Why Prop 8 Passed in California: The Myth of the Black/Gay Divide
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In the wake of Barack Obama's historic victory, a false and reactionary narrative has emerged that blames Black voters for the gay marriage ban that passed by a 52 to 48 percent margin in California.
While Florida and Arizona also passed same-sex marriage bans, the vote for Prop 8 in the politically progressive state of California is widely attributed to the enormous surge of Black voters, 70 percent of whom approved the ban reversing the state's May 2008 Supreme Court decision allowing lesbians and gays to marry. The exit polls showed that 53 percent of Latinos voted for the ban, as well as around 49 percent of white voters.
The state's Black population is 6.2 percent, and it accounted for 10 percent of the overall vote. In other words, blaming African Americans for the referendum's passage ignores 90 percent of the vote.
It also ignores recent history. To judge from social research, had there been an unapologetically pro-civil rights campaign, there was the prospect of a different outcome.
The most comprehensive study of Black attitudes toward homosexuality, which combines 31 national surveys from 1973 to 2000, came to a fascinating conclusion. Georgia State University researchers found that "Blacks appear to be more likely than whites both to see homosexuality as wrong and to favor gay-rights laws."
African Americans' religiosity leads many to believe that homosexuality is a sin, while their own experience of oppression leads them to oppose discrimination. This was borne out in the 2004 elections, where, in the six states with substantial Black populations that had same-sex marriage bans on their ballots, Blacks were slightly less likely than whites to vote for them.
Nationally, 58 percent now oppose gay marriage bans, a dramatic shift from just a few years ago. If an explicit case in favor of gay marriage were made by activists, a multiracial majority could be won over in coming years.
The exit poll statistics from California don't explain the more important story of why so many of California's Black, Brown and white citizens -- who voted overwhelmingly for the first African American president by a 56 to 37 percent margin -- also supported striking down civil rights for lesbians and gays.
The most critical reason was the ineffective strategy used by pro-gay marriage forces that adhered closely to the Democratic Party -- and Barack Obama's -- equivocal position on the issue.
While formally opposing Prop 8, both Obama and his running mate Joe Biden were vocal throughout the campaign about their personal discomfort with and opposition to same-sex marriage.
Despite the unprecedented and astonishing sums of money raised to fight the referendum -- the pro-equality side took in $43.6 million, compared with $29.8 million for the anti-gay marriage forces -- the No on 8 side lost.
The statewide No on 8 Coalition didn't use the money for a grassroots organizing campaign. It didn't put out a call for activists to hit the phones, knock on doors and hold rallies and actions to publicly denounce the bigotry of the measure -- though in a few cases, activists took the initiative to do so on their own.
Adhering to the false notion that the Democrats lost the 2004 presidential election due to the assertiveness of gay marriage activists, the heads of the No on 8 campaign avoided even using words like "gay" or "bigoted." Instead, one TV ad opposing the measure featured a straight white couple, and only obliquely referenced gays at all when the camera panned over a bookshelf with a photo of two women and their children.