While 12.2% of young men of color were HIV infected, “of the nearly 100 white men younger than 30, none were HIV-positive.”
This disparity is usually discussed, when it is discussed at all, in terms of social or cultural difference (especially by those who are not African-American). Non-equivalent infection rates are “part of the down-low” or “the result of homophobia in the black community” or “resultant from a lack of self-worth” or some other culture based phenomenon that hints at irresponsible behavior or an inadequate appreciation for safer sex rules.
I do not doubt that there are some social factors (discrimination, economic inequalities, social position, or even media representation) that do contribute to the prevalence of HIV in Black America. But something in this study caught my attention.
Over 40% of men did not use a condom at last sex, though men of color used condoms nearly twice as much as white men.
Younger men who have receptive anal sex (“bottoms”) and older men who have insertive anal sex (“tops”) were less likely to use condoms.
But if black men were twice as likely to use a condom, then how exactly is it that they were more likely to seroconvert?
One explanation that has been bandied about is that because the pool of black men who sleep with black men is already disproportionately infected. Therefore, because there is an increased risk of contact with infected sex partners it raises the likelihood of higher infection rates.
But that doesn’t seem to be evidenced by the results of this study.
The research allows us to compare those who were already aware of their HIV status to those who were newly infected, by race. Assuming that black men were adhering more closely to safe-sex guidelines, this should have been reflected in the ratios. But newly infected men were even more disproportionately men of color than were those already detected.
This seems contradictory to the notion that black men use condoms at higher rates than whites. So perhaps something else is going on. Perhaps there is something other than behavior that is contributing to the disparity.
We know that some communities inherently carry higher risk of certain diseases while others are fairly immune. Tay-Sacks is more commonly found in Ashkenazi Jews, sickle cell anemia is associated with people with recent ancestry from parts of Africa, the Mediterranean, India and the Middle East, and some Scottish islands have higher incidences of color blindness. These are all the results of inherited genes.
So it should not surprise us that various communities may have inherited genetic susceptibilities or immunities that greatly impact the extent to which any individual in that community is at risk for HIV transmission. And, indeed, research does seem to suggest that not all ancestor-location based gene pools respond to potential infection in the same way.
Some people seem to have inherited a resistance to HIV, effectively leaving them immune from infection.
Genetic resistance to AIDS works in different ways and appears in different ethnic groups. The most powerful form of resistance, caused by a genetic defect, is limited to people with European or Central Asian heritage. An estimated 1 percent of people descended from Northern Europeans are virtually immune to AIDS infection, with Swedes the most likely to be protected. One theory suggests that the mutation developed in Scandinavia and moved southward with Viking raiders.
Similarly, it appears that some communities have inherited ahigher susceptibility to HIV infection.
New research shows Africans and people of African descent could be up to 40 percent more likely to get HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, than people of other races.
This appears to be related to the Duffy antigen, a protein on the surface of red blood cells, which plays are role in defense against malaria. This trait appears to be present in over 90% of black Africans and about 70% of African Americans.
Indeed, as I looked for further discussion on the subject of gene-linked susceptibility, it seems that the community of scientists looking for transmission patterns, infection factors, and treatment possibilities share an assumption that genes play a significant role, and one we do not yet fully understand. And even within specific racial groups, some genetic families may be far more susceptible than others.
But this contributing factor seems to be, to a great extent, outside of common knowledge. Even most gay men – including those I know of African descent – seem not be be aware of genetic factors that contribute to increased or decreased infection risk.
And this troubles me. I believe that this is of such significance that it should be emphasized, particularly among those who may have inherited a higher possibility of infection.
As I see it, there are several reasons why an increased understanding of possible racial group or family genetic traits should be part of our consciousness.
First, if African-Americans are not aware of increased risk, they cannot be prepared. And as we learn more about subgroups or families, individuals of all races can take steps to define “safe sex” in more specialized ways. As unfair as such knowledge may seem, knowing that you can’t live by the same standards as everyone else may have life impacting importance for some individuals.
It’s all fine and good to say “always be safe”, but everyone knows someone who slipped up and ended up okay. But if some individuals have inherited higher risk , they need to know that the answer to “what are the odds” is “much higher for me so I don’t dare risk it… ever.”
Second, a different response in one’s body to the presence of HIV should be reflected in treatment and management. It would be foolish not to test to determine whether some treatment protocols were more or less effective based on inherited factors.
Our nation has a history of medical research that assumes that everyone is a white male, and a fairly interchangeable one at that. But if different protocols are more effective for those of African descent, or for others with specific genetic heritage, it would be immoral not to test for such differences and instead rely on, “this is what works for wealthy white men in West Hollywood”.
Third, vaccines under testing should be studied for whether race or inherited attributes impacts effectiveness. I am troubled by the possibility that some vaccines which were discarded as ineffective in some trials may have been very effective in a different demographic.
But I think we need to approach this with sensitivity. HIV/AIDS has a history of blame and stigma; And any discussion which seeks to assign blame or which seeks to make HIV a “black disease” will do more harm than good.
Additionally, we should remember that individuals are, above all else, individual. We should not make assumptions or assign stereotypes.
Instead, we need to focus research and funding, coordinate outreach and education, and for once talk about the impact of HIV on the African American community without hinting that the phenomenon can be explained in terms of behavior.
And in the meanwhile, let’s find a way to be part of the solution. You can contribute to HIV/AIDS prevention efforts that specifically target the African-American community:
(my appreciation to those who read the draft and provided some insight and suggested revision)
Sen. Vitter Won’t Comment on JP’s Denial of Interracial Marriage
October 21st, 2009
You’d think that denouncing the Louisiana Justice of the Peace who refused to marry an interracial couple would be the easiest thing in the world to do. The easiest — even in Louisiana, where virtually every other major elected public official has done so. I mean after all, Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruling has made interracial marriages legal in all fifty states – that includes Louisiana — for 42 years now. This isn’t controversial anymore, right?
Well it may not be for everyone else on the planet, but Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) isn’t ready to be pinned down. He not only won’t go on the record, and he can’t believe that every other major Louisiana elected official has. I guess he wants to keep his options open. You know, wait and see which way the wind blows:
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (R) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) both want JP Keith Bardwell out, and Tangipahoa Parish President Gordon Burgess has called for his resignation. Vitter, on the other hand, smiles and nervously ducks inside an elevator.
Louisiana Interracial Couple Denied Marriage License
October 15th, 2009
Good lord, what century is this?
A Louisiana justice of the peace said he refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple out of concern for any children the couple might have. Keith Bardwell, justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish, says it is his experience that most interracial marriages do not last long.
Neither Bardwell nor the couple immediately returned phone calls from The Associated Press. But Bardwell told the Daily Star of Hammond that he was not a racist. “I do ceremonies for black couples right here in my house,” Bardwell said. “My main concern is for the children.”
…If he does an interracial marriage for one couple, he must do the same for all, he said.
How’s that for a slippery slope?
A Friendly Reminder
June 26th, 2009
As we discuss whether African-Americans are more, less or as homophobic than everyone else, we too often set up the discussion as a Black-versus-gay thing. But please remember this: the Black community is a part of the gay community:
In Washington, D.C., the anti-gay-rights movement attempted to put recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states to a citywide referendum (it was rejected by the Board of Elections and Ethics) hoping that the city’s mostly black population would come out against it. This dynamic may explain why Bishop Harry Jackson, an African American religious leader, has been put forth as the face of the anti-gay-marriage movement.
There’s only one problem: The face of LGBT leadership in D.C. is often black. Nationally, anti-gay-rights activists have had a great deal of success in encouraging black voters to oppose gay rights, partially because LGBT rights are seen — incorrectly — as a “white issue.” But in Washington, D.C., the diverse composition of the marriage-equality movement means that marriage-equality activists don’t have to “reach out” to the black community, because they’re already part of it. That doesn’t mean marriage-equality activists don’t face serious obstacles in garnering support among African Americans, but it makes racial divisions harder to exploit. The lesson is clear — when the marriage-equality movement is integrated, outreach becomes less of an issue.
Black Leaders Step Up for Equality
May 28th, 2009
While there is debate over the extent to which black Californian voters supported Proposition 8, polls consistently show that there is less support for marriage equality from African Americans than from other ethnic subgroups. While there are undoubtedly old and established cultural bases for antipathy towards homosexuality in general and marriage in particular, these can be overcome.
Part of the lack of support for equality among black voters may be due to a failure to craft the right message. But I believe that a large part was also due to a failure to use the resources that were available to reach and appeal to black voters.
Because while many black voters may not yet see the justice of our cause, many others who are leaders and influential in the Civil Rights movement, those who fought – and still fight – first hand against discrimination and indignity towards black Americans, are stepping forward to speak loudly on our behalf. They see the fight against discrimination to be their cause and they don’t see that fight stopping at the border of race or ethnic heritage.
Today we have two examples.
Julian Bond, the Chairman of the NAACP, sees a link between any effort to marginalize minorities and deny them rights others enjoy and a threat to the equal protection that all citizens should enjoy:
My own marriage feels in no way threatened by gay marriage – any more than its interracial nature threatened those who made my union criminal until 1966. My marriage survived the interracial same-sex marriage I attended last weekend. The couple had legally married in Connecticut, but their hometown Virginia ceremony was witnessed by 200 friends and family, most of them Christians, including the grandfather of one partner who conducted it. It was a rebuke to those who base their opposition to marriage equality on the Bible. Let’s all pray that those who want to block access to the church sanctuary won’t continue to block access to city hall.
The California court has given new meaning to the song’s line “California here I come, right back where I started from.” California law is back where it started, to the detriment of us all.
What is at issue is the arbitrary denial of a civil rite to some – if that’s not a denial of civil rights, I don’t know what is.
But perhaps more impressive – on an individual level – than Bond’s support, is this report from the New York Times.
State Senator Shirley L. Huntley, a brassy, big-haired Democrat from Queens who opposes same-sex marriage, received a call on Wednesday that left her momentarily stunned.
Maya Angelou was on the line, and she wanted to know if the senator might reconsider her position.
I would have pooped.
In a telephone interview, Ms. Angelou, who has a home in Harlem, said she felt compelled to speak out because she believes that legalizing same-sex marriage is a matter of social fairness — a subject that has been a theme of her writing.
“I would ask every man and every woman who’s had the blessing of having children, ‘Would you deny your son or your daughter the ecstasy of finding someone to love?’ ” she said.
Ms. Angelou said she believed that society made gay relationships hard enough without the added burden of making marriage illegal.
Although Sen. Huntley still intends on voting to keep her own personal priveleges and rights while denying them to her gay contituents, I am deeply grateful for Ms. Angelou’s efforts. Along with the efforts of Julian Bond and John Lewis and Coretta Scott King and Mildred Loving and Rev. Eric Lee and Rev. James Lawson and Rev. Peter Gomes and many many others in Black America who are willing to stand up and be known as supporters of equality, not only for race but for orientation as well.
These voices should not and cannot be ignored or underutilized in our efforts to win the hearts and minds of all Americans, not just the liberal white English-speaking ones.
Rep. John Lewis: “You Cannot Separate The Issue Of Civil Rights”
January 19th, 2009
In observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday today, Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) appeared on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” to talk about his experiences during the civil rights struggles of the 1960′s. From 1963 to 1966, he chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, during which he became a close associate of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. As he talked about the struggles to achieve basic voting rights for African-Americans, he also reflected on the importance of fighting for civil rights for everyone, including LGBT people:
Terry Gross: (At the 22:00 mark) I want to quote something that you wrote in an op-ed piece in October of 003, and this was about gay rights and the right for gay people to marry. You wrote, “I have fought too hard and for too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation. I’ve heard the reasons for opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples. Cut through the distractions, and they stink of the same fear, hatred and intolerance I have known in racism and in bigotry.” …I’ve heard some African-American leaders say that it’s wrong to make a connection between the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement because discrimination against African-Americans and discrimination against gays are completely different things. And being gay and being black are completely different things. What’s your take on that?
Rep. Lewis: Well, I do not buy that argument. I do not buy that argument. And today I think more than ever before, we have to speak up and speak out to end discrimination based on sexual orientation. Dr. King used to say when people talked about blacks and whites falling in love and getting married — you know one time in the state of Virginia, in my native state of Alabama, in Georgia and other parts of the South, blacks and whites could not fall in love and get married. And Dr. King took a simple argument and said races don’t fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married. It’s not the business of the federal government, it’s not the business of the state government to tell two individuals that they cannot fall in love and get married. And so I go back to what I said and wrote those lines a few years ago, that I fought too long and too hard against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up and fight and speak out against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
And you hear people “defending marriage.” Gay marriage is not a threat to heterosexual marriage. It is time for us to put that argument behind us.
You cannot separate the issue of civil rights. It is one of those absolute, immutable principles. You’ve got to have not just civil rights for some, but civil rights for all of us.
Terry Gross: And when you say not civil rights for some, you even mean civil rights for African-Americans and for gay people too?
Rep. Lewis: Not just civil rights for African-Americans or other minorities, but civil rights also for gay people.
Irene Monroe on Prop 8 and Black Homophobia
January 18th, 2009
Rev. Irene Monroe, Ford Fellow and doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School, has a short guest opinion in the January-February 2009 issue of The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide about Prop 8 and Black homophobia. This op-ed reworks and consolidates some of the themes she expressed on November 11 when many in the LGBT community were scapegoating African-Americans for Prop 8′s passage.
Rev. Monroe’s G&LRW opinion piece isn’t available online, but I thought these few short paragraphs were good food for thought. She dismisses religion as a justification for the Black vote, pointing out that “as African Americans we have always been willing to disregard damning passages from scriptures about us, such as those that cursed all people of African ancestry (‘the curse of Ham,’ Genesis 9:18-27) or advocated slavery (Ephesians 6:5-8).” She also acknowledges the issues of racism in the broader LGBT community, but she doesn’t see that as an excuse for Black homophobia either:
While it is true that the whole GLBT community needs to work on its racism, white privilege, and single-issue platforms that thwarts efforts for coalition building with both straight and queer communities of color, the African-American community needs to work on its homophobia. No more excuses.
But there’s something else about Prop 8 she finds troubling:
In the end, much of the blame for the passage of Prop 8 rightly belongs not to the voters themselves, whether black or otherwise, or even to religion, but instead to the government apparatus that allowed a basic civil right to be put to a popular referendum. If my enslaved ancestors had waited for their slaveholders to free them predicated on a ballot vote, we wouldn’t be living in the America we know today. And Barack Obama would not be our new president.
Rev. Irene Monroe is the author of Let Your Light Shine Like a Rainbow Always: Meditations on Bible Prayers for Not-So-Everyday Moments.
Racism in the Gay Community
January 15th, 2009
The discussion about ethnic-community based disparities in voting patterns on Proposition 8 has led to the question: can we talk about homophobia in ethnic communities without discussing racism in the gay community?
I would think not.
Refusing to be self-reflective and address our own community’s flaws will only encourage and justify a negative impression. And because race-based homophobia and gay-based racism feed each other, it seems wise to address them jointly.
As a white guy, I am not qualified to make grand declaration about racism in the community. And I’m not even certain what kind of race-based distinctions can be categorized as racist or harmful.
But I do know that racism exists and that it expresses itself in both blatant and subtle ways.
An example of obvious racism is the common presumption that Asian gay men are sexually submissive. And the fetishism of black men in art and literature is unquestionably dehumanizing and far too common. These are on top of the plain old-fashioned blatant bigotry and biases that are part of mainstream society.
But other examples are less obvious. Is it racist to only be attracted to persons of a particular race? Is the notion that ethnic minorities should automatically find commonality with sexual minorities itself a racist presumption of privilege? And what about gay magazines that seem to illustrate articles solely with images of white men or women?
And there are other issues that are difficult to address. When one is a minority within a minority, it can be empowering (even life saving) to find others like yourself. But do race-specific bars — and even separate pride events — in and of themselves serve to segregate and disempower ethic groups? And what should my response be when a black friend uses a Shirley Q. Liquor phrase?
And just how prevalent is racism in the community? Is it more, less or the same as in the society around us?
Obviously, one example of bias and discrimination based on race is one too many. But just how pervasive is ethnic bigotry in the gay community? And what should, or can, we do?
Unfortunately, I don’t have answers for any of these questions. All I know is that no one is benefited by thinking of gay racism as someone else’s issue or by congratulating ourselves that the gay community is “better” than society at large.
And perhaps it’s time to start the conversation and then sit back, listen, and learn.
Prop 8 and Race: More Complex Than First Reported
January 15th, 2009
Guest columnist Clayton Critcher emailed me (Jim) a few days ago with comments on my critique of the NGLTF report on Prop 8. Since he had some very pertinent observations — that the relationship between religion and race with regard to African-Americans and Prop 8 is more complex than reported — I invited him to write up a guest post for Box Turtle Bulletin.
Clayton Critcher is a summa cum laude graduate of Yale University, and is now a PhD candidate in social psychology at Cornell University, where he is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. His research and publications include experimental work on political ideology and unintended consequences of anti-gay public policy.
The recent NGLTF-sponsored report on Prop 8 and race has reignited the discussion about the determinants of support for Prop 8. Unsurprisingly, most of the interest in this report has been on what it says about African American voters’ support for the amendment. In my opinion, the report does an impressive job of demonstrating that exit polls likely overstated Black voters’ support. Instead, just under 60% of both African Americans and Latinos supported Prop 8, while Whites and Asians were barely against it.
But what explains the gap between Blacks/Latinos and Whites/Asians? This is where things get controversial. The report suggests that the remaining gap between these ethnic groups can be explained by differences in religiosity. On Monday, Jim suggested that this analysis may have suffered from a low sample size, which can make real differences difficult to observe (statistically). Was the NGLTF report too quick to claim that racial differences were entirely explained by religious differences?
I set out to answer this question by doing my best to reconstruct the results of the poll on which the race and religion results were based. According to a comment on BTB by Jamie Grant of NGLTF, there were 149 African Americans sampled. I used other information from the report about the poll’s sample size, data about the demographics of the sample, and the study’s assumptions about the California voting population, to complete a “best-guess” reconstruction of the racial composition of the remaining sample.
Report Modification #1: Although it is true that there is no significant effect of race after controlling for religion, there was not a significant effect of race before controlling for religion. This suggests that Jim’s point about high margins of error was right on. If we could not find racial differences before controlling for religion, it is not very impressive that we cannot find them afterwards.
Because the first point in the report was that African Americans’ support had been overstated, and that it was African Americans and Latinos together that showed (modestly) more support for Prop 8 than Whites and Asians, I then dichotomized people racially. I identified each person as a minority (African American or Latino) or not. By not dividing into as many small groups, we help to bypass the sample size problem identified by Jim.
Report Modification #2: This analysis produced an unexpected finding, one that has not been considered in the discussion. The influence of race depended on whether one was religious. Among those who were highly religious, support for Prop 8 was equally high across the races. But among those who were less religious, African Americans and Latinos were more supportive of Prop 8 than Whites and Asians. The NGLTF report misses this effect because neither Latinos or African Americans by themselves show significantly higher support (in the low religiosity subsample) because of Jim’s high margins of error.
This suggests that the relationship between race, religion, and Prop 8 support is slightly more complicated than has been discussed. Being religious was associated with increased support for Prop 8, but among those who were not religious, being African American or Latino was associated with support for Prop 8.
These conclusions aside, I must say I have been confused by the intense interest in whether religiosity can “explain away” racial differences in support for Prop 8. Unless one believed that the skin color gene also produced support for Prop 8, racial differences in support for Prop 8 would have to be “explained through” some cultural factor. If that factor is religion, the question simply becomes, “Why do some racial groups show more interest in homophobic religious institutions than others?”, and I do not see why this would be any less troubling to those who seek to shift this discussion away from race. Nevertheless, my new analyses suggest that among the non-religious, an unidentified explanation for racial differences remain.
Why Can’t We Talk About Black Homophobia?
This commentary is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect that of other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin.
January 14th, 2009
To contribute to the saturated discussion on here about homophobia in the black community:
It is understandable to question the CNN exit poll that found 70 percent of African-Americans supported Prop. 8 given the range of figures that have been reported. But there is a misguided hesitation to acknowledging the fact that — statistically and anecdotally — African-Americans tend to be more homophobic than their white counterparts.
Citing the support for LGBT rights from black organizations such as The Black Caucus, Bishops Carlton Pearson and John Selders call black homophobia a myth and a ploy by “our enemies” to divide us. Many have also argued that church attendance/religiosity as opposed to African-American identity was responsible for the majority of blacks voting in favor of Prop. 8.
These arguments are intended to prevent scapegoating of the black community, shifting the burden of culpability from race to religion. However, turning a blind eye to broader cultural issues for the sake of comity is intellectually dishonest.
Among scholars, it is a well-reported and established fact that homophobia is more prevalent in the African-American community than in the general public: see, inter alia, studies by Brandt (1999) (PDF), Carter (1994), Hudson and Ricketts (1980), Schneider and Lewis (1984) and Tiemeyer (1993). Research bears out that a number of social factors are correlated with homophobic attitudes among blacks, including:
- church attendance/religiosity
- urban residency (urban residents are less homophobic than rural residents)
- sex (men are more homophobic than women)
However, according to a 2003 study by Gregory Lewis, a professor in the Department of Public Administration and Urban Studies at Georgia University, even if one controls for these demographic variables, blacks are still more likely to be homophobic than their white counterparts, though they are also more likely to support nondiscriminatory legislation (e.g. employment nondiscrimination).
Coretta Scott King acknowledged the problem of homophobia in the black community (comments from the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS):
“Homophobia is still a great problem throughout America, but in the African-American community it is even more threatening. This is an enormous obstacle for ever yone involved in AIDS prevention, treatment and research. … We have to launch a national campaign against homophobia in the black community.”
Failing to recognize homophobic attitudes in the black community is not only dishonest, it fails to acknowledge the unique hardships that African-American LGBT individuals face: in many surveys, African-American gays and lesbians have reported greater pressure to hide their identity and homosexual behavior and identify as straight. It has further been speculated that the hostility toward homosexuality among blacks is partially responsible for the “down low” phenomenon in the black community and the increased prevalence of HIV among black LGBT individuals. Failing to acknowledge homophobia in the black community erases the experience of black LGBT individuals from the story of LGBT rights and ignores the numerous sociological and medical implications of these attitudes.
The question of why attitudes in the black community are more homophobic than in the general public is an interesting one — and too large to be settled in a blog post. But as Harvard professor Orlando Patterson, who is African-American, points out, it need not be the case that examining issues in the African-American community invariably turns into a blame game. If the goal is really to “educate” and “[reach] out to the African-American community,” we should understand the terms on which we do so.
Finally, I think part of the hesitation in acknowledging homophobia in the black community is about privilege: Who gets to talk about problems in the African-American community? For members outside of the African-American community (read: White people) to critique its social norms is to invoke White privilege and call to mind the historical power relationship between blacks and whites. I think it would be best for LGBT folk who are African-American to lead the discussion, no less so because they speak from a position of greater understanding.
Editor’s note: We are trying out Gabriel Arana as a possible new contributor to Box Turtle Bulletin. Gabriel is a graduate of linguistics from Cornell University, and he is now pursuing a career in journalism as a fact checkor for The Nation. Some of you may remember him as a former patient of ex-gay therapist Dr. Joseph Nicolosi. While he’s had a personal blog for some time, he’s new to the world of LGBT community blogging. He’s an Arizona native — specifically from Nogales on the U.S./Mexico border — but he now makes his home among the bright lights of New York City. Please welcome Gabriel to the pad. — Jim Burroway.
Prop 8 and Race: A Rejoinder
January 14th, 2009
I want to highlight this comment left by Jaime Grant, director of the NGLTF Policy Institute, the research arm of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Jaime critiques my critique of the NGLTF study on California’s Prop 8 shedding some light on a key figure, discusses my concern about margins of error, and disagrees outright on some of my points. This is why we have comments; well-informed commenters keep us on our toes. We will have someone else weighing in on the study, hopefully later today.
As director of the NGLTF Policy Institute, I want to thank Jim Burroway for ultimately concluding that the authors of our recent election analysis report on Prop 8 – Ken Sherrill and Pat Egan “were successful in demonstrating that the Black vote may be closer to 58% than 70%.” At no point in the Task Force report do we make a claim that 58 percent is the precise answer. Rather, we stress throughout the study that the range of data available to us leads us to the conclusion that 58% is much more accurate than 70%.
Burroway is justifiably concerned about sample size. The DBR survey includes 149 African Americans, making the margin of error for that population (as is typically calculated by pollsters) 8 percentage points. Our analysis of this minority population is of course limited by its sample size in this survey. But unlike other polls, the DBR survey makes a deliberate attempt to rectify this problem by over-sampling African Americans, resulting in an African American sample that is at least double the size of those found in typical surveys of Californians. This greatly augments the statistical power of our survey to detect differences among racial and ethnic groups.
Burroway says that we conclude that “religiosity explains the differences in how African-Americans voted relative to everyone else.” This falsely characterizes our conclusions. We say rather that “controlling for frequency of religious attendance helps explain why African Americans supported Proposition 8 at higher levels than the population as a whole.” In other words, if you’re trying to figure out why African Americans voted at higher rates for Proposition 8 than the general population, part of the answer is that they as a group are more religious than the general population–and religious people voted at high rates for Prop. 8. We show this quite clearly.
Thanks for your attention to this study, which we believe points to the value of LGBT-friendly faith based organizing in ballot measure campaigns. As all of us consider how to move the dial just a few more critical points toward marriage equality, taking a close look at the vote, while taking stock of our strategies to date, is an important next step.
Director of the Policy Institute
The NGLTF Study On Race and Prop 8: The Problem of Margins of Error
This commentary is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect that of other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin.
January 12th, 2009
Well, I’ve said before I had some homework to do this weekend. It turns out that this weekend was jam-packed with unexpected activities, but I did manage to give the NGLTF report (PDF: 420KB/17 pages) a careful read this morning while sipping tea from my family’s heirloom Fiestaware handed down from my great-great grandmother. Yes, I’m a dish queen.
Margin of Error: The Key
Timothy’s Kincaid’s analysis garnered a lot of controversy last week. Many people privately called and emailed to ask if I agreed with it. My only response at the time is that I hadn’t had a chance to look over the NGLTF report or Timothy’s analysis, but I generally trust his judgment. Well, now I have studied the report, and I do think it falls short, but in very different ways than what Timothy found.
My concerns about this report begin with one important paragraph on page 2:
Table 1 displays findings from a poll of California voters conducted by David Binder Research (DBR) between November 6th and 16th, 2008. The survey included 1,066 respondents selected at random from state voter registration lists, including an oversample of 266 African American, Latino, and Asian‐American voters. Participants were asked a series of questions about Proposition 8, as well as basic questions about their demographic background, religion, political views, and other characteristics. The sample in the DBR survey was limited to those who reported voting in the November 4 general election, and its margin of error was 3 percentage points (although the margin is greater for analyses of subgroups within the sample).
The DBR survey is the backbone of this study. That three-percent margin of error applies only to the 1,066 respondents overall, not to the smaller sample of 266 African-American, Latino, and Asian-American voters. The authors acknowledge that “the margin is greater for analyses of subgroups within the sample,” but they don’t tell you what those margins are. This is important, because as sample sizes get smaller, the margin of error gets larger.
A simple calculation for the 266 African-American, Latino, and Asian-American voters reveals that this margin of error is actually plus or minus 6 percentage points. That is margin of error for the three groups combined. Nowhere in this report is a breakdown of the three groups revealed. Of the 266 participants in the subgroup, how many were African-American?
Since they don’t tell us, we’re left to guess. If Blacks made up half of that pool, then responses from African-Americans alone are subject to an 8.5% margin of error. Cut that in about half again to separate the church-going from the non-church-going, then you’re up to about a plus or minus 12 percentage point margin of error for the two groups of African-Americans separately. If Blacks only made up a third of that pool, then the margins of error are greater still — about 10.4% and 14.7% respectively. This is huge. How do these large margins of error affect the rest of the report?
Religiosity As An Explanation
To see, let’s move on to this graphic, which illustrates the religiosity of the four ethnic groups using the DBR survey data with the margins of error we just talked about. You’ll have to click on the image to see it clearly:
According to the DBR survey, 57% of African-American voters attend church service weekly, compared to 40% for Asians, 47% for Latinos, and 42% for White. The authors assert that the differences between African-Americans and the rest of the population is statistically significant, which checks out according to the standard measures for statistical significance. Even with this small sample size and large margin of error, the DBR data does successfully demonstrate that African-Americans are more likely to attend weekly religious services than the other groups.
That then leads us to this graphic, based again on the same DBR survey. Again, you’ll have to click on it to see clearly:
The authors say that the differences shown in this graph between ethnic groups are not statistically significant, and they conclude that this shows that religiosity explains the differences in how African-Americans voted relative to everyone else.
Well, at least one part of their statement is absolutely correct. The differences between ethnic groups in the figures referenced in this table are not statistically significant according to all the standard measures of significance — but that’s because the sample sizes are so small.
There is a logical fallacy in saying that just because this data shows no statistically significant difference, that there is no actual difference. That’s not true. All we can say is that this data is incapable of showing a statistically significant difference based on these results and these small sample sizes. It cannot demonstrate that there is no difference in actuality. Remember, we’re dealing with a probable margin of error for the African-American churchgoing sample of somewhere in the neighborhood of plus or minus 12% to 14.7%. With an uncertainty that large, these numbers could be all over the place and still be a statistical tie. Any assessment of actual differences is completely swamped by the margins of error.
If the study consisted of a larger pool of African-American respondents to get a lower the margin of error, we might have been able to converge on a statistically significant difference. Or maybe then we can prove that there really is no difference in how religious African-Americans voted compared to the other groups. But with this data, we cannot tell either way. The Achilles Heel in this study remains the very small sample size for African-Americans and the resulting large margins of error for that sample. I don’t think they are able to make the case that religiosity explains the African-American vote with this data.
The African-American Vote on Prop 8
So how did African-Americans vote? Let’s go to this graphic from the NGLTF report:
The NGLTF study is being used to throw cold water on CNN’s NEP exit poll, which said that 70% of African-Americans supported Prop 8. The middle set of bars are the NEP exit poll, which shows African-Americans voting 70% for Prop 8 (in gray) versus 52% overall voting for Prop 8 (in black). The graphic also shows two surveys taken before the election (The Field Poll of 10/23 and SurveyUSA on 10/30) and two surveys taken after the election (the DBR poll we’ve already mentioned showing 58% of African-Americans supporting Prop 8 versus 51% overall on 11/11, and the SurveyUSA on 11/19). The study authors note:
As shown in Figure 2, two surveys conducted just before Election Day (by Field and SurveyUSA) found insignificant differences in support for Proposition 8 between African Americans and Californians as a whole. Two surveys conducted in the weeks following Election Day found similar results. On average, the difference in support between African Americans and all voters in these four surveys was just two percentage points. The NEP exit poll finding—that black support for Proposition 8 was 18 points higher than Californians as a whole—is most likely an “outlier,” a result that is very different than what concurrent data trends suggest to be the case. [Emphasis mine]
The authors dismiss the NEP exit poll as an outlier, an assessment that I can agree with. Exit polls, by their nature, don’t include margins of error. But since it is likely that the sample size of African-Americans was very small in this exit poll, I can accept that it is probably not an accurate snapshot of how African-Americans voted.
However, the study authors claim that the four remaining surveys show a difference of just two percentage points on average. True enough, in a strictly mathematical sense. But since the last SurveyUSA was the only survey showing African-Americans actually opposing Prop 8 to a remarkable degree compared to everyone else — that difference is a whopping eight percentage points in the other direction — I don’t see how we can regard that as anything but an outlier as well. So, with the three remaining polls, the difference is now back up to five percentage points.
Is this significant? I can’t tell, since again, we don’t know the sample sizes of African-Americans in these polls to judge whether they are robust enough to draw a reasonable conclusion.
The problem of sample sizes and margins of error, in my mind, does lay to rest one of Timothy’s concerns, and that is this:
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.
Given the likely margins of error involved, I don’t think that this chart is off base entirely. No poll is likely to mimic the 52.3% of the actual vote at the means, but shoving all of these figures around their margins of error will get there quite easily. (I also wonder if maybe there ought to be an “other” category not included in the table.)
Fifty-eight percent as a very rough ballpark figure could be about right for the African-American vote. But given some of the margins of error we tossed around earlier, that figure could be as high as about 67% to 70%, or as low as 49% to 46%. Which means that if we used the DBR survey as the reference survey as the NGLTF study authors did, then none of those surveys which I (or the NGLTF authors) suggested were outliers may be outliers after all. The DBR survey may well validate all of them.
The study authors then replicate a 58% estimate by using data depicted in this figure, which is based on precinct-level voting data from five California counties:
The line drawn through the figure represents a “running-mean smoother” to show the overall trend as the racial mix of precincts moves from 0% to 100% African-American. Unlike Timothy, I’m satisfied with this representation which the authors use to arrive at a 58% figure for African-Americans, although I am keen to learn the algorithm for the smoother. But generally this verifies what many of us suspect: Those who live in diverse settings are more comfortable with diversity. Those who don’t, aren’t.
The reason I’m okay with this is that the authors also ran this same data set through two other independent analyses which led them to report a degree of comfort with an estimate of 58% of African-Americans voting for Prop 8. They do caution however, that “rather than being treated as definitive, these estimates should be considered as helping to corroborate the individual-level findings discussed earlier in this section of the study” — namely, the discussion of the five surveys we discussed earlier.
But in the end, I do believe the authors were successful in demonstrating that the Black vote may be closer to 58% than 70%. The higher figure, technically speaking, still barely remains in the theoretical realm of possibility, but I think we can safely dismiss it. But I would also caution that 58% might not be accurate either.
Can The Scapegoating End?
But if 58% is plausible, does this mean that the scapegoating of African-Americans can come to an end? Of course it does.
But what if the authors instead determined that the figure was closer to 70%? Would that have meant that blaming African-Americans for Prop 8′s passage was legitimate? Ask yourself this and take a hard look at how you answer, because this is critical to where our movement goes next. The answer to this question speaks loudly to our own character as a community.
If all it takes is a survey to give one oppressed minority the justification it needs to blame another oppressed minority for its woes, then we have a lot more work to do before we can credibly address society’s attitudes about fairness and equality. We will have to change our own attitudes first.
We cannot assume that one oppressed minority ought to automatically empathize with another oppressed minority’s oppression. If that were true, Jews and Palestinians would see themselves in each other and peace would break out all over the Middle East. Well that certainly hasn’t happened, has it?
Just to touch the tip of a few icebergs, gays were never enslaved or lynched in mass numbers. Non-Black gays really have no idea what it’s like to have that in their history. On the other hand, heterosexual Blacks were never obliged to undergo cruel “cures,” nor were they ostracized from their own families because of their Blackness. We really don’t know — internally know — the other’s experiences with history, and we can no longer be so naive in assuming that others will naturally see and recognize our experiences with discrimination just because they were discriminated against in a different way for different reasons.
So we must begin the task of reaching out to the African-American community, and more importantly, we need to work to raise the visibility of African-Americans within our own raucous LGBT family. If we want to confront homophobia in the Black community, we must also deal with examples of both overt and underlying racism within our own.
And we need to talk honestly and listen patiently to each other. We need to do this not to “educate” the other, as though we had some sort of special prize that we wish to arrogantly bestow on some poor, unenlightened folks. Instead, we need to do this with the sincere intent of understanding each other and ourselves better.
We need to do this not because a survey says we ought to. We need to do this because it is the right thing to do.
And we need to do this not just because elections are at stake, but because lives are at stake as well.
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?