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