Will Black Voters Punish Obama for His Support of Gay Rights?

The President might be on the right side of history, but he's on the wrong side of a crucial voting bloc

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Kristoffer Tripplaar / Sipa

President Obama delivers the keynote address at the 18th annual Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies gala dinner on May 8, 2012

They say the arc of history bends toward justice. If that’s true, then as a nation, we’re having a hard time bending on the issue of gay rights. But this week will be remembered as a historic turning point, because President Obama threw political caution to the wind and came out as the man who can put principle over politics in announcing his support for marriage equality. “I’ve just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” Obama told Robin Roberts in an interview to appear on ABC’s Good Morning America on Thursday.

(PHOTOS: A Visual History of the Gay-Rights Movement)

Polls show the U.S. is trending toward embracing gay marriage. We now have a thin and growing majority that supports marriage equality. And we have the young millennial generation strongly in favor of marriage equality, while the older boomers are firmly against it. But national acceptance of gay marriage remains a long, hard slog. This week North Carolina planted its feet in the past by becoming the 30th state to legally prohibit gay marriage and also abolish civil unions, thus enshrining romantic segregation in its state constitution. Separate and unequal in matters of the heart. We should all be ashamed that we’re still restricting civil rights to certain groups of Americans. Barring gays from marriage says their committed relationships don’t merit the protection or sanctity of marriage — an important step both socially and legally. It says their love and commitment is of lesser value. The sanctity of marriage in the U.S. has not been compromised by the thousands of married gay couples we already have. The institution of marriage was mocked by the sham, made-for-TV 72-day marriage of Kim Kardashian, and yet no bill has been proposed barring her from the altar.

We can see why the President’s position on marriage equality is so politically risky in a state like North Carolina. Despite Obama’s and Clinton’s calls for the state amendment’s defeat, North Carolinians voted enthusiastically in favor of it, with the highest turnout for a primary in 25 years. More than 500,000 people voted early, another primary record. Gay marriage is an issue that draws people to the polls in droves — even in a state where there was already a law banning same-sex marriage. It is an issue that people on both sides of the debate feel deeply and intensely about, and one that could shape the fall election. For the President to support marriage equality will perhaps bring in big money from gay donors and embolden some supporters who were disappointed by his previous equivocation about gay rights, who will be inspired by his standing up for what he believes in. Trying to protect a legally oppressed group of Americans is what the bully pulpit is for. But this step could endanger Obama in the South, in heavily religious states and with black Americans. Supporting marriage equality could damage his chances for re-election. It’s an issue that strikes how people feel about the core values of their nation and their Bible.

(INFOGRAPHIC: A Timeline of the Gay-Rights Movement in the U.S.)

The constituency calculus illuminates why this choice is politically risky for Obama. Black voters, who were critical to Obama’s 2008 victory, are strongly against marriage equality. A recent Washington Post/ABC poll found that 55% of blacks oppose gay marriage, and 42% support it, which is almost the opposite of white voters — 53% support, and 43% oppose. This opposition, I think, comes from what many blacks are told by their churches. Black antipathy toward gay rights is so deep that the National Organization for Marriage was planning to use it as part of its strategy in its battle to prevent marriage equality. A secret memo revealed its “Not a Civil Right Project,” whose goal was “to drive a wedge between gays and blacks.” They would do this by finding and publicizing blacks who object to gay marriage as a civil right, thus provoking gay-marriage supporters into “denouncing [them] as bigots.” The point was to divide and conquer: “No politician wants to take up and push an issue that splits the base of the party.” And just like that, blacks would become pawns of social conservatives, helping to block gays from a civil right.

I suspect it might have worked, because I find that linking the gay-rights struggle with the battle for racial justice tends to elicit angry responses from many black people. Many show no empathy for gays as another legally oppressed minority and have no desire to see any similarity between the two historically oppressed identity groups. I hear people talk about how much harder and more violent life has been for black Americans than for gay Americans, as if there’s an Oppression Olympics. The comparison is irrelevant. Hearing of the legalized discrimination of a group of people should send chills down black backs. We know what that feels like.

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With blacks lagging behind the country on marriage equality but still a crucial bloc for Obama, the White House has made a courageous bet that black voters won’t punish him and that being on the right side of history will not eventually hurt him. Obama has seemed to want to overtly support marriage equality for a while — a year ago he said gays “are our brothers, our sisters, our children, our cousins, our friends, our co-workers, and they’ve got to be treated like every other American … I think we’re moving in a direction of greater equality and — and I think that’s a good thing.” Meanwhile, his Administration has repealed “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” refused to back the Defense of Marriage Act and expanded federal hate-crime law to protect gays. Hillary Clinton, in Geneva in December, said, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” And this week Vice President Joe Biden said he was “absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying one another are entitled to the same exact rights.” But until now, the President had remained cautious about publicly favoring gay marriage. Does this mean North Carolina and other staunchly anti–gay marriage states are lost? Does it mean Obama would rather stand on principle and lose than be a politician and win? Or perhaps he sees this as part of a victory strategy that rebrands himself as the courageous politician who will take hard stands and will stand up for the people.

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