Battle for the Black Vote

By Michelle Garcia

Originally published on Advocate.com October 23 2008 11:00 PM ET

With America's
first major-party presidential ticket led by an
African-American, pundits, strategists, and politicians have
become fixated on this racial group as a bloc of
voters. Meanwhile, blacks have also become the focus
of the fight over whether California will
continue to recognize same-sex marriage.

Fifty-eight
percent of African-American voters in California say they
oppose same-sex marriage, according to a Survey USA poll
released October 17. Thirty-eight percent support gay
marriage, and 4% are undecided. Black voters -- who
make up 6% of the California electorate -- have the
largest divide of any racial group between supporters and
opponents of Proposition 8, the ballot
measure that would amend the state constitution
to rescind marriage equality.

Polls indicate
that the spread has actually increased in recent weeks. An
earlier Survey USA poll, released October 6, found that
52% of African-Americans supported the measure, with
34% opposing it and 14% undecided.

Asian voters,
according to the more recent survey, are the only
racial group in in which supporters of gay
marriage outnumber opponents (48% versus 42%).

Organizers of the
fight against Proposition 8 gathered across the state
on Tuesday in an attempt to garner more votes from
African-Americans. Five black leaders, including three
clergy members, converged in the Leimert Park
neighborhood of Los Angeles as part of a No on 8 press
conference. They talked about dispelling the notion that all
black people vote the same and have the same beliefs.

"People tend to
look at the black community the way they look at any
community -- they make a sort of sweeping brushstroke
of who we are and what we are," actor Doug Spearman
told The Advocate at the event. Spearman said he is
not convinced that high voter turnout among
African-Americans will have a large impact on
Proposition 8.

In statewide
referendums on same-sex marriage in 2004, a majority of
African-Americans voted to ban such unions. In Mississippi,
where blacks make up 32% of the electorate, 77% voted
for a ban, according to CNN exit polls. In Georgia,
80% supported a ban.

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Efforts to win
African-American votes have popped up on television, the
Internet, and the radio. Blogs that cater to largely black
audiences -- like Young Black & Fabulous, and Rob
2.0 -- and feature advertisements have seen growth in
ads for and against Proposition 8. The African
American Ministers Leadership Council, a project of the
People for the American Way Foundation, bought airtime
for three radio commercials, each urging voters to
oppose Proposition 8.

"A lot of us are
struggling to make ends meet," an announcer says in
one spot. "Soaring gas prices, foreclosures, outsourcing of
our jobs. Politicians make bad decisions that we all
pay for. But some people are trying to tell us the
real threat to our families comes from gay couples
trying to get married. Who are they kidding? Not me. It's
wrong to support discrimination of any kind."

Earlier this
year, in the same-sex marriage case that led to the
state supreme court's ruling legalizing such unions, the
California chapter of the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People cosigned a
friend-of-the-court brief in favor of legalization.
California NAACP official Joy Atkinson said the
organization's executive board is publicly opposed to
rescinding marriage equality and is urging
members to vote against Prop. 8. Alice Huffman, president of
the state chapter, has been campaigning against the
ban since it was proposed this summer, Atkinson added.

"She has spent
the better half of the year trying to make people
understand that this is a scare tactic and that this is a
civil rights issue," Atkinson told The
Advocate.
"It stirs up passion in people in the
African-American community, especially because so many
people are part of their churches."

Jasper Hendricks
of the National Black Justice Coalition said he grew up
attending a church where his pastor never said anything
negative about gays and lesbians. "But there are
African-Americans who sit in churches and listen to
these negative messages and don't question it," he
said. "They can still play influential roles in the
church, like being a deacon or a minister, but they still
sit and listen to their pastor."

The Reverend
Vanessa Mackenzie of the Church of the Advent in the Adams
neighborhood of Los Angeles also spoke at the press
conference Tuesday. She has been discussing the ballot
measure with congregants who insist they're not
homophobic but don't believe gays and lesbians should have
marriage rights.

"In my own
congregation I have been having conversations about the
high rate of divorce and the high rate of cohabitation --
because if we talk about threats to marriage, [those
are threats too]," she said.

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Same-sex marriage
opponents have also been reaching out to churches and
waging media and grassroots campaigns to try to win
over more blacks. Derek McCoy, Yes on 8's
director of African-American outreach, says the
concentration on black churches is reflective of the
civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

"Black churches
embodied not just a religious side of things but also
social activism," he said. "Our civil rights movement was a
response coming from the black church. I would say it's a
new civil rights movement. We have to continue to push
forward on social issues."

McCoy said much
of the campaign focuses on quoting Democratic
presidential nominee Barack Obama's statement that he does
not endorse same-sex marriage. Obama does, however,
support civil unions and domestic partnerships, which
McCoy said is acceptable.

"It's just,
people say, 'They're infringing on our civil rights,' and
I say they're not infringing on your civil rights," he said.
"Civil rights are inherent rights. They're things you cannot
change, they're infallible, that's just how you were
born. And one thing you can change is [your
homosexuality] ... the research shows there are plenty of
people who change lifestyles. I've never met anyone who was
black and changed their blackness."

The issue at the
root of the Yes on 8 campaign, McCoy said, is the
stability of African-American families. With the advent of
same-sex marriage, people will question why marriage
is necessary, and the number of fatherless households
will increase, he said. "We're already facing
epidemics where when the father's not in the household,
children don't do well socially, they don't do well
economically, they don't do well educationally, you
get increased increased poverty rates, increased crime
rates, things in our community, that we don't need to
destabilize homes any more," McCoy said.

From the other
side, the National Black Justice Coalition's Hendricks
said the effort to persuade more black voters to
support same-sex marriage is, all in all, a
matter of winning their "hearts and minds," a battle
that will take more time than the five months
allotted for the Proposition 8 campaign. Through town
hall-type meetings and educational efforts, groups
like the justice coalition and the NAACP are
attempting to teach people about the nature of measures like
Proposition 8.

"The fact is that
right now it’s 60-40," Atkinson said of the
divide among black voters. "A while ago it was probably 75
[in favor], so it's probably come down quite a bit."