Black Voters Are Pragmatic About Gay Marriage

A report indicates that black voters who don't support same-sex marriage will vote for candidates who do. This spells opportunity for white LGBT activists, if they're willing to take heed.

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Tuesday's Washington Post article examining the response by African-American voters to President Barack Obama's new Defense of Marriage Act policy reveals what many in the black community already know: When it comes to the ballot box, marriage equality is mostly a nonissue. In interviews with black pastors, pollsters, churchgoers and professors, African-American voters explain that economic and social-justice platforms are of far greater concern than LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues.

Of course there are many African Americans -- particularly the religious -- for whom same-sex marriage will always be anathema. But the message is clear: Even voters who don't support marriage equality still appear willing to elect politicians who do.

"Black voters are well aware that we're dealing with complex issues that are not always a zero-sum game," says J. Kameron Carter, associate professor of theology and black church studies at Duke University. "What this article illustrates is that black voters are as sophisticated as anyone else," he adds, "and it's time the larger LGBT leadership began to recognize it."

While the Post article suggests this sophistication, its writers fail to give it the attention it deserves. Doing so would have offered not only a more nuanced analysis of DOMA's impact on black voters but also an entirely new take on their relationship with the larger LGBT movement itself.

The Misunderstood Black Vote

And the Post revisits -- yet again -- the blaming of black churchgoers for the passage of California's Proposition 8 during the 2008 election cycle. Indeed, even before that November vote, prominent white members of the LGBT community vilified religious African Americans for supposedly voting with a stridently anti-LGBT agenda. Indeed, church attendance has been called the main cause of black voters' support for Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.

But the truth is actually reversed. Focused far more on job creation, health care and education than on gay marriage, black voters aren't supporting conservative candidates simply because they oppose LGBT rights. Instead, they are voting for progressive pro-LGBT candidates -- despite disagreeing with their pro-LGBT platforms.

"The truth is, we just don't see blacks voting against a candidate based on [his or her] support of gay marriage," says Patrick Egan, assistant professor of politics and public policy at New York University. "We actually don't see this becoming an important issue for voters of any race."

Nonetheless, African Americans do skew conservative when voting for explicitly anti-LGBT initiatives such as Proposition 8, Egan notes. "But once you take church attendance into account, the numbers are not all that different" for blacks and equally religious White voters. In fact, trade the word "marriage" for "civil unions/domestic partnerships," and blacks are actually slightly more favorable than the general population toward legal recognition of same-sex relationships, according to a 2009 poll by the Third Way, a centrist-progressive think tank in Washington, D.C.

As we shift into the 2012 election cycle, marriage equality is certain to play prominently on both party platforms. On a national level, President Obama's DOMA stance is already under attack by potential Republican candidates such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. On a state level, the almost certain passage of marriage equality in Maryland this month paves the way for an almost equally certain Proposition 8-styled battle to nullify it on the 2012 ballot. 

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