On Marriage, African Americans Aren't a Monolithic Voting Bloc

I was thrilled yesterday when President Obama finally decided to express his personal support for marriage equality for gays and lesbians. But I was dismayed by a particular thread in media reaction: the speculation that the main thing the president risks in supporting equality is driving African American voters away in droves.

Sure, the president's endorsement of equality might lose him some African American voters, just as it might lose him some white and Hispanic voters. But black voters aren't a monolithic voting bloc. Neither are black church-going voters. We didn't all rush home last night to do a calculation where we took support for the first black president and subtracted opposition to marriage equality and saw what we ended up with. You might not know it from listening to cable news, but African Americans approach elections with the thoughtfulness and complexity with which everybody else does.

The idea that African Americans pose a particular harm to efforts toward LGBT equality is a hard one to shake. The passage of Proposition 8 in California was immediately, and often viciously, blamed on African Americans who turned out to vote for President Obama. Although exit poll numbers laying the blame for Prop 8 on black Californians were quickly found to be greatly exaggerated, an indelible impression had been left.

A new Gallup poll released this week found that roughly half of whites support legal same-sex marriage. Almost exactly the same percentage of non-whites did. A year-long composite of Washington Post polling shows African Americans somewhat less in favor of marriage equality than other groups -- but with their opinions also shifting in favor at fast pace, and approaching an even split.

I work daily with African American clergy from across the country. All of them approach voting thoughtfully, and remain mindful of issues of liberty and justice. Some are still struggling with the issue of marriage equality. Some have fully embraced it. But I don't think a single one of them will take today's news and decide who they're going to vote for in 2012 because of it.

In 2008, I heard too many pundits imply that African Americans would automatically vote for President Obama simply because he is black. Today, I'm hearing that the only thing that will drive us away from him is the issue of marriage for gays and lesbians. Both assumptions are offensive, and both are wildly off-base.

If pundits start treating African American voters as human beings with complex interests, they might be surprised to learn that we too are concerned about the economy, that we too care about national security, that we too pay attention to corporate tax loopholes and infrastructure funding and the success of our schools. And yes, we care about justice. As long as the media treats African Americans as a two-issue, monolithic voting bloc, they'll continue to miss out on the real trends behind our views - and they'll continue to marginalize our political opinions.