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Wayne Besen Headshot

Proposition 8 and Race

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I can understand why white gay people are angry. I certainly am. But, let's take a step back and look at this dispassionately. I believe our failure with the African American vote (70% voted in favor of Prop. 8) has more to do with education levels than race. In general, people with lower levels of education -- of any race -- do not vote for gay rights. White people are twice as likely to graduate college as black people. This accounts for the difference by race on Prop. 8.

Think of it this way: 57 percent of white people with a college education voted No on Prop. 8. Yet, 58 percent of white people with no college voted yes on 8. In other words, uneducated urban black people vote very much like uneducated rural white people.

Uneducated people -- black, white and Hispanic -- often derive their power from physical strength. They perceive being gay as weak and antithetical to real manhood. By voicing support for gay rights, they lose status and often fear rivals may perceive them as gay. The easiest way to gain status is dissing faggots. I see this attitude all the time in Brooklyn -- in the gym and on the basketball court, where I often play. (Not the best sample, I realize this)

Meanwhile, educated people of all races gain power by outsmarting opponents -- not beating them up. This creates a safe space to support gay rights and not lose social status. (Unfortunately, the fact that the conservative black church is a central organizing point for politics makes even educated blacks less likely to vote for gay rights. But, this is secondary to education levels.)

It is understandable that black support for anti-gay efforts drives white gay people nuts. It is difficult to understand how people affected by bigotry can promote bigotry - as if they are selfish people who learned all the wrong lessons from the civil rights movement. But, remember, uneducated people -- of all races -- are not students of history. They react to the environment around them, which often rewards homophobia.

(Compounding this perception problem is that the vast majority of overt homophobia experienced by urban gays comes from black people. In places like New York City, you almost never hear a white person say "faggot." But, we hear this from uneducated blacks too often. This makes the problem seem worse than it is. We often forget that we moved to places like New York to escape uneducated whites in rural areas that were just as openly homophobic. In other words -- it is about education -- not race.)

A few of possible solutions to ponder:

1) We must air public service announcements with people like former basketball star Charles Barkley -- who is a tough guy and supporter of same-sex marriage. We must show masculine African American figures who are supportive, every chance we get. Obama is also a huge help, because he is inclusive and is the ultimate example of power though academic success. His leadership will improve our fate.

2) We must work to raise the education levels of all Americans -- which will lead to less homophobia of all races. The fact that we have so many African Americans in prison -- and not graduating is a legacy of racism and a national disgrace. This must change.

3) We must also have substantive discussion with the African American community -- as many of you have suggested. But, until we raise education levels, there is only so much we can do to win support of urban blacks -- or rural whites. In other words, scholarships for urban blacks and rural whites are as effective as spending money on education specifically about gay rights. Keep this in mind.

4) While I recognize that there are many supportive pro-gay black churches, as long as this is the central organizing place for black politics, this is not helpful for gay rights. Alternative organizing places for aspiring black leaders must be strengthened.