Human Nature

Original Skin

Blacks, gays, and immutability.

Nov. 4 was a good day to be black. It was not a good day to be gay. Arkansas voters approved a ballot measure to prohibit gay couples from adopting kids. Florida and Arizona voters approved measures to ban gay marriage. But the heaviest blow came in California, where a gay-marriage ban, Proposition 8, overrode a state Supreme Court ruling that had legalized same-sex marriage. A surge of black turnout, inspired by Barack Obama, didn’t help liberals in the Proposition 8 fight. In fact, it was a big reason why they lost. The gay marriage problem is becoming a black problem.

The National Election Pool exit poll tells the story. Whites and Asian-Americans, comprising 69 percent of California’s electorate, opposed Proposition 8 by a margin of 51 percent to 49 percent. Latinos favored it, 53-47. But blacks turned out in historically high numbers—10 percent of the electorate—and 70 percent of them voted for Proposition 8. *

This is no fluke. Black support for Florida’s ballot measure against gay marriage ran 11 points higher than white support and 7 points higher than Latino support. The adoption measure in Arkansas turned out differently—black support was 4 points lower than white support—but nationwide and over time, there’s a clear pattern. In Maryland and New Jersey, polls have shown whites supporting gay marriage but blacks opposing it. A report from the pro-gay National Black Justice Coalition attributes President Bush’s 2004 reelection in part to the near-doubling of his percentage of the black vote in Ohio, which he achieved “by appealing to Black churchgoers on the issue of marriage equality.” This year, blacks in California were targeted the same way.

The NBJC report paints a stark picture of the resistance. It cites surveys showing that “65% of African-Americans are opposed to marriage equality compared to 53% of Whites” and that blacks are “less than half as likely to support marriage equality and legal recognition of same-sex civil unions as Whites.” It concludes: “African-Americans 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% support for gay rights in 1996 to only 40% in 2004.” Nor is the problem dying out: “Among African-American youth, 55% believed that homosexuality is always wrong, compared to 36% of Latino youth and 35% of White youth.”

Why the gap? Most analysts blame religion. But that doesn’t explain why black Protestants, for example, are far more hostile to gay rights than white Protestants are. Nor does it explain why blacks, who have felt the sting of discrimination, see no parallel in laws that deny equal rights to homosexuals. We’ve just elected as our next president the child of a black-white sexual relationship. So much for the old laws against interracial marriage. Why, then, are the people targeted by those laws supporting bans on same-sex marriage?

The answer is: They think sexual orientation is different from race. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of a nation in which individuals would be judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Whites, on balance, have come to believe that sexual orientation, like color, is immutable. Blacks, on balance, haven’t. They see homosexuality as a matter of character. “I was born black. I can’t change that,” one California man explained after voting for Proposition 8. “They weren’t born gay; they chose it.”

The NBJC report notes that blacks are “more likely than other groups to believe that homosexuality is wrong, that sexual orientation is a choice, and that sexual orientation can be changed.” Polls confirm this. In a 2003 Pew survey, 32 percent of whites said homosexuality was inborn, 15 percent said it was caused by upbringing, and 40 percent said it was a lifestyle preference. Latinos answered roughly the same way. But only 15 percent of blacks agreed that homosexuality was inborn; 58 percent said it was a lifestyle preference. A plurality of whites (45 to 39 percent) said a person’s homosexuality couldn’t change, but a two-to-one majority of blacks (58 to 30 percent) said it could.

The pattern persists in Pew’s 2006 survey. A plurality of whites said homosexuality was inborn, and a majority said it couldn’t be changed. A majority of blacks said that homosexuality was just how some people preferred to live and that it could be changed.

The mutability question is hardly academic. It has been driving public opinion toward gay rights for decades. In 1977, 56 percent of Americans polled by Gallup said homosexuality was a product of upbringing and environment; only 13 percent said it was inborn. Today, a plurality says it’s inborn. That 20-point shift has coincided with a 20-point shift toward the stated acceptability of homosexuality and a 30-point shift toward support for equality in job opportunities. In Pew and Gallup surveys, respondents’ positions on mutability overwhelmingly predict their positions on gay marriage and homosexuality’s acceptability. Pew puts the equation bluntly: “Belief that homosexuality is immutable [is] associated with positive opinions about gays and lesbians even more strongly than education, personal acquaintance with a homosexual, or general ideological beliefs.”

I’ve covered politics for a long time. I’ve seen shrewd polling and message-framing turn issues and elections upside-down. Eventually, I came to believe that the most potent force in politics wasn’t spin but science, which transforms reality and our understanding of it. But I’ve never seen a convergence like this. Here we have a left-leaning constituency (blacks) that has become politically pivotal on an issue (homosexuality) and is susceptible to a reframing of that issue (seeing sexual orientation, like color, as inborn) in accord with ongoing scientific research.

From prenatal hormones to genetics to birth order, scientists have been sifting data to nail down homosexuality’s biological origins. As they advance, it will become easier and easier to persuade African-Americans that being gay is a lot like being black. The lesson of Proposition 8 isn’t that blacks have stopped the march of gay rights. The lesson is that when they turn, the fight in blue America will essentially be over.

Correction, Nov. 13, 2008: I originally wrote that blacks “made the difference” on Prop 8. I calculated this based on a margin of passage of 4 percent. This was erroneous, because the final margin was 4.6 percent. To prevent Prop 8’s passage, blacks would have had to vote against it by a margin of something like 53 percent to 47 percent. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)