by Bob Roehr
Heterosexual African Americans are more likely than whites (65 percent vs. 53 percent) to oppose marriage equality for gays and lesbians. They "are virtually the only constituency in the country that has not become more supportive over the last dozen years, falling from a high of 65 percent support for gay rights in 1996 to only 40 percent in 2004."
This finding was a key element in a new report, "At the Crossroads: African-American Attitudes, Perceptions, and Beliefs toward Marriage Equality", that compiled and reviewed all existing polling data on the subject. It was a joint effort of the National Black Justice Coalition and Freedom to Marry and is being shared with other organizations but not released to the public. "Nearly three-quarters of blacks say that homosexual relations are always wrong, and over one-third say that AIDS might be God's punishment for immoral sexual behavior. Overall, blacks are 14 percentage points more likely to hold both positions than whites."
Younger persons generally are more supportive of LGBT rights than are older persons, but significantly more black youth (55 percent) "believe that homosexuality is always wrong" than do Latino (36 percent) or white (35 percent) youth, according to a recent study from the University of Chicago. Several factors contribute to those attitudes, perhaps most significant is the disproportionately important role that the church plays within the black community and the fact that those churches are more likely to have conservative evangelical roots.
A 2006 study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that nearly half of all black churchgoers reported that their clergy regularly addressed homosexuality from the pulpit and these messages were overwhelmingly negative. So it is not surprising that none of the five major mainstream national African American civil rights organizations support marriage equality. The position of the churches has muzzled some black political leaders who might otherwise be supportive on this issue.
There's also a strong belief that as an institution, the black family is threatened and homosexuality constitutes a threat to that stability. It is coupled with the perception that homosexuality is a "white issue" that does not affect the African American community. This is despite the fact that black same-sex households are nearly twice as likely to include children as are their white counterparts.
One encouraging fact in the data is that less than 1 percent of blacks rank gay marriage as a top priority, compared with the economy (46 percent), education (19 percent), healthcare (14 percent), and the war in Iraq (14 percent), according to a 2006 poll for Black Entertainment Television (BET).
"To create a climate of support for marriage equality in African American communities, there needs to be a shift in the way the issue is talked about or framed in the community, away from morality and religion and more toward civil rights and equality," the Crossroads report concluded.
It urged that educational efforts within the African American community be focused on youth between 18 and 21; heterosexual women with high levels of education and income; urban areas and those who attend church less than once a month.
Some political strategists see this guidance in formulating campaigns to build black support for marriage equality, particularly in the amendment fights in California and Florida. Others see it as a reason to write off that portion of the electorate and focus resources elsewhere.
In a preface to the report, former San Francisco Mayor Willie L. Brown, Jr. said, "Our history as a country has shown us that separate but equal does not work. In order for us to thrive as a country and in communities, we must all have the same rights, opportunities, options, and privileges…The right to marry whomever you choose is a right that should be enjoyed by everyone."