Call me a pessimist. As overjoyed as I was to see Obama become our next president (sane! also black. but SANE!), a part of me held back from celebrating with as much abandon as I really wanted to. This is because another part of me, long-bruised and sore, was tensing up, readying itself for another blow. Because, I realized even before Obama won, latent racists everywhere were about to lose their shit. I’m not talking about the Klan, here; they’re actually handling the whole thing pretty well, all things considered. I’m talking about the very white people, and some of the PoC and other members of oppressed groups, who voted for Obama. Who, I suspect, are about to gleefully declare that racism is now dead — whereupon they will immediately say or do something stupidly racist.
Unfortunately, the first direction from which I’ve been hearing this shit-losing stupidity has been from a group with whom I have a great deal of sympathy, especially recently — LGBTQ opponents of California’s reprehensible Proposition 8: the ban on gay marriage. Now, I hate that Prop 8 passed. I agree with its opponents that Prop 8 enshrines bigotry into California’s code of laws, doesn’t threaten “traditional marriage” (whateverthefuck that is) one bit, does threaten several thousand existing gay marriages, and should never have gone to a vote in the first damn place — it’s never smart to let a majority determine the civil rights of a minority. If the 1965 Voting Rights Act had been put to a popular vote, do you think Obama could’ve won on Tuesday? Do you think he even could have run in a country where poll taxes, literacy tests, and beating the crap out of anybody brown who dared to vote was still allowed? Some things, like basic human rights, should never be subject to the whims of the mob. But Prop 8 was, and the mob passed it.
But to hear some of the Prop 8 opponents talk during the post-game analysis, that mob was decidedly dark-skinned:
To be sure, this is not the media’s fault. But its reticence on the uneven nature of American progress is strikingly naive and delusional, especially given the overwhelming–though not singularly determinative–role that African-Americans played in supporting Prop 8 and denying other Americans their civil rights. While seventy percent of self-identified gays and lesbians supported the first African-American presidential candidate (according to the exit poll reported by CNN), seventy percent of African American voters approved Prop 8, compared to 53% of Latino voters, 49% of white voters, and 49% of Asian voters.
That was Shaun Halper of the Huffington Post. Losing his shit. He isn’t the only one doing this, but I’ve decided to focus on his article because it’s the most obvious example of a trend. (Read the comments to see just how angry Prop 8 opponents are at black people right now.) Halper doesn’t even seem to see the problems inherent in his logic. For one thing, although he qualifies it, the “overwhelming” role that he ascribes to African-American voters is not so much. AfAms made up 10% of the CA electorate according to exit-poll estimates, in part because California allows early voting and that seems to favor PoC and poor voters, who have less flexibility in work schedules and fewer transportation options to get to the polls. Halper notes that 70% of that 10% — 7% of all voters, in other words — went Yes on 8. This does not equal “overwhelming”, at least not in my book.
For another thing, African Americans constitute only the third largest minority group in California. According to the US Census Bureau, they’re about 6% of the population. Asian Americans make up roughly double their numbers at 12%, and Latinas/os equal both of the previous two groups combined times two, at 36%. A slight majority of Asian Americans voted against Prop 8, as Halper points out, but a greater majority of Latinas/os voted for it. At possibly six times the number of AfAms at the polls, that Latino/a vote probably had a lot more to do with Prop 8 passing than the black vote did. Yet Halper saves his greatest ire for blacks.
Why? Why attack the 7%, instead of the other 93%? The margin by which Prop 8 passed was pretty slim, true, which means that every person who voted for it made a difference. And the AfAm vote might’ve carried the day if it had been oriented the other way, true. But the proportion of Californians aged 65 and older who voted yes was pretty high too (and also much larger than the pop of AfAms), and Halper isn’t excoriating old people. Ditto middle-class Californians, people who didn’t finish college, Mormons (and the Mormon church poured millions into getting Prop 8 passed, which probably had even more impact than that 7% of voters ever could), and probably a number of other demographic breakdown groups. So why does Halper point the finger mainly at black people?
It seems to be because Barack Obama identifies as black. Halper notes that LGBTQ voters supported Obama, and therefore he expected black voters to support No on Prop 8. But what does one have to do with the other? Halper seems to think the vote should have been a simple tit-for-tat on the sole basis of identity: if LGBTQs support AfAms, then AfAms should support LGBTQs, Q.E.D. But does Halper not realize the black guy never supported gay marriage in the first place? (Though he did also oppose Prop 8, note.) By voting for Obama, all those LGBTQ voters in essence supported a candidate who will make their struggle for marriage equality harder. (Granted, there was no better choice that had a chance.) So what did Halper expect? His whole “but we voted for you!!” reasoning makes no sense.
At least, it doesn’t until you realize that Halper’s rage is based on several erroneous assumptions. First, the notion that black people voted for Obama because he was black, not because they agreed with his policies. Also, the idea that white people who voted for Obama did so solely due to some kind of mass upwelling of white guilt — a kind of one-time “sorry ’bout that whole oppression thing” gesture. A favor, maybe. And thirdly, Halper assumes that black people are somehow inherently radical, pursuing an agenda far to the left of average (e.g., white) American politics. He must think this, if he believes a vote for Obama somehow represents a vote for liberal progressivism. I like Obama, but the man’s a centrist, no more progressive than Bill Clinton was (which is to say, not very). Why is Halper ascribing so much leftism to Obama and Obama’s black supporters? Because they’re black.
This is Republican thinking. It’s probably what caused the party to dismiss PoC in this election and instead target “real” Americans. It’s also racist thinking, in that it diminishes the complexity of the African-American community to something that can be bought and sold with a single simple coin — in this case the shiny golden-tan complexion of Obama, token of (apparently) white guilt and black radicalism. Given this thinking, it’s not surprising Halper is so angry. In his eyes, he and his fellow anti-Prop-8 activists dug deep to give us that coin, and all he wanted was a little change in return. (Change! Get it? Ha ha… okay, sorry.)
But more importantly, Halper’s thinking is just stupid thinking. If white guilt/generosity was the prime factor in electing a black president, Shirley Chisholm or Jesse Jackson would’ve done it decades ago. If black people simply wanted a black president, Alan Keyes would’ve done better in the Republican primary, and Cynthia McKinney would’ve won a greater percentage of Tuesday’s vote. And if the black community was as radically left as the Republicans would have us all think, I think most of us would’ve scorned the centrist Obama.
And the stupidest assumption underlying all this stupid thinking? The notion that LGBTQs = white.
Now, let’s pause here to consider that last point.
Whether you subscribe to the 10% theory or not, it should be blatantly obvious to anyone who actually interacts with it that the LGBTQ population is as racially diverse as, well, the human population. Certain cultures may do a harsher job of suppressing overt self-identification as such, but everybody knows they’re out there. Some of that diversity showed in the marketing campaign used by the Prop 8 opponents — though not much, from what I saw. Frankly, between those ads and the characterizations of people like Halper, which pit LGBTQs against PoCs as if the two are diametrically opposed, I get the distinct impression that LGBTQs are mostly white and well-off. Again, I’m aware that this characterization is false. LGBTQ couples in CA actually earn less household income than straight couples. But what we’re dealing with here is perception vs. reality.
Halper and others who are jumping on the blame-the-brown-people bandwagon seem to be ascribing the problem to religion, and subsets within the black community which have historically been “culturally anti-gay”, such as Caribbean Americans. I don’t disagree that this is part of the problem. Black churches have fallen prey to the same political manipulation as white evangelical churches in the past 30 or so years, and as a result they’ve become a lot less Christianlike in their acceptance of gay people than they used to be. (The political manipulation of churches is a rant for a different day, but I highly recommend David Kuo’s Tempting Faith on this subject.) But I think Halper is overlooking another part of the problem, in part because he’s perpetuating it. He didn’t start it; LGBTQs have been positioned as the antithesis of AfAms for a long time now, by many within both communities. Unfortunately this becomes a problem when, as the No on Prop 8 people did, gay marriage is presented as a civil rights issue.
It is. I want to emphasize this: it is. But it isn’t the same as the civil rights issues that have long been the focus of African American efforts, and I think many (white) gay-rights activists fail to recognize the nuances. It’s important to remember that the right to marry whom one wanted — racially at least, per Loving vs. Virginia, the case often cited by gay marriage advocates — was never a significant concern of the Civil Rights Movement. That right was fought for in the courts, not the streets, and by predominantly-white organizations such as the ACLU. It’s not clear whether there was ever popular support for interracial marriage within the black community — most AfAms still marry other AfAms, after all, and even now there’s a ton of ambivalence in the community about whether interracial marriage is a good thing. So back then, civil rights leaders understandably chose to focus their energies on more clear and present dangers such as the right to vote, the right to a decent education and livelihood, and the right to not be killed with impunity for stepping above one’s station.
So I have to wonder why the No on 8 people chose to present this as a parallel of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. To my mind, this helped trivialize their desire to marry, particularly among older blacks who remember when being able to marry white people was the least of their worries.
Let me tell you — when I talk with my parents about this issue, they get pretty vehement. Not about the immorality of alternate lifestyles — neither of them really cares about that — but about the arrogance and gall of LGBTs for “riding on the coattails” of the black civil rights struggle. Keep in mind that people of my parents’ generation have witnessed other groups do the same thing and benefit from it: c.f. white women, who were the primary beneficiaries of Affirmative Action, and Asian immigrants who arrived after the 1965 Immigration Act, many of whom were praised as a “model minority” and thus used in an attempt to bludgeon other PoC (including unsuccessful/activist Asian Americans) into silence on issues of racism. In my parents’ lifetimes and in their respective cities — Mom lives in the Deep South, Dad’s in NYC — black and Latina/o neighborhoods have deteriorated or gentrified since the Civil Rights movement, while gay neighborhoods now thrive. And of course, they’ve seen people like Halper equate “gay” with “white” for years. So is it any wonder that now they shake their heads at yet another group of white people (e.g., poor whites, white women) who seem to forget that white privilege still benefits them, however much their other identities suffer oppression?
So although it’s clear to me, as a younger African American who grew up post Jim Crow, that what LGBTQs want is only fair and right, I’m not carrying around all this baggage. Given that so many African Americans are, I think it’s foolish for gay rights activists like Halper to frame things the way they have: us vs. them, white vs. black, our marriages vs. your struggle for survival, No on Prop 8 vs. an Obama vote. Not only is this strategy divisive and wrong, we’ve seen now that it’s just plain unsuccessful. Time to try a new tactic.
Now. All that said.
I’m angry with and ashamed of black Californians right now because of that 70% vote. There is a problem with homophobia in our community, and that has nothing to do with stupid tactics on the part of gay rights activists — or manipulation on the part of Mormons, Republicans, etc. The plain fact of the matter is that we need to recognize the divide-and-conquer strategy when we see it, and we need to start treating other groups of oppressed people as allies, not as upstarts come to bask undeserved in our Civil Rights glory. We don’t have to like those other groups, or approve of what they do, but we need to acknowledge unfairness and fight injustice when we see it. This crabs-in-a-barrel syndrome needs to stop.
Nor do I mean to deny the very real anger GLBTs must be feeling right now towards everyone who voted for that dumbass law. I’d be mad too in Halper’s position, and I’d be looking for someone to blame. All I’m saying is that I’d blame 100% of the people that voted for Prop 8, not 7% of them. And I would try to understand why that group voted as it did, rather than simply dismissing them en masse as ungrateful, culturally-flawed wretches. That’s an oversimplification bordering on stereotype. And it sure as hell does nothing to solve the problem, so that the black community will vote more favorably the next time Prop 8 is challenged.
Because I’m sure there will be a next time. And when that time comes, I believe Prop 8 will fall, because it’s discriminatory and I believe — I hope — that the politics of hate and fear are finally on the wane in this country. To Shaun Jacob Halper and others who feel as he does: I will work to help make this happen in spite of you, because I think your cause is right even if your strategy is wrong. Hopefully one day you’ll feel the same way.
ETA: Other people are talking about this. There’s a good roundup of links here.
Daughter of ETA: Uh, and I fixed Shaun Jacob Halper’s name. Sorry, that’s what happens when you drink and blog.
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