Monday, November 24, 2008

Blacks and same-sex marriage

This is one of the most appallingly prejudiced things I've read in a while.

The author of that L.A. Times editorial, Jasmyne Cannick, is writing about the exit polls that provocatively revealed that "black voters in California voted against gay marriage by more than 2 to 1" -- in contrast with the electorate as a whole, which voted the same way (for Proposition 8) but only by 52%.

Her position: blacks have been right not to support same-sex marriage.

Now, she doesn't quite say she's against same-sex marriage; she carefully leaves open the possibility that she supports it but just sees it as such a low priority that it's not worth devoting any effort to. But she doesn't have a word to say in favor of it even in principle.

How does she justify blacks' role in undoing same-sex marriage in California? She says (a) there are just too many other problems facing black people, and (b) it's hard to see how same-sex marriage would help black people. 

A few points:

1. It's a very convenient excuse, anytime you don't want to take an issue seriously, to point out the existence of other problems that should be taken seriously. Apparently there's a pretty stringent limit to the number of issues we're allowed to think about.
2. Every paragraph of the article says basically the same thing: that blacks should see a clear dividing line between "white" and "black" in American society, and exclusively focus on the problems facing the black side. (As is so often the case, other races aren't even part of the discussion.)

Well, imagine if everyone decided to put that principle into practice. That is, everyone only cares about what's good for their own group. There's no loftier goal than securing benefits for your own side. Would that principle be good for blacks, in a democracy where they're only 12% of the population?
3. Some of her specific examples are inadvertently comical. She says: "The right to marry does nothing to address the problems faced by both black gays and black straights. Does someone who is ... suffering from HIV but has no healthcare ... really benefit from the right to marry someone of the same sex?"

Would someone who's suffering due to a lack of health care be helped by being able to marry the person they love? Um ... yes! Health care does have something to do with being allowed to legally marry!

Another one: "I don't see why the right to marry should be a priority for me or other black people. Gay marriage? Please. At a time when blacks are still more likely than whites to be pulled over for no reason ...." Actually, a lot of people would be more upset about losing the right to marry than they'd be about being randomly pulled over. It's far from clear that racial profiling is a more important issue than same-sex marriage; the idea that it's so dramatically more important than same-sex marriage that the former should somehow eliminate same-sex marriage from consideration is just nutty.
4. There's a meme out there that liberals need to "get religion" (literally) if they want to be politically successful -- that there needs to be a religious left to counteract the religious right. Excuse me if I'm not exactly gung-ho about this idea after reading something like this:

White gays often wonder aloud why blacks, of all people, won't support their civil rights. There is a real misunderstanding by the white gay community about the term. Proponents of gay marriage fling it around as if it is a one-size-fits-all catchphrase for issues of fairness.

But the black civil rights movement was essentially born out of and driven by the black church; social justice and religion are inextricably intertwined in the black community. To many blacks, civil rights are grounded in Christianity -- not something separate and apart from religion but synonymous with it. To the extent that the issue of gay marriage seemed to be pitted against the church, it was going to be a losing battle in my community.
5. A blog called The Republic of T. (which has the tagline, "Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.") has an excellent response. Here's a brief sample (click through to the post if you're interested in his links to back up the facts):
Mikki Mozelle and Lisa Kebreau, a Black lesbian couple — among those for whom Cannick thinks marriage equality isn’t a priority — who were also one of the plaintiff couples in Maryland’s marriage lawsuit, spent upwards of $6,000 on legal documents to give their family a few protections, and with no guarantee that their documents will be recognized.

In the Maryland County where I live, a $55 application fee gets you a marriage license and the 1,049 benefits and protections that come with it. So heterosexuals pay about $0.05 per protection/benefit. Mozlle and Kebreau (and other Black gay couples) pay hundreds of times more than heterosexuals for less protection and fewer benefits....

Wesley Mercer, a gay Black man, died on September 11, 2001, while helping evacuate the World Trade Center. His partner of 26 years, Bill Randolph, also a Black gay man, struggled to get equal recognition for their relationship. Morgan Stanley, Mercer’s employer, gave him $700 to cover immediate expenses, and later a check for $10,000. Though Mercer supplied half the household income, Randolph does not receive Social Security benefits, workers’ compensation, or Mercer’s 25-year army pension. Only spouses are eligible.

Randolph has spoken up about what he faced as a gay, man losing a partner on 9/11, without the benefits and protections of marriage. I doubt he believes he or any of the Black gay couples who were plaintiffs in the state marriage lawsuits — Corey Davis & Andre LeJune (CA), Mikki Mozelle & Lisa Kebreau (MD), Alvin Williams & Nigel Simon (MD), Takia Foskey & Jo Rabb (MD), Alicia Heath-Toby & Saundra Toby-Heath (NJ) — would agree that that inequality is a “secondary issue.”


Justin said...

I read this very differently.

Three things struck me about the article. First, nothing she says undermines the legitimacy of the marriage equality movement, even if it is predominantly white. However, it's surprising and disheartening how little support Cannick shows for it.

Second, on further reflection, the fact that, from Cannick's perspective as a person who is both African American and gay, the issue of equal rights based on sexual orientation takes a back seat to racial discrimination may indicate that racial discrimination is the more serious issue. Serious, in terms of physical and psychological health and economic opportunity, among others measures. Now, I'm not sure how to properly "weigh" the seriousness of different forms of discrimination, or whether such a thing is actually possible. But from my basic observations, racial discrimination is more damaging to our society, notwithstanding the moving anecdotes in the response you linked and the undisputed seriousness of discrimination based on sexual orientation. I am, of course, completely for ending both types of discrimination. Again, it is disheartening that Cannick expresses such a lack of support for the Prop 8 opponents.

Third, I sympathize with Republic of T's request that Cannick not tell others to change their priorities. However, I'm not certain that is what Cannick is seeking to accomplish. I read Cannick's piece as a bitter response to others telling *her* that she needed to change *her* priorities, as part of a gay backlash against African Americans for not fighting harder against Prop 8. I think Cannick would have been more persuasive if she expressed less bitterness, but I don't think that her point concerning the relative seriousness of racial discrimination -- what I read as a personal justification for her priorities -- is entirely lost or not worthy of mention.

When a group has multiple battles to fight, each deeply rooted in separate parts of the group's identity, how can one member tell another where to place his or her priorities? For that matter, how can members of the out-group constructively criticize such priority ranking? To call the piece "appalling" is strong criticism and inappropriately criticized from a place of privilege, in my opinion. It's fine to nit-pick on the details, which you effectively do, but I think the more interesting issue is the expectation from white gays leading the fight against Prop 8 that black gays will support them. Although it's great if black gays like Republic of T lend their support, I don't think that they're entitled to the presumption that they're going to get it. I think this is the heart of Cannick's piece, which she articulates more or less effectively.

John Althouse Cohen said...

"To call the piece 'appalling' is strong criticism and inappropriately criticized from a point of privilege" -- Whoa! First, this is off-point, since my main goal here is to advocate a policy that has to do with a privilege I already have as a straight person and extend it to a group I'm not a member of.

And even if it were relevant, I reject the notion that since I'm a straight white man, it's any less "appropriate" for me to have my own opinions about race, sexual orientation, or any other identity issue than for members of the official victim groups (women, gays, blacks, etc.) to do so. I'm always going to express my opinion about what the right answer to the same-sex marriage issue is; I am not going to refrain from expressing my opinion just because the person I'm disagreeing with is black. Maybe my opinion on the issue is wrong, but if it's wrong, it can only be wrong for some objective reason, not because I'm straight or white or male or anything else.

I don't think the word "appalling" is too harsh -- that was my honest reaction when I read the article because I felt it was encouraging one group to deny fundamental rights to another group just because those rights (supposedly) aren't in their narrow self interest.

I don't agree with your premise that blacks are more discriminated against than gays. The government baldly discriminates against gays when it comes to marriage and the military; no such parallel exists for blacks, either with those specific issues (where we got rid of the discriminatory laws several decades ago) or in other areas of life. In my opinion, same-sex marriage is far and away the most important civil rights issue in the country. Yes, I know there are countless statistics showing disparities between blacks and whites on all sorts of metrics -- but in my opinion, those are unfortunate demographic trends, which Cannick blurs into "racism" or "discrimination." (BTW, I do not attribute her views to her race -- this fuzzy reasoning is very common to liberals of all races.) The racial disparities are better addressed through plain old smart policy-making on economics, health care, education, crime, etc., rather than dividing the country up by race and coming up with special initiatives to try to achieve the relatively narrow goal of helping blacks in particular. (Not saying you're in favor of the latter, just that it sure seems like Cannick is.)

I think you're being too kind to interpret her as someone who's simply setting priorities and happens to rank SSM low on the list. This is an emotionally charged article that approvingly portrays blacks as apathetic if not hostile to gay rights. As you allude to, she could have easily included a brief qualifier along the lines of, "While I support SSM and recognize that marriage equality is an admirable cause..." The idea that she's just soberly ranking priorities is a smokescreen -- the article belittles the very idea of gay marriage ("Gay marriage? Please.").

If my post gave the impression of just "nit-picking on the details," I didn't express myself well enough. I think this is a huge issue, not a question of details. My point in focusing on some of the specific errors is to show that she hasn't even thought through the problem seriously (e.g. saying health insurance has nothing to do with one's status as legally married).

"the fact that, from Cannick's perspective as a person who is both African American and gay, the issue of equal rights based on sexual orientation takes a back seat to racial discrimination may indicate that racial discrimination is the more serious issue." -- Well, I assume from her editorial that she's not eager to get married herself, so I don't think we can assume she has an equal personal stake in both issues.

Justin said...

dammit. i had a long post in response, but due to some errant key strokes i lost the whole thing.

short version: i concede that you can call anything appalling. my response had more to do with my continued disagreement on your point that gays are more discriminated against. although the law is absolutely more discriminatory on its face, the structural inequality that results from racism, as translated into facially non-discriminatory public policy and social dynamics, is more invidious, in large part because it is far less easy to identify and address openly. white liberals, especially, seem more or less oblivious to the effects of racism on public policy and their own racist "beliefs" and inadvertent reactions. prejudice against gays, while more overt, visceral, and codified, is more limited in scope and more amenable to identification and analysis. the ability to not reach the above conclusion is, in my humble opinion, a sign of white privilege.

thanks for running this great blog and providing such a thorough response to my post.