05/16/2012 04:02 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

NOM's Racial Wedge Strategy in Action

Just two months ago, internal documents released as part of a lawsuit against the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) revealed in explicit terms how the organization views racial wedge strategies as key to its political goals. If you need reminding just how crass that strategy is, here are some of NOM's own words:

  • "The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks -- two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage; develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots."
  • "Fanning the hostility [between African Americans and gays] raised in the wake of Prop 8 is key to raising the costs of pushing gay marriage to its advocates and persuading the movement's allies that advocates are unacceptably overreaching on this issue."

Recently many of us witnessed that wedge strategy in action, thanks to Bishop Harry Jackson, who has long served as the point man for the Religious Right's anti-gay wedge strategies. Jackson was one of the guests on PBS News Hour on Wednesday, May 9 for a conversation on President Obama's support for the ability of loving, committed same-gender couples to be married.

It is important to note that neither President Obama, nor the journalist doing the interview, nor the other guests, were talking about marriage using "civil rights" language. But Harry Jackson gratuitously threw in rhetoric that was clearly designed to fan racial resentment: "I haven't seen a lot of gay people in the back of the bus recently or lynched or some of the things that blacks went through."

Aside from wondering how "recently" Bishop Jackson was "in the back of the bus," this is what we have come to expect. Repeatedly, for example, Jackson used racially divisive rhetoric in his unsuccessful campaign to stop marriage equality from becoming law in the District of Columbia. It is also what we have seen before from NOM, which made appeals to racial resentment in its unsuccessful attempt to punish with electoral defeat a DC councilmember who had supported equality.

As I watched the program several thoughts came to mind. First, Harry Jackson is good at spewing misinformation. Equality activists are not claiming that the experience of LGBT people is the same as the experience of African Americans. That is a distraction from the issue of legal equality. The right to equal treatment under the law sought by LGBT Americans is grounded in the same Constitution, and the same ideals in the Declaration of Independence, to which Dr. King appealed when he asked America to be as good as its stated values.

Second, there are many people who helped lead the African American civil rights movement who do see equality for LGBT Americans as a civil and human rights issue. Among them are civil rights icons and elected leaders like Joseph Lowery, Julian Bond, and Reps. John Lewis, John Conyers, and James Clyburn. But unlike Bishop Jackson, when I hear them speak the words that are sacred to some--"Civil Rights"--I hear them speak with a passion, a love, a respect, a hope for those who they knew and those who they might know today who they work, worship or serve with. I'm also reminded that our movements have always overlapped, as they did in the case of the late Bayard Rustin, an openly gay African American man, whose brilliant organizing was responsible for the March on Washington at which Dr. King shared with us his dream of an America that offered equality to all people. When they speak, I see the labor of love and unity in the face of the late Bayard Rustin, an openly gay African American man, who brilliantly organized, side by side with others the March on Washington at which Dr. King shared with us his dream of an America that offered equality to all people.

Lastly, like many liberation movements that have taken place across the world,from the dismantling of Apartheid in South Africa to 2011 events in Egypt, some gay rights activists have looked to the African American civil rights movement for inspiration. However,accusing gay people of trying to "hijack" the civil rights movement as it is known and embraced -- because they are seeking the same legal equality and dignity of personhood as African Americans fought for and still fight for -- is both logically and morally deficient. Statements such as gays not having to sit at the back of the bus, or not having been lynched, perpetuates a false image. In the past and to this day, gay people have faced violence, discrimination in the workplace, and legal obstacles to protecting themselves and their families. Gay people, who are African American, have grown up in or were a part of households where they experienced, witnessed or heard from family members about times of hate, intolerance and injustice that gave them an inherent spirit of self-preservation and a desire for unconditional love.

I work every day with clergy who struggle thoughtfully with issues of faith and justice, and who are wrestling, like the President did, with their understanding of how to bring the demands of faith and justice together in public policy on marriage. Not all of them will reach the same conclusion that President Obama and I have reached. But none of them, I hope, will be tempted to resort to the cynical, divisive, insulting political games that Bishop Jackson and the National Organization for Marriage continue to put on display.

I do believe that in the long run their strategy will fail. But more important, I believe African American and LGBT communities will work ever more closely together and will succeed in achieving legal equality and justice for all.