If speculation in media and political circles is any indication, the biggest political risk in President Obama's recently announced support for gay marriage lies in homophobic black voters abandoning the president in droves. But are African-American voters, who supported Obama by a 96 percent margin in 2008, really inclined to stay home in 2012 over this issue?
The Root posed this question to a black minister; a black LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activist, who was also a key strategist in Washington, D.C.'s successful 2010 campaign for marriage equality; and a scholar on the African-American electorate. They argued that most black voters will still vote for him on Election Day.
Black People (Including Black Churchgoers) Are Not a Monolith
It should go without saying that African Americans are not a single-issue voting bloc and, like other ethnic groups, hold different views on any given subject. But much of the political discourse would suggest that when it comes to same-sex marriage, blacks are not only wildly opposed but consider it a priority issue at the ballot. Not everyone buys the narrative.
"I'm of the belief that he will lose some black voters — in the same way that he lost some when it came to his economic platform or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," the Rev. Leslie Watson Malachi, director of African-American religious affairs at People for the American Way, told The Root. "The majority of African Americans do not look at one single issue but at the candidate who speaks to the broader interests of what it means to be African American. We approach elections with the same thoughtfulness and complexities as everybody else. I've always found it insulting to say that we do not engage in a serious decision-making process around this."
But what about the black pastors and churchgoers so often credited as the source of sentiment against gay marriage in the community? On CNN on Thursday, Jamal Harrison Bryant, pastor of Baltimore's Empowerment Temple and the leader of a movement to register African-American congregations to vote, expressed severe apprehensions about the president's stance. "A lot of African-American leaders right now are really dazed by this because we didn't see it coming," he said. "How now do we juxtapose this issue up against a president that we have supported over the last four years?"
However, Malachi stressed that not all black Christians see same-sex marriage the same way. "The only place where we are in total agreement is when it comes to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior," said Malachi, who works with African-American clergy members across the country and says she sees a range of views on gay marriage, including those who have stood up for equality.
This Is Not a Leading Issue for Most Black Voters
For African-American voters who are opposed to same-sex marriage, however, there is no evidence that it is a galvanizing issue at the polls. "There's been a lot of unfounded conjecture that black support for the president will wane substantially, with absolutely no data to substantiate that," Aisha Moodie-Mills, adviser for LGBT policy and racial justice at the Center for American Progress, told The Root.
Moodie-Mills argued that we already saw this play out in 2008 over California's Proposition 8. Even though 58 percent of African-American voters supported the ballot measure, which overturned the right of same-sex couples to marry in the state, 90 percent of that same electorate still voted for Barack Obama. The massive support held up despite the fact that Obama had spoken against Proposition 8 himself.
"You didn't see any falloff from black voters because Obama said that he believes we shouldn't be discriminating at the ballot box," she said, adding that, similarly, there was no backlash around the president's repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell" or his decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act.
"The top issues for African Americans are jobs and the economy," said David Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, whose scholarship focuses on black civic engagement. "In surveys on what African-American voters consider to be the most important problems in the country, which I often ask when I poll, gay marriage does not even show up."
This week, however, writer Touré pointed to the near-record turnout in North Carolina to vote for Amendment One, which bans same-sex marriage in the state (and where black voters favored the measure 2-to-1). Isn't that proof that black voters are in fact energized around this issue?
Bositis counters that a primary election, in which most participants were Republicans, is a drastically different context from a general presidential election. "The speaker of the House in North Carolina admitted that they put it on the primary ballot because if they'd put it on the general-election ballot, it probably would have lost," he said, adding that the primary's turnout of 34 percent of eligible voters was hardly impressive. "The speaker also said that within 20 years, there will be gay marriage in North Carolina."
Black Views on Same-Sex Marriage Are Changing
On that note, African-American opposition to gay marriage is rapidly falling — as it is among all Americans. According to a new Pew Research Center report, since 2008 black opposition to gay marriage has dropped from 63 percent to 49 percent, and African Americans in favor of gay marriage have increased from 26 percent to 39 percent. Last month a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll showed that 50 percent of African Americans support gay marriage, up from 32 percent in 2009.
Furthermore, said Moodie-Mills, "What the polls also show us is that if you back out of just the marriage conversation and talk about equality for LGBT Americans in general, and nondiscrimination orders that protect them from being treated differently than anyone else, overwhelmingly, African Americans support civil rights and equality for LGBT people."
She also maintains that conservative groups have driven the "blacks vs. gays" narrative as a wedge issue. "The conservative strategy has been to pit black folks against gay folks, to erode the president's base," said Moodie-Mills. "These are the same conservatives who are also trying to disenfranchise black folks by pushing voter-suppression laws and reducing safety-net programs that support a lot of black families who are struggling. When you pull that wool from people's eyes, people get that this is an effort to manipulate our community."
Bositis adds that President Obama only expressed his personal support for marriage equality. In his ABC News interview, he made it clear that the White House will not pursue federal laws to legalize gay marriage, leaving such decisions to the States. "As much as most African Americans admire Obama, they're certainly going to give him some latitude in terms of expressing his personal opinion."
Malachi says that the six-month period before Election Day is a long time in a political climate. Acknowledging the strong, negative reactions that many African Americans have had to the president's opinion, their feelings today won't necessarily keep them from the polls on November 6. "This is not just about the presidency; it's about the future of this country," she said. "Over the summer, people are going to be reflective about their vote and what it means to them individually, collectively and spiritually — and what it means in terms of the kind of country we would like to see moving forward."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.