Just as the appearance of a black presenter at the Academy Awards prompts the camera to track down the most famous black celebrity in the audience (Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson or Halle Berry), President Barack Obama's declaration of support for gay marriage has prompted the media to seek out quotes from some black household names in America.
Jay-Z approved of Obama's evolution in a CNN interview. Smith gave gay marriage a thumbs up while promoting Men in Black III in Germany (just don't try to kiss him). Other rappers like T.I. and 50 Cent have given their support with a "it doesn't affect me so why should I care" slant, though in 50 Cent's case, he's terribly concerned about gay guys wanting to "grab your little buns" on the elevator and thinks straight guys need a support group for that. The Root even has a slide show of black notables who support gay marriage.
Samuel L. Jackson had already declared his support and participated in activism against Proposition 8 in California in 2008. Then after Proposition 8 passed, blacks were blamed for voting in favor of banning gay marriage in higher numbers than other races, though after the numbers were analyzed, blacks only voted in favor of Prop. 8 in numbers six percent higher than the rest of the population. Given that blacks make up only six percent of California's population, it seems a bit of a reach to blame it on them, but the narrative has stuck (well, them and the Mormons).
The argument over blame was strange and a little telling. I was left wondering what the 42 percent of the blacks who voted against Prop. 8 felt about being blamed for its passage anyway. But that has always been a problem with collective or tribal politics – the voting booth makes a mockery of it. Looking at blacks or gays as a monolithic group has always been profoundly stupid, and a barrier to actual engagement between individuals within these groups, and yet it continues.
But what the hell do I know? Pundits, playing into collective identity narratives, wondered whether Obama's position on gay marriage would hurt him with black voters in the polls. Instead, Obama's evolution on gay marriage is causing shifts in black voters' positions.
Adam Serwer at Mother Jones reports on major polling number shifts in Maryland, where state-recognized gay marriage is up in the air due to a ballot initiative:
Polls taken since President Obama expressed support for same-sex marriage have shown an astonishing shift in black support on marriage equality. The shift in Maryland is so dramatic that the state may become the first state to actually uphold same-marriage rights in a referendum.
According to Public Policy Polling [pdf], the polling numbers for black voters in Maryland have completely flipped over the past two months. Originally 56 percent said they would vote against recognizing gay marriage (similar to California's Prop. 8 numbers). In poll numbers released Thursday, 55 percent of black voters said that they would vote in favor of recognizing gay marriage. A Washington Post poll shows similar shifts in numbers nationally.
So am I wrong for thinking it's inappropriate and counterproductive to look at African-Americans collectively as voters? In another blog entry at Mother Jones, Serwer took note of a relevant study mentioned by John Sides:
Although the polling data thus far generally support the finding that presidents don't move public opinion very much or very often, there is some reason to believe that Obama himself could move opinion among African-Americans. In a 1994 paper (gated), James Kuklinski and Norman Hurley conducted an experiment in which respondents read a statement urging African-Americans to demonstrate more self-reliance. The statement was attributed to Jesse Jackson, Clarence Thomas, George Bush, Ted Kennedy, or no one.
Among black participants, the most persuasive cue-giver was Jackson, following closely by…? Thomas.
Sides adds: "This is nothing unique to Jackson or Thomas or even African-Americans, of course. Sources of information are generally more credible when they are perceived as sharing our identities, values, etc."
Indeed, appeals coming from a position of authority are bound to be more effective and feel less condescending when they come from somebody with whom you have commonalities. But is this a good thing? Ultimately, I benefit from the polling shift (assuming it isn't just lip service), and I believe the "get government out of marriage" crowd will ultimately benefit in the long-term if the "What business is it of mine?" attitude spreads, but isn't it just a bit creepy?
Reason-Rupe explores changes in public attitudes in gay marriage.