NAACP president and CEO Benjamin Jealous
The Myth About Black Voters

By Lucas Grindley

Originally published on Advocate.com July 10 2012 3:00 AM ET

When a strategy of the National Organization for Marriage was leaked online in March and the public learned for the first time about a plan to “drive a wedge” between blacks and gays, it also exposed a false assumption that the black population is predominantly homophobic.  

This sweeping generalization was perhaps first hatched after California passed the anti–marriage equality Proposition 8. Exit polls from 2008, later debunked, showed black voters overwhelmingly lining up against same-sex marriage. LGBT activists who had tried to woo African-Americans were all too ready to feel betrayed.

And before President Obama came out for marriage equality in May, pundits repeatedly speculated it would cost him black votes. But a landmark announcement from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People could challenge that notion. The NAACP’s board voted to support marriage equality, calling it a “civil right” that deserves protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, which was used to dismantle segregation laws.

The NAACP vote came just days after Obama’s announcement, and together they appeared to act as game-changers. A survey conducted in May by Public Policy Polling found that 55% of black Maryland voters supported the state’s recently passed marriage equality law, with 36% opposed. The numbers had essentially flipped since the same question was asked in a March poll.

PPP found the same trend in North Carolina. Before the president’s announcement, 44% of blacks supported either marriage rights or civil unions. That number shot up to 55% afterward, with opposition falling dramatically.

The Human Rights Campaign isn’t surprised by the NAACP’s impact. It’s “a movement leader,” says HRC’s chief diversity officer, Cuc Vu. “It always has been.” State chapters of the NAACP have long sided with LGBT activists. The North Carolina chapter, for example, vocally opposed Amendment One, which banned same-sex marriage there. In California, the state NAACP filed a court brief explaining why Prop. 8 should be repealed. But the national NAACP decided it needed a clearer statement.

Blogger and North Carolinian Pam Spaulding says the NAACP endorsement pushed the issue of marriage equality into the conversation nationally the same way Amendment One did in her state.

“It’s one thing to whisper about your choir director being gay and closeted, it’s another to discuss whether that man should have the same civil rights that you as a heterosexual should have,” Spaulding says. “By having the NAACP and the president speak out clearly on LGBT rights, it spurs the conversations around the dinner table that did not occur before because of the self-imposed silence.”

The silence left African-Americans to wonder, she says, whether LGBT rights were relevant and fed a fantasy that black LGBT people didn’t exist.

For NAACP president Benjamin Jealous, marriage equality is very relevant. When announcing the new policy, he choked up, explaining that his parents’ marriage was once illegal. Because his father is white and his mother black, they had to leave their home state of Maryland to wed in Washington, D.C., in 1966.

“The procession back was mistaken for a funeral procession,” he said while holding back tears, “because it was so quixotic for people to see all these cars with their headlights on, having to go from one city all the way to the next.”