IT'S BEEN a popular truism of American social demographics, and a sad fact of our racial history: African Americans have, in large part because of cultural tradition and the impact of the teachings of Christianity, been historically antagonistic to gay rights in America.
That generalization isn’t too general to quantify. Sixty-four percent of African Americans opposed gay marriage in a Pew Forum poll in 2008, “a significantly higher level of opposition than among whites (51%)”.
And on the same night Barack Obama won the presidency that year, California voters voted to approve Proposition 8, the state measure that banned same-sex marriage. Initial exit polls found that 70 percent of black voters backed Prop. 8.
In January 2009, though, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a more granular analysis of voting data on Prop. 8 from five heavily black-populous counties suggested that African American support for Prop. 8 was closer to 58 percent — “still well above the 52 percent Prop. 8 received from all voters in the Nov. 4 election.”
“The study debunks the myth that African Americans overwhelmingly and disproportionately supported Proposition 8,” Andrea Shorter, director of And Marriage for All, said in a statement. “But we clearly have work to do with, within and for African American communities, particularly the black church.”
But if two snapshot assessments of the mood of African Americans toward President Obama’s Wednesday endorsement of marriage equality for same-sex couples are any indication, that “work” to be done is well underway, with African Americans in recent years having made an evolution of their own.
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FORMER NAACP Chairman Julian Bond was upbeat about the president’s statement on Thursday. “Thrilled and excited,” actually. “This was a position I’d always thought that he had,” Bond told Anderson Cooper on CNN. “I always felt that he felt this way. I was waiting and waiting for him to say so, and I’m just so happy that he finally did.”
Bond’s sense of African American reaction was that of a community coming to grips with the future. “The tide is shifting, people are thinking differently. Younger people are saying, ‘these are old-fashioned ideas …’” And Bond understood the impact of Obama as compass for the nation’s ideals. “When he says that, it sends a powerful signal that the most powerful figure in the land … has spoken out in favor of freedom, justice, rightness and correctness for everybody.”
Rev. Candy Holmes, an African American minister with Metropolitan County Church in Prince George’s County, Md., came at it from a more ecclesiastical perspective, but one that suggested her congregations were no less tolerant. “We are enthused,” she told Bill Press on Current TV’s “Full Court Press” on Thursday. “I recognize that there [is] still diverse thought in the community, but overall we are enthused that the president has come out and made this public stance … we’re encouraged by that.
“The right of marriage, and same-sex marriage, is for all Americans, and protection under the law is for all,” Holmes said. “While there are some that are still evolving, there are many in the religious community, in the black church, that have evolved and are there with the president.”
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“The next generation of Christians differs substantially from the previous generations,” said Jonathan Merritt, author of “A Faith of Our Own,” a book that explores evolving changes in American evangelical perspectives. “They’re not resonating with the religious right, not even the religious left,” Merritt told Current TV’s Eliot Spitzer on Thursday.
In his 1859 treatise On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin observed that evolutionary changes don’t happen in a vacuum; the interconnectedness of the ecosystem and the power of irresistible change dictate that evolution happens, fast or slow, to everything in that ecosystem. The celebrated naturalist would be surprised to find that process playing out in American society right now, and faster than he might have imagined.