Blacks and gays: let’s not play “You and him fight”

Benjamin Schwartz and Caitlin Flanagan are a pair of troublemakers.

The part of the Democratic party consisting of highly-educated and high-minded liberals, motivated in part by the desire that disfavored social groups – racial and ethnic minorities, low-wage workers, women, those with physical disabilities, those with non-standard sexual orientations – should be decently treated and moved toward full and effective citizenship, naturally tries to act as the friend of both African-Americans and gays. That imposes no particular duty on low-wage workers to support minority rights or African-Americans to support gay rights. And in fact African-Americans, like other poorly-educated, high-religiosity segments of the population, tend, statistically, to be somewhat reactionary on gay-related issues.

It is understandable that those hostile to the interests of poor, black, and gay people, or merely deeply invested in the flourishing of the right-wing coalition that has dominated American politics since the end of the Great Society (Bill O’Reilly, for example), should wish to celebrate that fact, and to pretend that somehow it represents a fundamental challenge to liberalism. Why those who claim to support liberal causes – Caitlin Flanagan and Benjamin Schwartz, for example – should wish to do so (other than to get their names on the NYT editorial page) is more puzzling, but perhaps they can be left to discuss that question with their therapists or their spiritual counselors.

There’s no contradiction between recognizing the role of the black churches in mobilizing their parishioners for black causes and recognizing that their role on gay issues has been largely indistinguishable from that of their white evangelical counterparts, or from the role of the white Southern churches as supporters of Jim Crow. And to do so isn’t to diss “the religion espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr.,” any more than criticizing the Spanish Inquisition disses the religion espoused by St. Paul.

Yes, on balance Christianity has been a force opposed to gay rights. In California, weekly churchgoers, of all races, voted massively to “put asunder” thousands of gay couples. And yes, there are homophobic tendencies in black America independent of religion. Nothing about liberalism requires that we treat as sacrosanct the cultural phobias of the disadvantaged. That some African-Americans find it offensive to compare their own history of oppression to contemporary laws forbidding gay people to marry doesn’t make the comparison any less valid.

Meanwhile, if we recall that, while only 70% of African-American voters in California supported Proposition 8 (or “Proposition H8,” as some call it), fully 80% of Republicans did so, it’s not really hard to identify the common enemy of all the dispossessed. Gay marriage will be legalized in California sometime soon, and elsewhere in the country somewhat later, with a majority of African-Americans voting against it and a majority of liberals voting for it. And no, that won’t create a rift within the Obama coalition.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: