When Californians voted to outlaw same-sex marriage four years ago, one factor – both revealing and alarming to the civil rights community – was African Americans’ support for the ban. Proposition 8, which passed with a 52 percent majority, had 58 percent support among black voters. It was a different story Nov. 6 in Maine, Maryland and Washington state, where voters endorsed marriage rights for gays and lesbians, and in Minnesota, where state law already prohibits same-sex marriage but voters rejected a Prop. 8-style ban in their state Constitution.
Surveys show a majority of African Americans now support those rights, said Ben Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which campaigned hard for same-sex marriage. In Maryland, where blacks make up almost 30 percent of the voters, their backing was crucial. “We’re talking about it as a civil rights issue,” and people are listening, Jealous said in an interview last week during a visit to San Francisco. He also said President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage rights in May, followed shortly afterward by an endorsement from the NAACP, was a “game changer.”
If the issue reached the ballot again in California, “we would see majority black support,” Jealous said. “I’m very confident that … we would win.” San Francisco’s NAACP leader, the Rev. Amos Brown of Third Baptist Church, agreed. “People are enlightened,” said Brown, a member of the NAACP’s national board who took part in the Maryland campaign.
A different view came from the Rev. Maurice Scott of Oakland, one of many African American clergy members throughout the state who vocally supported Prop. 8.
“People of African descent are very religious people,” said Scott, pastor at the Great St. John Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church. “I think that many are supportive of the president but not supportive of homosexuality.” Even today, he said, all the parishioners with whom he has spoken “would not vote for (a) man-and-man, woman-and-woman relationship.”
Not all assessments of the Nov. 6 vote in Maryland agreed with Jealous’ assessment of African American support of same-sex marriage. The NAACP leader said surveys just before the election found majority backing for the measure among blacks, but the Washington Post said an exit poll pegged support at 46 percent, compared with 52 percent of all voters. The surveys agree, however, that attitudes toward same-sex marriage among African Americans and other racial minorities have changed even more rapidly than the views of the general population.
In Maryland, supporters of same-sex marriage sought to turn the issue of religion in the black community to their advantage. One of their leading ads featured the Rev. Delmon Coates, African American pastor of the 8,000-member Mount Ennon Baptist Church, telling viewers, “I would not want someone denying my rights based upon their religious views; therefore, I should not deny others’ rights based upon mine.” The Baltimore Sun said tests with focus groups found that the ad was a hit with voters of all races and helped the campaign raise crucial funds.
Jealous said he was particularly heartened by exit polls in four states – Florida, Ohio, Georgia and North Carolina – reporting that a majority of African Americans in each state would favor a measure establishing same-sex-marriage rights. “When we’re polling majority black support in Georgia,” he said, “the issue has changed permanently across the country.”
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