Saturday, November 8, 2008

Prop 8, Race, and Religion

You may have heard that Prop 8 - an amendment to California's Constitution banning gay marriage - passed. You may have also heard that its passage was at least in part due to record African American turnout - 7 in 10 blacks voted to ban gay marriage.

I normally wouldn't have anything to say about this, other than shame on you California. We all know religion was the main force behind the votes to strip rights away from gays in California. Or at least, that's what I thought. But I've been hearing a lot from blacks claiming that it's actually the gay community's fault that blacks voted to take away their rights. Jasmyne Cannick's op-ed in the LA Times is, I think, a prime example of this claim:

I don't see why the right to marry should be a priority for me or other black people. Gay marriage? Please. At a time when blacks are still more likely than whites to be pulled over for no reason, more likely to be unemployed than whites, more likely to live at or below the poverty line, I was too busy trying to get black people registered to vote, period; I wasn't about to focus my attention on what couldn't help but feel like a secondary issue. The first problem with Proposition 8 was the issue of marriage itself. The white gay community never successfully communicated to blacks why it should matter to us above everything else -- not just to me as a lesbian but to blacks generally.

The way I see it, the white gay community is banging its head against the glass ceiling of a room called equality, believing that a breakthrough on marriage will bestow on it parity with heterosexuals. But the right to marry does nothing to address the problems faced by both black gays and black straights. Does someone who is homeless or suffering from HIV but has no healthcare, or newly out of prison and unemployed, really benefit from the right to marry someone of the same sex?

Did you get that? According to Ms. Cannick, the reason blacks don't care about equality for gays is that they have their own troubles. And apparently, it's the responsibility of the gay community to make it the case that their ability to excercise their rights does something to help the black community. Let's call this what it is, without pulling any punches - absolute and utter bullshit.

I'm not denying that blacks in this country still face nasty poverty and discrimination. I live in an area of the country that is still in many ways de facto segregated, with black areas, hispanic areas, and white areas. That disgusts me to no end. And I can certainly understand why changing that would be a priority for Ms. Cannick and others. But that is no reason to deny anyone else their rights. Prop 8 didn't have to be the priority for the black community, although apparently Ms. Cannick doesn't understand the difference between pushing a button to secure the rights of others and making a life long cause of something. The gay community wasn't asking blacks to turn away from their fight to eradicate discrimination and poverty in minority communities. They were asking blacks to push the "no" button when they walked into the voting booth.

Apparently, though, Ms. Cannick believes that there isn't any reason to support the rights of others if doing so doesn't give you any benefit. That's absolute crap. And if that reasoning held, then no rich white person would have any reason to give a damn about the plight of blacks in this country. But they do have reason - they have a reason more significant than money or fame or glory or feeling good. It's called justice. Justice is important whether or not you or your community see anything good out of it. Justice, like any other virtue, is good for its own sake. And it should be supported whether you get anything out of it or not. Justice is why all people, not just minorites, should care about making sure that minorities are not discriminated against. Justice is why people should care about poverty. Justice is why people should care about whether or not gays can marry. Gays shouldn't have to make their right to marry something that helps the black community in order for it to matter. The denial of rights should matter to each individual, whether that denial has any impact on them or not.

Of course, in addition to claiming that the black community isn't going to care about gay rights until they personally see some benefit from those rights being recognized, Ms. Cannick also claims that gays didn't actually make an effort to connect with black voters and convince them to vote no. She claims their efforts with the NAACP weren't enough and were poor strategy, given that the NAACP is "outdated". Melissa Harris-Lacewell, who I have enormous respect for, says something similar (video below). Now, it may very well be true that the NAACP is outdated, and it may well be true that other groups should have been contacted. But I think this is where the real reason that blacks voted yes on prop 8 comes out.

Which groups would you think you should contact in order to make ideological inroads into the black community? My first guess would be the churches. But guess what, the churches are the reason that blacks voted yes on prop 8. The bigotry displayed by their vote (Harris-Lacewell said it first) is a product of religion. Just go look at what some black voters had to say about their backing of prop 8. Apparently pastors were telling their congregants to go vote yes on 8. Even Cannick briefly mentions this:

But the black civil rights movement was essentially born out of and driven by the black church; social justice and religion are inextricably intertwined in the black community. To many blacks, civil rights are grounded in Christianity-- not something separate and apart from religion but synonymous with it. To the extent that the issue of gay marriage seemed to be pitted against the church, it was going to be a losing battle in my community.

Exactly, Ms. Cannick. It's not a matter of the gay community adding a few benefits to the black community to any recognition of gay rights. It's not about white gays being afraid to go into certain neighborhoods (that dig, by the way, was unwarranted, and continues the false conflation between fear of poor neighborhoods and fear of black neighborhoods). It's not because, as was mentioned in the LA Times article linked to above, "the gay community was never considered a third of a person". It's about religion. A community that has endured the most insufferable violations of rights, the most degrading treatment, and terrible blocks to advancement. A community that, sadly, still has to fight for equality and still has to endure the ignorance of racism that swims under the surface in this country has fought to take away rights from others. They didn't do it because justice isn't worth fighting for if you don't get something out of it. They didn't do it because they have endured worse treatment than gays have. They did it because a man in a pulpit told them that big sky daddy hates gays. Contrary to what Ms. Cannick thinks, social justice and religion are not intertwined in the black community. Social justice for some and religion are intertwined in the black community. And, as with religion in any community, it is also intertwined with hatred and injustice. Now, would you even bother to spend your money and time trying to convince people who believe on faith that you deserve fewer rights than others to vote in your favor? Could it be that the coalition for "No on 8" thought it would be a waste of time to fight the church in the black community?

I may be wrong. Perhaps there were inroads other than the church that the gay community could have, and should have, utilized. I'm willing to leave that an open question. But I refuse to believe Ms. Cannick's assesment of why blacks voted yes on prop 8. I refuse to believe that the black community only cares about justice when they benefit from it. Instead, it seems clear as day to me that the black community is influenced by the church, a church that teaches bigotry and hatred, a church which teaches that justice should only be given to some. The black community in California has been infected with the same poison that infects white communities in Lousianna and Indiana and hispanic communities in Arizona and Nevada - the poison of hatred spewed from the pulpit. Don't blame the gay community for the passage of prop. 8. Don't claim that it passed by attributing self-serving motives to those who have shown no sign of such shallowness. Put the blame squarely where it belongs - the church.

Princeton's Melissa Harris-Lacewell, being her usual brilliant self on the Rachel Maddow show:

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