Sunday, November 23, 2008

Racism, Homophobia, and Prop 8 (by Skylanda)

The dust is settling on the California proposition, and with some degree of retrospect (and distance - California will always be my home state, but hasn't been my home for a good six or eight years now), it's tempting to try to start untying the thorny knot that is diversity in America.

I am certainly not the first to give a stab at that knot, and I imagine I will be eons from the last. Nor do I possess any particular insider knowledge; I am both white and unabashedly straight, sympathetic to all comers, but also not prepossessed toward one side or the other. So, dangerous turf. Let me tread lightly, please-I-ask-of-myself.

This much is clear: Barack Obama's nomination brought out droves of voters from minority groups who have traditionally been less than entirely franchised; that force of legions brought victory for just about every progressive cause besides gay rights. The Prop 8 campaign is perhaps the most talked of but certainly not the only popular legislation that took advantage of this timing to spoil in favor of a very conservative social notion that retains a curry of favor among groups who are notably liberal on just about every other topic (even abortion: every state prop on abortion went down in resounding defeat, in states far more conservative than California). Prop 8 was largely funded by that unholy alliance of the Catholic and Mormon churches; it was duly supported by conservative black churches across the state, even as they spoke for a rather more liberal candidate in Obama. The split among black voters favored Prop 8 by some enormous margin - a forty-point tilt toward banning gay marriage, by some polling estimates.

So. Righteous anger, both sides: from gay rights community who (entirely rightly) protest that they alone have been left behind in the progressive sweep, that the party around the Obama victory reveals an even deeper homophobia - that sudden understanding that as long as a bunch of other progressive causes take home the cup, no one really cares about gay rights. Even in California. Flip side: from the African-American community that is fed up with decades of backsliding against the gains of the civil rights movement (to the place where we find increasing rates of incarceration among black men, and sky-high perinatal mortality rates among black women and infants) and which has expressed at times a whole lot of disinterest in being pinned with the responsibility for every civil liberties issue when this community is still one of the most beleaguered demographics in the United States.


Ignoring for a moment the fact that there are gay black people (which appears to have been totally lost in almost every public debate on this topic), some core issues have arisen that make the debate more bilious that it might need to be.

One is the actual effect of the African-American voting block on the outcome of Prop 8. According to the US Census Bureau, black Americans are cracking the demographic ceiling at a mere 7% of California's population. You can split that ninety-nine to one, and you still aren't going to call a majority for a proposition unless a much larger demographic is shoring up the race right behind them. That majority had to come largely from the massive demographic groups that dominate California: Caucasians at 43%, Hispanics at 36%, Asians at 12%. Homophobic African Americans did their part to pass Prop 8; but they could not have done it without the lily-white voting blocks of the inland empire. In fact, every African American could have stayed home on November 4th, and it still would have been a to-the-wire race (it passed roughly 48/52 - this is more math than I'm willing to do in my head, but even if whatever block of that 6% of African Americans that did vote that day had abstained on Prop 8 at that skewed ratio, it's a long stretch to say that would have overcome that gap between the overall yeahs and nays).

So, it's rather unlikely that African Americans alone - turning out in record proportion for their small population size - effected an enormous impact on Prop 8. Prop 8 was passed by the same demographics who always pass homophobic popular law: large blocks of conservative white voters (ya know, the ones who historically turn out to elections) with the backing of deep-pocket churches, solidified by scrapping together pieces of every other demographic they can get their hands on. (Colleen at The Swivet has done a much better job than I pulling the relevant data from the large southern counties - her post is worth a good visit.)

But still, it smarts: knowing that African American voters split so heavily toward the homophobic side. And therein lies the part of the debate that is precisely as bilious as you might expect, and rightly so.

From an outsider perspective, the crux of this hurt lies in the notion that every civil liberties movement has had to mature - usually quite painfully - to the notion the oppressions are bound up in each other. You can't have equal rights for women without having equal rights for blacks, because there are black women out there, and they count too. You can't become a shining beacon of equality for gay people without copping a nod to classism, because there's no kind of oppression like being poor, gay, and from the wrong side of town all at once. And because, from a nebulous metaphysical standpoint, you can't be free if you're still oppressing others. Legions of oppressed people might roll their eyes at the tragedy of the oppressors, but still: it's a nice sentiment, especially when it drives social movements.

Every one of these activist movements has been accused - ever so rightfully, not a doubt under the sun - of privileging their own private oppression over every other. That was the hallmark of race relations during the second wave of feminism: the demand that all women identify as women first in a movement dominated by individuals whose race and class lent lenses of invisibility to the idea that a woman can be raped, beaten, harassed, and discriminated against on the basis of her sex, and still consider race to be her primary oppression, or her primary identity above and beyond a sisterhood with women who don't face racism and classism. That was an ugly fight; it's been re-fought on the grounds of just about every one of these movements. The subsets of folks fighting these fights who haven't faced down this particular ogre yet? Ah, well then, you still have it coming. Good luck to you.

So third-wave feminism - a tenured generation very much wrapped up in this post-millennial era of gay liberation - feels like, ya know, this has been done. We got it: we get on the post for every issue on the block - race, class and gender are just the beginning. We hop to for disability rights, we marshal the battalions for gay rights. We swallowed hard when a woman president slipped from our grasp but we understood that other strides were equally important. We even get a little misty notion of species-ism and make a little noise for animal rights. I'm not making fun, I swear: this is good stuff. Even when we half-ass it, that noble notion is there: our oppressions, your oppressions, all wrapped up into one, my liberation is tied up in your liberation, fight the good fight for all, yadda yadda.

And so we are sometimes very surprised - and feel rather righteously betrayed - when it turns out that some other demographic of historically beaten-down peoples turn out to the polls to support their own causes, and none but their own. African Americans: turning out to root for a hometown hero; not so interested in giving props for gay marriage. It smarts. It really fucking does.

But that again gets to the crux of the matter: does this generation of feminists, gay rights advocates, and the like have the right to demand support from the African American community? Certainly, ya know, it would be real nice. It would be awfully reassuring to know that the years spent building bridges between civil rights advocates wouldn't evaporate the moment that particular demographic puts forth a stunning new landmark in political enfranchisement. One would really hope, for example, that a hypothetical first gay president wouldn't also turn out to be totally indifferent to racism, or worse yet, bring out legions of Aryan Nation warriors on election day to pass state-wide initiatives hostile toward minority rights; but one has no grounds to claim that for certain. We won't know that til we get there, if ever we do.

But thinking about what would be real nice and mediating the reality of what we can expect are two vastly divergent thought processes. At the moment, we are faced with the prospect of that slap-in-the-face reality that push to shove, the minority whose time it was to shine did not benevolently lend out a helping hand to others.

Here's the thing: I'm not sure this is a reasonable expectation. I'm not sure that, given the massive inequities rife on the American racial landscape today, it is ok to expect an activist commitment to equality toward people mostly not their own from a demographic still so deeply put down by the majority. Like I said: it would be nice, and hurt is justified - and not unexpected - that it did not come through. But I also think that leap between my civil rights and your civil rights - that linking of oppressions that was so hard fought and won between the waves of feminism - is a product of luxury. It's the province of those who have got theirs and willing now to part out spoonfuls to others. Do I wish we were one big happy egalitarian family fighting for the rights of all? Uh huh, yeah I do. But that isn't - and has never been - rhetoric coming from those scrapping around at the bottom. That's rhetoric coming from people like me: I got mine. I got mine enough that I can spend my weekends yammering away on this blog instead of working a second or third job. It's not really fair to ask people still suffering the unmitigated travesty of poverty and racism in America to come to the table for someone else's dinner party at which they will not be eating. (It's also not really fair - in fact, it is rather alarmingly racist - to expect some kind of solidarity from conservative of black churches, while excusing the mostly white Mormon church for being the fount of this Prop 8 nonsense because, well, Mormons always do this kind of thing. But that's another post entirely.)

None of this leaves aside an alarming truth though: homophobia is a vast, understated, and persistent problem in the African American community. Obama's campaign probably had no intention of making national news out of that factoid, but the tricks of historical timing - that Prop 8 was on the same ballot as the first African American candidate for presidency - leaves no room for doubt. And plenty of room for a good dose of shame.

Where does this leave us all now? For one, anyone with a stake in progressive politics who took home any kind of victory on November 4th: you - we, us - owe an enormous debt of honor to the gay community that fell on the sword that day in the name of every other liberal cause on the block. The gay community took it in the throat for the rest of us, and it is time to return the favor: by putting your money and your mouth where your politics are. Write letters, donate to hopeful political campaigns in the next round, make your voice heard loud and clear in favor of repealing the don't-ask-don't-tell policy and the court battle against Prop 8 - the two most visible actions on the block in the next few months. Fight for the rights of gay individuals and families in the arenas of employment equality, marriage, military discrimination, safety for gay youth in schools, the family courts. This isn't just about interlocking oppressions anymore; this is about help making right the enormous screws put into the gay community on the day that everyone else celebrated liberation and renewal.

Under this new administration, we have some opportunities that have been entirely impossible to even dream of under the Bush years. I say this not because I think Obama is a miracle worker, or even because he is on the right side of every issue (indeed, no: I'm about sixteen shades to the left of most of his campaign platform, and we'll see what comes out of his first term of the presidency). I say this because without the raining down of hatred and hawkishness so marked in the last eight years, there are a few things we don't have to worry about anymore. I'm no longer worried, for example, that we might attack Iran next week - or that the man at the helm is hell-bent on ending science as we know it. Out from under that pressure cooker - with several hellfire-crazy scenarios just off the table - now is the time to push for the issues that weren't even possible to consider just a few months back, and for the issues on which Obama still lies too far right of center. First up on my list: allowing gays to serve openly in the military; expanding health care coverage; renewing commitment to a clean environment; and ending that half-assed notion that we still need troop build-up in Afghanistan, even as we begin to envision a withdrawal from Iraq.

This is far from the time to rest on any kind of laurels; this is the opportunity of a lifetime to make this country something we can all live with. The pressure is off, and yet the pressure is on: we only have two years before interim elections may bend congress right again. Time to start striving toward our potential as a nation again, instead of merely fighting to tread water. Our liberation, all of it: yours, mine, ours. Fractured or together, it's our ride this time around - let's make it a good one.