Don’t Blame Black Voters: The Obama Non-Effect

The hyper-visibility of African Americans in this year’s presidential election led to an unfortunate consequence in California. Since exit polls revealed that 70 percent of African Americans voted “Yes” on Proposition 8, the black community in general—and the black church in particular—has become an easy target of blame and ridicule.

Blogs and newspaper columns are abuzz about how blacks have betrayed the cause of civil rights in “their” moment of victory with Obama. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly irresponsibly and disingenuously declared that GLBT protestors should direct their ire at the black community since, in his words, “the black community cast the deciding vote.” Even comedian John Stewart chimed in with a satirical cheap shot declaring that African-American celebration over President-Elect Obama amounted to, “Free at last, free at last—whoa, whoa, [referring to an image of two men holding hands]—where are you two going?”

Tragicomic, indeed.

I understand that emotions over the passing of Proposition 8 in California are high. Seeing as my household was among those that opposed the measure, I am personally frustrated with the cultural anxiety, ignorance and/or intolerance that animated the vast majority of African Americans to support the same-sex marriage ban. But to lay the blame of Prop. 8 at the door of the black community is analytically, descriptively, and politically flawed.

Regional and Religious, not Racial

This blame game is analytically flawed, as the underlying assumptions are premised on a skewed racial causality. The so-called “Obama Effect” contends that black people showed up en masse to vote for Barack Obama, and in turn, supported Prop 8. For the sake of argument, lets accept exit poll results that 70 percent of black voters supported the measure. African Americans, however, constitute around 8-9 percent of the California electorate. Seeing as the amendment passed 52-47 percent, there is no guarantee that even split opposition from black voters would have blocked the proposed same-sex marriage ban.

/images/managed/Story+Image_walton_761.jpgOn the other hand, when we move away from race as a sole determining factor and consider other variables we get a much clearer picture of Prop. 8’s proponents. Sixty percent of suburbanites supported Prop. 8, as did 82 percent of Republicans. Over half of California voters reside in the suburbs, while as much as 30 percent of the state electorate belongs to the GOP. Moreover, let’s not forget about the over 80 percent of conservative white evangelicals who supported the amendment, and the 64 percent of Catholics as well. These two groups comprise 17 and 29 percent of California voters, respectively. So when we consider the disproportionate influence of these demographics on the state electorate in relation to the small number of African Americans, it is inconceivable to argue that African Americans are to blame. The fault lines of a progressive coalition to resist Prop. 8 were seemingly regional and religious as opposed to racially determined.

Do Black Folks Need an Elton John?

Scapegoating black folks is descriptively flawed because it pits a racial group against a multiracial reality. By positioning African Americans as a race in opposition to the GLBT community, one automatically renders black gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender persons invisible. Moreover, it assumes that African Americans are not cognizant of, and/or have no deep and complicated relationships with GLBT persons on a regular basis. Such a reductionist view of the black community may be what led Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times to suggest that African Americans simply needed a black Elton John—which is to say, someone who came out like an Ellen Degeneres or a David Geffen. Were this the case, according to Lopez, homosexuality might eventually become more acceptable among African Americans.

Well, I don’t consider myself an expert on black people, but I would bet a little red Corvette that the transparent doors that hang on the closets of many of our most beloved family members, celebrities, and preachers matter less than some may think. Let’s be honest! Nobody ever expected to open Ebony and read about Luther Vandross’ marriage to a woman; yet how many African-American houses did Luther’s unmistakable voice turn into a home? Luther is far from alone. Has Prince’s transgender persona hurt his standing among African Americans? Do the gospel melodies of James Cleveland carry any less credibility on Sunday morning? Have not black Christians often looked beyond the, err, “covert indulgences” of prominent clergy and gender ambiguities of choir directors? And last I checked, a critical number of black folk just love them some Tyler Perry Mable “Madea” Simmons (image right). /images/managed/Story+Image_madea+simmons.jpg

The difference, historically and culturally, is that being black in America has proven to be enough of a social impediment. So the fact that many African Americans choose not to take the same risks as Elton John or T.R. Knight does not mean that black people on the ground are any less aware and accepting of GLBT persons than the larger society—which, to be sure, is not very accepting at all. It just means that many African Americans have not been able to move beyond the dichotomous relationship between a public politics of denial and the private acknowledgment concerning the complicated sexual lives black folks lead.

The “Holy Trinity” of American Oppression

Finally, if GLBT activists and their progressive allies simply focus on phenotype, they will not be forced to wrestle with the many political miscalculations that took place around Proposition 8. We can start with the lack of outreach among African American communities. Karl Rove proved in 2004 with black voters in Ohio that persons should not assume that African Americans will consistently vote progressive. Unfortunately, proponents of Prop. 8 got that memo and actively inundated African-American pastors with untruths.

Maybe gay rights activists could have explained how a “No” vote on Prop. 8 was not a vote in favor of gay marriage, but a vote against having the state determine the private lives of select Californians. Activists could have possibly spelled out how a “No” vote would not force preachers to perform a gay wedding ceremony any more than it would force them to marry a recently divorced deacon and his former mistress. And this could have possibly been the perfect opportunity for white GLBT persons to extend a welcome hand to African American GLBT persons who often feel ostracized rather than welcomed in the “friendly” parts of Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco.

What’s more, gay activists may need to rethink their sales pitch to black voters that gay marriage is a civil right. Even Barack Obama consistently professed his opposition to gay marriage in favor of civil unions. Thus, greater clarity could be brought to this issue not just in terms of sacred union, but in regards to spelling out the civic protections involved between consenting adults.

In all fairness, I realize that inconsistencies abound as it relates to black folks’ fascination with “protecting traditional marriage.” The racial group with the lowest marriage rate in America might want to defer the moral high ground on this topic. Ironically, the protection of traditional marriage in the black community is inextricably bound up with a legacy of nontraditional familial practices. Many black churches have adhered to Victorian ideals of the family as a viable means toward gaining social equality since the Reconstruction era; to protect the family is to promote and propel the community forward. And the real and perceived absence of black men in churches and as the “head of the household” has caused many to fetishize the traditional ideal as the best corrective to social chaos.

When we couple this strategy of social uplift with the desire among African Americans to present a conservative public stance to counter media portrayals of the community as sexually wanton, one begins to understand the cultural anxieties and insecurities driving black churches. I offer this not as an apology for heterosexism, which breeds religiously-sanctioned homophobia; but simply to suggest the ways race, sexuality and religion—the holy trinity of American oppression—come together to inform the way many African Americans interpret this issue. As the roots are more textured than simple African-American homophobia and hate, we must combat and confront it with more than race-baiting and misdirected blame. Conversation is the key. As we say every Sunday, “It’s time to open the doors of the church!”

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Read a response in The Devil’s Advocate blog, The Black Vote Has Everything to do With Prop 8.

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jonathan.walton@mac.com'

Jonathan L. Walton is assistant professor at Harvard Divinity School. His lastest book is: Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Religious Broadcasting (New York University Press).