Friday, November 14, 2008

Wearying Prop. 8 Lessons

Candor may be what you get from the guy on the next bar stool or a talk radio host or a blogger. We've long ago learned not to expect it from many others, including politicians and ministers.

My chum Ryan came hard on the no-on-8 folk, writing that they failed to match the other side's doorbell ringing and outreach to unconvinced voters. Over at Black Commentator, theologian Rev. Irene Monroe doesn't want any blame on black voters in California.

I'm old enough to recall the similar recriminations and distrust we see between some GLBT and some black activists. Back in the late 1960s and for about a decade, some blacks and some Jews went at it, generally just verbally. I was in New Jersey, in a city (Plainfield) that had race riots.

Here we were in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, but we were all a ways off from any resolutions. The nastiest talk seemed to come from the WWII generation. Parents of Jewish friends would say things like, "We got on a bus and went to Alabama to march for their rights. Now they accuse us of being racists!" In a black family, I heard the parents say that the Jews owned the stores in the poor neighborhoods, and gouged the resident. On the other side, I didn't hear it but I read interviews in the press of Jewish merchants saying they were the only ones who would put stores in the black areas.

And so the accusations went. The stores were looted and burned in the riots. There was no real resolution until laws began to change, and improved but not fully equal treatment inched its way into daily life.

Today, despite demonstrations (notably against the Mormon church), we're not back 40 years ago. Yet many of us are disappointed in the Prop. 8 passage. It can be tempting to hang that on:
  • The Democratic Party and specifically Barack Obama...for whispering only that marriage equality is a civil-rights issue and no on 8.
  • Voting groups who by exit polls strongly favored Prop. 8...for example, white men in absolute numbers and middle-aged Latino men and most black voters in percentages.
  • The no-on-8 side in California...for somehow not changing enough hearts.
Each has its own defenses and reasons. It's convincing that Obama might have lost had he come out for marriage equality instead of the separate and not even equal civil unions. It's virtually impossible to believe that as a self-identified progressive as well as a lawyer that he don't recognize this as a key civil-rights issue.

For blocs of voters, there are numerous ways of parsing the numbers to suggest that some other groups is "to blame." In reality, nearly all groups went slightly in favor of 8. It was by a far smaller margin than the 61% for Prop. 22 a decade ago. That changed family code to read that marriage was one-man/one-woman and was what the state's Supreme Court overruled in legalizing same-sex marriage in May.

Here in Massachusetts, the marriage-equality side beat back a similar initiative for an amendment to halt SSM. There were many simultaneous tactics, but the one that seemed to be pivotal here was visits to legislators by SS couples and families.

That worked in large part because Massachusetts' ballot initiative system is much tougher than California's flamethrower of populism. A vote like Prop. 8 would have required legislative approval to advance to the ballot. Trying to apply town-meeting direct democracy to complex questions involving civil rights can easily backfire. It is democracy in the same sense that mob rule is.

California's form is extreme and most people there embrace it. Half the states get along quite well without ballot initiatives, but that's what California has and they aren't about to give it up or even make it fairer. The question becomes what to do in that environment.

It's quite possible that the courts there will rule to overturn the new amendment and require legislative approval. See the Leonard Link analysis.

If not, the trend definitely favors marriage equality on a ballot initiative, but several years out. That brings up the annoying truth of equal-rights advancement. It often comes in halting lurches and often over a much longer time than those deprived of rights want.

In that vein, over at Slate today, William Saletan jumped into the blame cauldron. He does love his controversy and paddles right around. He cites several sets of data showing black voters repeatedly are against marriage equality, at 10% or more higher rates than white are. In light of mixed-race Barack Obama's election, he asks, "Why, then, are the people targeted by those laws (forbidding interracial marriage) supporting bans on same-sex marriage?"

He concludes that many black voters are not driven by religion as much as they still view homosexuality as a choice. Meanwhile, white voters have increasingly been convinced by science and court decisions that homosexuality is inborn or at least not changeable. He ends up writing:
Here we have a left-leaning constituency (blacks) that has become politically pivotal on an issue (homosexuality) and is susceptible to a reframing of that issue (seeing sexual orientation, like color, as inborn) in accord with ongoing scientific research...(As scientists continue to nail down homosexuality's biological origins), it will become easier and easier to persuade African-Americans that being gay is a lot like being black. The lesson of Proposition 8 isn't that blacks have stopped the march of gay rights. The lesson is that when they turn, the fight in blue America will essentially be over.
Of course, that's somewhat true of white men too, although they are already headed that way.

Whether Prop. 8's amendment withstands court challenges, there is that other key lesson to learn from this. While other states like New York and New Jersey look to join Massachusetts and Connecticut soon, the anti-equality folk aren't resting. They have announced that they want to attack SSM and even civil unions everywhere.

They make the changing of minds and hearts no less pressing than before the Goodridge decision. The outreach to friends of course, but also the hostile and undecided, can't stop.

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Anonymous said...

I think that Saletan forgets an important bit of numerical truth when he concludes that "The lesson is that when [blacks] turn, the fight in blue America will essentially be over."

He forgets that in most states, the black vote isn't large enough to make a difference. At least, not with the current high level of bigotry in the white and latino populations. Even if no black person had voted on prop 8, it still would have passed.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't keep up (or start) conversations with the black population and any other that will talk to us (whoever "us" is...still haven't figured that out...), but the black vote will only be a determining factor in a few states, or in states where the overall margin of hate:equality drops significantly.

massmarrier said...

My reading is that he is really more concerned with the civil-rights overlap. None of my black friends opposes marriage equality or says civil unions are good enough. In fact, one is gay and I solemnized his marriage here. He's also a shrink and describes black gay or lesbian patients who suck it up in church, where they are comfortable except when the minister rants about homosexuals. I can't understand that either.

Saletan seems to think there should certainly be a strong overlap in joint progressive and rights aims. He just doesn't believe this particular one will be a joint venture anytime soon.