Prop. 8 post-mortem

Yes, African-Americans and Latino voters provided the margin of victory for the anti-gay Prop. 8. Racism is not a sensible reaction to homophobia.


1. The damned thing passed.

2. The margin was only 5 points, much closer than the gay-marriage proposition eight years ago. The trend is clearly in the right direction; the over-65s supported P8 by 61-39, while the under-30s went against it by the reverse margin. What the voters did they can undo.

3. The “Yes” campaign was waged with great skill and great duplicity, telling quite effective lies about how if the proposition failed children would be taught about gay marriage in schools and churches would be required to perform them, and falsely implying that Barack Obama supported the measure.

4. The “No” campaign was waged with great incompetence, never effectively refuting the lie about Obama and never making the case that passing Prop. 8 would mean un-marrying 18,000 existing couples.

5. Obama did not present a profile in courage. The “Yes” forces accurately quoted him (from the Saddleback debate) as saying that in his view “marriage is between a man and a woman.” Their dishonesty was in implying that he supported their proposition, when in fact he had written a letter opposing Prop. 8 as divisive and discriminatory. But having written that letter, Obama then fell silent: understandable, yes, but still regrettable. A robo-call from him, even as late as the final weekend, saying

You’re being told to vote for Prop. 8. And you’re being told that I support it. I’m not in favor of gay marriage, but I’m also not in favor of writing discrimination into the state constitution. We are the United State of America; this is no time to divide us. I ask you to vote against Prop. 8.

might well have carried the day.

6. The “Yes” campaign was paid for largely with out-of-state money organized by the Mormon Church and the Knights of Columbus.

7. The measure carried African-Americans (by 70-30) and Latinos by a narrower margin; Asians split just about evenly; only Anglo whites opposed it.

8. The “No” forces, having failed to mobilize before defeat, are mobilizing now, though it’s not clear what they’re mobilizing for.

9. One of the targets of the “No” people’s wrath is the Mormon Church. That’s legitimate, in my view, though I thought the anti-Mormon ad during the campaign itself (depicting two young male Mormon missionaries invading a lesbian couple’s home to steal their marriage license) was inappropriately targeted at Mormon believers, as opposed to the institutional church. Yes, it’s hard to make the case against having the Utah theocracy’s meddling in California’s politics without stirring up a certain amount of bigotry against Mormons as Mormons, but the attempt ought to be made.

10. The black and Latino communities are also natural targets, and of course the glibertarians who wouldn’t lift a finger to help defeat the proposition are now gloating about the fact that liberal constituencies are angry at each other. Certainly a very large chunk of the black clergy vigorously supported the measure, fervently denying any similarity between anti-miscegenation laws and the ban on same-sex marriage. So did the Latino clergy, including the rising Latino evangelical and pentecostal movements. The “call me a faggot and I’ll call you a n*gger” impulse is as natural as it is deplorable. I’d like to hope that my secularist friends who are horrified by that impulse will reflect on its similarity to their own bigotry against white fundamentalists.

11. No one should be surprised that two groups high on Christian religiosity should have opposed gay marriage; why should African-Americans, for example be any less bigoted than other heirs of the Southern Protestant traditions? The notion that all oppressed groups are naturally in solidarity with each other is an illusion of privileged liberals. Nowhere is it written that gays must be anti-racist, or that black people must be pro-gay-rights.

12. Most blacks, or Latinos, or Catholics, or Mormons, or poor people, or gays, who demand equal rights for themselves against a hostile larger society do so out of group self-interest; the generalization of that impulse into a claim that all ought to be treated equitably seems natural only to those of us used to thinking in abstractions. (I’m irrationally proud of the fact that the Jewish tradition, going all the way back to Deuteronomy, makes that generalization.) That claim is more widely accepted among those with more education, and education is correlated with income, so it’s not surprising that the liberalism of equal rights gets less support from people at the bottom of the income distribution.

13. What to do now? Start gathering signatures for a new proposition to undo the old, and get it on the ballot for a primary election which will have a lower turnout among low-income voters of all ethnicities. It’s quite likely that President Obama would be willing to repeat Candidate Obama’s opposition to discrimination, and to do so in a more effective way. I don’t share the belief that the arc of the moral universe naturally tends toward justice, but in this case I think it does so, and the radius of curvature is relatively small. If a repeal of Prop. 8 doesn’t pass next year, it will surely pass five years from now.

Footnote Kudos to Ward Connerly for opposing P8, a stance that annoyed most of his friends.

In 1962, when my wife and I got married, in some parts of the country, we would have been breaking the law. It wasn’t until 1967, when the Supreme Court in the Loving (vs. Virginia) case said that that’s unconstitutional. So, I feel very strongly that the government shouldn’t be treating people differently just because they are gay.

Update A friend suggests asking the California Supreme Court to rule that, since marriage is a religious institution, the state has no business meddling with it, and should instead recognize all (pairwise) domestic partnerships on an equal basis. I think of that as the “Obama solution,” and love the idea of justifying gay marriage in terms of religious liberty. But I hate the idea of having the Court, by what will inevitably look like a trick, undo what the voters have just done by Constitutional amendment. I’d prefer to repeal Prop. 8 at the polls, and then offer the “Obama solution” to the outraged opponents of gay marriage as a generous compromise, offered from a position of strength.

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: