Is Marriage Equality for White People?

The narrative, that marriage equality is simply not something that appeals to voters of color, is untrue, and it is time we stop acting like marriage equality is only for white people. The fight for marriage equality is very much a fight about racial justice.
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After the discouraging passage of California's Proposition 8 in 2008, the widespread speculation that the success of the anti-marriage equality initiative was due to the black voter turnout prompted some disturbing and racist rhetoric about the relationship between communities of color and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Even after it was widely discredited that the black turnout could be responsible for the passage of Prop 8, the conventional wisdom has remained that the issue of marriage equality is simply not something that appeals to voters of color.

This narrative is untrue, and it is time we stop acting like marriage equality is only for white people. In fact, the fight for marriage equality is very much a fight about racial justice. Opponents of marriage equality are waging a culture war and, while the LGBT community may be the stated target, families of color are and will continue to be the collateral damage.

The proposed North Carolina state constitutional amendment that, if passed in 2012, would bar any legal recognition or protection for same-sex couples provides a perfect example. In addition to barring gay people from marriage, the North Carolina measure is written in broad terms that will have a devastating impact on all of North Carolina's unmarried couples. This law would strip legal protections from all nontraditional family arrangements which, as I've argued elsewhere, is a particular concern for families of color, who are more likely to be in unmarried relationships. And North Carolina is no exception. According to the 2010 Census, there are 222,800 unmarried couples living in the state. While only 12 percent of those couples are same sex, almost a quarter of them are black.

If passed, the North Carolina constitutional amendment will be just as devastating to the black community in North Carolina as it will be to the LGBT community, if not more so. The law would constitutionally prohibit any legal protections being given to unmarried black couples, which could include domestic violence protections, impact child custody and visitation, and make it harder for unmarried parents to protect their families if one person is hospitalized.

It is no wonder that, according to a recent poll, a solid majority -- 61 percent -- of blacks in North Carolina oppose or strongly oppose the constitutional amendment. Despite that fact, some leaders in North Carolina have used thinly veiled race-baiting to try to divide these communities on this issue. Thus, instead of focusing on how the black and LGBT community must work together to defeat this measure, the focus has been on whether a comparison between the struggle for marriage quality and the Civil Rights Movement is ever appropriate. That debate is a distraction. Of course these two movements are not the same, but the impulse to discriminate - the one that convinces some people that equality is a scarce commodity that can only be provided to some - is the same impulse at the root of racial discrimination, LGBT discrimination, and discrimination against every minority community. And we must combat that impulse in all forms.

For its part, the LGBT community must do a better job of talking about marriage equality in communities of color. Too often there is an implication that the denial of marriage equality is the only or the worst way that families are denied equal protection and recognition by law and public policy. This rings false -- and, often, insulting -- to many communities of color that have dealt for generations with legislative, policy, and legal efforts to undermine the legitimacy and dignity of families of color. When the LGBT community is perceived as placing the issue of marriage equality in a privileged position in public policy debate as a unique harm suffered only by LGBT families, communities of color are sent the message that the ways their families are denied legitimacy are being discounted or ignored.

For example, there are efforts to repeal and revise the Fourteenth Amendment based on a racist and xenophobic narrative that attacks the legitimacy of immigrant families, a cynical and concerted effort to limit reproductive freedom for women of color by insinuating that, by advocating for choice, they are being complicit in their own racial genocide, and policies underlying welfare reform and social benefits that are based upon the assumption of an inherently unstable black family.

We must talk about marriage equality in terms that acknowledge a broader fight for family recognition and strengthen the natural alliance between communities of color and the LGBT community.

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