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Marriage Equality

Battle for the
Black Vote

Battle for the
Black Vote

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Organizers both for and against California's Proposition 8 are working to win over the state's population of black voters. Numbers show that the pulpit may have a heavy hand in helping voters decide, but marriage equality advocates are still going after this influential group.

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.

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.

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."

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