Monday, January 30, 2006

Black and Maybe Blue

In a column worthy of a Scholastic junior-high newspaper, prolific Brit columnist Gary Younge writes this-but-that/that-but-this on African Americans and same-sex marriage. In the latest (Feb. 13th) The Nation, his column concludes, well really, nothing. Black Americans are against SSM, but that's not discriminatory or anti-gay. Huh?

Getting fresh views and new numbers out is goodness. Yet, his LITE approach is below The Nation's standard.

While his few vague conclusions base themselves on scant info, some background is worth reading. Although pointing out what sure looks like anti-gay sentiment and voting by African Americans, he does a pretty good job of repeating, "These are not the droids you seek."

He sited polls we had not seen from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (JCPES). One poll from JCPES included that "African Americans show greater opposition to both marriage and civil unions for same-sex couples than the general population (49 to 37 percent)." Yet, as Younge writes, of "the thousands of black people interviewed by David Bositis, an analyst at the JCPES, not one has volunteered it as a priority. "

Based on a Human Rights Campaign legislative scorecard (you can open a PDF from here), African-American U.S. legislators are more likely to vote for gay rights, including SSM, than their white counterparts. The difference isn't huge, but Younge is willing to dismiss Rev. Al Sharpton's claim at the recent Black Church Summit that SSM opposition drove African-American votes to elect George the Lesser in 2004. Younge points to the legislators' records and adds that "when black people have the power to protect gay rights in law, they are more likely to use it than other racial groups."

While that is a bland and comforting thought, that begs the question about how influential fundy Christianity in general and anti-gay, megachurch, Black ministers in particular are. No one really seems to know yet. All the pulpit bluster has not turned African Americans into an anti-gay voting bloc. It hasn't even driven the gay parishioners away, not all of them anyway.

A Younge's insight set was:
As one of the few autonomous institutions allowed under segregation and slavery, the church has long been the principal tool for political advancement in black America. Throughout, even as its influence has diminished, it has continued to play an ambivalent yet decisive role in liberation struggles--a socially conservative institution leading a community whose fight for equality necessitates radical change. This problem is not new--the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. eventually had to leave the National Baptist Convention because of its reluctance to support the civil rights movement. But on issues like gay rights the contradictions are particularly acute and ripe for exploitation by the Christian right.
In addition to 2004 voting, an example cited separately by the National Black Justice Coalition, a Georgia state rep, Sharon Beasley-Teague, just turned to vote in favor of a state anti-SSM bill. Previously, African-American legislators joined Democrats in a 30-1 bloc against the SSM ban. The Coalition reports that "Beasley-Teague said she does not accept the argument by some black lawmakers that gay marriage rises to the level of a civil rights issue. And she said she does not believe a constitutional same-sex marriage ban is discriminatory." (By the bye, she prayed first.)

What we can learn or reinforce is that everyone's polls, including these, show African-Americans are less in favor of SSM and gay rights than white Americans are. However, by some measures, including recent votes on big, national bills, African-American legislators seem to do more for and vote more in favor of both SSM and gay rights, by slim margins.

The loud set of big-church African-American preachers say. The lawmakers do. The latter is far more important to all of us.

Legislators should certainly be leaders. Those who follow by pandering to the stagnant majority of voters do no one a service, certainly not society in general.

As with ballot initiatives on rights, the majority tends to go with the status quo or even to jerk rights away from minorities. The Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms types made careers of lowest-common-denominator legislating. It was safe and they could always say, as they so frequently did, "That's what my constituents want." As well as easy, that is craven, amoral and sometimes immoral.

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