Why Black Voters Should Be Mad at Obama (and themselves)
I’ve spent the past several days absorbing commentary via social media and NPR about President Obama’s views on same-sex marriage and Black voters’ reactions to it. Both anecdotal evidence and real numbers suggest that if the president wanted to retain his most devoted voting block, he made a mistake on May 10, when he told ABC’s Robin Roberts he thinks same-sex couples should be able to get married.
Many Christian Black voters are angry about what’s been touted as President Obama’s support of homosexuality. They and Black voters in general should be angry, but not for the reasons they are.
The reasons I’ve heard Christian Black voters express so far are a variation of what Pastor Jerry L. Stephenson of Midwest Church of Christ in Louisville, KY, said to his congregation last Thursday. He called the president’s announcement, “very sad news,” and said “[Blacks] who are committed to their Christian faith won’t vote for this president.” In other words, to vote for a president who supports same-sex marriage is to vote against the Bible.
Perhaps my listening and comprehension skills are subpar, but here’s what I heard:
Robin Roberts: Mr. President, are you still opposed to same-sex marriage?
President Obama: I’ve been going through an evolution on this issue … At I certain point I just concluded that for me personally, it is important for me to affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married. And I continue to believe that this is an issue that is going to be worked out at the local level, because historically this hasn’t been a federal issue.”
Consider this: President Obama didn’t endorse same-sex marriage as some media headlines have claimed. He validated homosexuals’ humanity and the equality of all people by saying that their long-term, monogamous unions should have the same legal standing as those of heterosexual couples.
Which is why Black voters who have supported him unwaveringly up to this point should at least be annoyed with the president and with themselves. Follow me on this:
- President Obama seriously put his re-election at risk by galvanizing Evangelical Christian voters who otherwise would have stayed home because they’re stuck with Mitt Romney, a man they don’t trust as a “true” conservative. Same-sex marriage isn’t a top priority for most voters, but for many voters, it’s the issue that will convert them into a one-issue voter. Because of the perception that being for marriage equality means being pro-homosexuality and therefore anti-Christian, for some, the legalization of same-sex marriage is a direct attack on the Christian faith. If faith, and living it out as closely to how Jesus would want you to as possible, are one’s number one priorities, then you can see how homosexuality becomes the issue.
- By allegedly going all anti-Christian on this issue, President Obama risked the Black vote. Sure, only about 10% of black people vote Republican any given year, but in 2004 (pdf), President George W. Bush managed to get 11 percent of the Black vote. He received 8 percent of it in 2000. By 2004, Nader was out of the race, there were two wars going on, and George W. Bush had appealed to Evangelical voters by proposing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. A 3 percent shift isn’t much, but in an election as close as the one 2012 will be, 3 percent could make all the difference.
- His risk of the Black vote is unsettling because the president knows Black voters. He knows Christian Black voters. He knows what a difficult and divisive issue homosexuality is in Black communities. He said as much on GMA, and he took this risk anyway, which leads me to believe he’s tossing the Black vote aside for the new, trendy Civil Rights Movement that will draw disillusioned young voters out again and excite first-time voters. President Obama is appealing to voters who share some of our issues (poverty, unemployment and discrimination are issues for the LGBTQ community) but who pretty much aren’t us, and he’s doing it by saying nothing of substance regarding policy. His views on gay marriage have been “evolving”; what were the chances they were going to evolve to Mitt Romney’s views when he’s already asked the Dept. of Justice not to prosecute Defense of Marriage violations? He’s not suggested a “radical” solution, like leaving marriage to religious institutions and having a totally different designation for the state, like civil unions, that could apply to any two adults living together and sharing household expenses, whether they are related or in love or not. (Anyone else what insurance benefits and power of attorney for everybody in a multi-generational household?) He’s not said, “My personal belief is now my administration’s policy, and I’m going to urge Congress to pass bills supporting marriage equality on the federal level so that no matter where same-sex couples live within theUnited States, they can have the same rights as everyone else.” He said the same thing Dick Cheney said years ago: leave it to the states—where bans on gay marriage have been supported 30 times (well, by people who vote).
And of course he took this risk. Black voters have been quiet. We have let journalists be criticized for asking the president tough questions. We have been so about getting a Black man in the White House that we’ve been willing to go with it when he does things that directly target black communities, like making the sentences for selling crack cocaine a little less severe than they were but still more severe than those for selling powder. We haven’t mobilized on our issues the way the LGBTQ community has.
And the black church, as conservative as it is, doesn’t always attack these issues as it should, because church-going Christian Blacks often look at problems like violence, mass incarceration and high unemployment behaviorally, as sins, instead of viewing them systematically, as the profits from richer communities’ sins.
I can’t say that the lack of mobilization is entirely Black people’s fault. It’s also about how politics work and how media coverage and campaign financing have changed since the 1950s and 60s. Liberal journalists, academics, Hollywood stars, and people with money have embraced gay rights. To get the president’s attention once he’s in office, you need political clout. You need pleasant depictions of the normalcy of you and your lifestyle on prime time TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Modern Family. You need not to be poor or incarcerated or unemployed or uneducated.
Or, you need to go tit for tat. Offer support for gay issues, because, as Rev. Dr. William J. Barber of North Carolina so passionately states (PLEASE WATCH THIS VIDEO), they are civil rights issues. But expect gay rights activists to see that the systematic oppression of people of color continues, and expect them to fight hard for the president, whoever it is come 2013, to fight for our causes, too. Because as Huey Newton said in 1970, “We must … have respect and feelings for all oppressed people.”