Op-Ed: Why Black Voters Didn't Fight Prop. 8 Writer Jasmyne Cannick argues that black voters did not join the fight against California's same-sex marriage ban because, when compared to the major challenges facing African Americans, marriage equality seemed like a "secondary issue."
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Op-Ed: Why Black Voters Didn't Fight Prop. 8

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Op-Ed: Why Black Voters Didn't Fight Prop. 8

Op-Ed: Why Black Voters Didn't Fight Prop. 8

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And now, time for the Opinion Page. The campaign against California's Proposition 8 worked to equate gay marriage with Civil Rights. Based on the result, the argument failed. Voters approved the constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman and black voters who turned out in large numbers to elect an African-American president of the United States supported the gay marriage ban in California by 2 to 1.

Jasmyne Cannick says she is a perfect example of why. In an op-ed in Saturday's Los Angeles Times, she wrote, I am black. I am a political activist who cares deeply about social justice issues. I am a lesbian but even I was not inspired to encourage black people to vote against the proposition. The white gay community never reached out to black voters, she argued and quote, "many black gays just haven't been convinced that this movement is about anything more than the white gays who fund it." Jasmyne Cannick is a journalist and a regular contributor to NPR's News & Notes. We have a link to her op-ed "No-on-8's White Bias" at npr.org/talk. And she joins us now from the studios at NPR West. Nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. JASMYNE CANNICK (Journalist): Thank you. Hi.

CONAN: And you wrote, "at a time when blacks are still more likely than whites to be pulled over for no reason, more likely to be unemployed than whites, more likely to live at or below the poverty line, I was too busy trying to get black people registered to vote, period. I wasn't about to focus my attention on what couldn't help but feel like a secondary issue, and that points to a problem," you argue in the campaign led primarily by white gays in California.

Ms. CANNICK: Absolutely. I mean - but this has been the story of that whole movement and for people in my position who happen to be black and/or gay. It presents a problem because obviously I'm disappointed with the numbers of African-Americans who turned out and supported Proposition 8. Obviously that is a problem for me as well. But I think what really bothered me the most was that after the election, all of the anger turned towards African-Americans from the gay community as if single handedly African-American voters were the reason why Proposition 8 passed.

And I just thought it was time that we start to have an honest conversation about how this campaign was run and it was quite frankly, it was a poorly ran campaign based on an outdated civil rights method that they were trying to use and to the extent that anyone's listening who's a part of the planning of these movements maybe next time you know they sit down at the table they'll include more people of color, more African-American gays and lesbians as well as Latinos and Asians because we come out of these communities. We know what works and we know what doesn't work.

CONAN: And one thing that didn't work, you argue, was the argument that the case for gay marriage was equivalent to the case for Civil Rights.

Ms. CANNICK: Yeah. That just doesn't go over too well in the African-American community and there are many reasons for that. I mean it doesn't even set right too much with me. While I can obviously see the similarities, they are not the exact same. And you have to remember, when you think about the movement for marriage for gays and lesbians, the faith of that movement has always been white gays and lesbians.

So when you have that image telling you that your struggle for equality, your struggle to be able to use any restroom, go to school, all of that you know - when you have that person telling you that, it doesn't go over too well and I don't think they really understand that. Because at the end of the day, you know yes, they're gay and lesbian and yes, there's an issue of inequality as it relates to marriage but if it were 1955, they would still be able to go into any restroom, they'd still be able to go whatever school they wanted to and we weren't - and even me as a lesbian, I would not have been able to. So I think we need to move away from that argument at least where it relates to African-Americans because it's clear that it does not work.

CONAN: We want to invite our listeners to join the conversation. How does the issue of race and gay marriage play out where you live? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. You can also email us, talk@npr.org. And Jasmyne Cannick, I did want to ask you, there were similar measures on the ballot this year in Arizona and Florida where the proposals for gay marriage, were bans on gay marriage also were approved by voters and it's been on the ballot in dozens of other states over the past four years, really. Do you think that this - your writing specifically about California but you think the same kind of mechanics are working elsewhere?

Ms. CANNICK: Look if in Florida and Arizona, the folks running those campaigns were on the same campaign that they ran in California then absolutely. I can tell you that on Election Day, I was in the drawn(ph) down projects and watched to get out the vote, and I am debating the merits of Proposition 8 in the projects. It wasn't a subject that - a conversation that I brought up, it was a conversation that actually came to me while I was out there and you know, what they said to me, it said to me that proponents of Proposition 8 managed to get their message all the way into the most economically depressed parts of African-American community. However, no one from the No-on-8 campaign had done the same. Even at my own neighborhood, I received dozens of mailers from the Yes-on-8 campaign, I never received one mailer from the No-on-8 campaign.

CONAN: And just - people get confused, Yes-on-8 was for the gay marriage ban and No was opposed to the gay marriage ban.

Ms. CANNICK: Right, it was one of those Yes means, no and No means yes.

CONAN: That just didn't help things either, but there was plenty of television advertisement use the saying the ground war that we talk about that which was so effective in Senator Obama's campaign was not waged at least in African-American communities and you also on the civil rights issue said a lot of that for African-American is associated with the church and to the degree that the No-on-8 campaign was seen as anti-church, it was not going to be effective.

Ms. CANNICK: As it relates to those African-Americans who are deeply religious, you're absolutely right. I mean, this is, you know, again, it's hard, it's especially hard again for people in my position who seemed to be caught in the middle of this. And you know, it is very true that the civil rights movement, our civil rights movement is connected to the church. Whether we like it or not it is. And so to that extent, if you're going to continue to make this argument and push this case for marriage while asking African-Americans to separate the issue from church, it's going to be a losing argument. And again, that's why I say it's time to go back to the drawing board but when you go back to the drawing board, you bring some other people with you who come out of the communities that you need to get into or that you need to learn to work with, because it doesn't work when you're looking on the outside from the outside in.

And that is - I guess biggest problem I have with the gay community is that there is very little collaboration between them and African-American gays and lesbians. You know, often times, they just try to, you know, they, it's almost like they just expect black people to do this because of that, and we cannot operate on that method. We cannot operate on that kind of thinking or else you get what happened on November 4th.

CONAN: Are you suggesting that African-American gays and lesbians are closely associated with the church? That's not my impression.

Ms. CANNICK: Look, there all - we came out of the black church, OK and many of us are still there. So you know, I personally don't go to church but I know plenty of African-American gays and lesbians who still go to black churches. OK. Again, we come out of these communities. I always tell people that I don't live in West Hollywood, I lived in the hood, and that's very true for me. I live as a lesbian where you can find the majority of black people in Los Angeles. Why, because I am still an African-American and that's where I feel most comfortable at. And it's I think - no, I think I know that's pretty much true for other African-American gays and lesbians. They tend to live where you find black people.

You know, you won't find us so much, you know, in overwhelming numbers in West Hollywood or in the Castro district in Dupont Circle and all the - those other sort of trendy gay neighborhoods. Why, because we're still dealing with the same issues that effect African-Americans period. Whether it's driving while black, whether its unemployment, whether it's, you know, affordable housing, last to be hired, first to be fired. We still have to deal with all of those other issues which is, again, one of the reasons why, you know, I don't think that there is a huge movement on our behalf around the whole Proposition 8. And I am not saying that they weren't black gays and lesbians out there campaigning for Prop 8 because there were, but to the overwhelming numbers as their white counterparts, absolutely not.

Many of us were out there just trying to get black people to be registered to vote for anything period. And in the last point on I make, which I think is really crucial is that, you know, on the eve of this most important election and this election was important for African-Americans as well as gays and lesbians, you have, you know, a West Hollywood man put in news around a Sarah Palin effigy that then becomes a national story, and it angers African-Americans. I know, right here in Los Angeles. I mean, it really, really, really upset us. And I was trying to get the community to understand these are the things that don't bode well in the African-American community. I don't like Sarah - I didn't like Sarah Palin. But if I were going to do a demonstration, a noose would have never come into my psyche to use because I understand what a noose symbolizes. And so, it's those kinds of things that happen that tend to, you know, keep our communities separated.

CONAN: On the opinion page this week, Jasmyne Cannick, a journalist and commentator, regular contributer to NPR's News and Notes wrote an op-ed in Saturday's Los Angeles Times "No-on-8's White Bias." You can find the link to her op-ed at our website, npr.org/blogofthenation. You can join the conversation by giving us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org and this is Talk Of The Nation from NPR News. And here's an email from Peter in Curry, North Carolina. I object to the tone of this question, why gay votes took black votes for granted? The real question is how a marginalized community can turn around and support the marginalization of another minority. Why shouldn't gays take for granted that blacks who suffered under laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage would vote against bigotry? They claim that it's a religious issue but the same bible was used to justify slavery.

Ms. CANNICK: Yeah, again, you know, we need to go back to the drawing board. I've heard it all, I mean, I've even said it all and in times I had to go back and rethink how I dealt with this issue within the African-American community. I mean, I don't know if people understand the importance of this past election for African-Americans. We came out in numbers. We spent an entire year, two years registering black voters. That was our number one priority. I am not saying that any one struggle is worse than the other one but what I am saying, is that there is a clear misunderstanding of what our priorities were as African-Americans. And to the extent again, that people are open enough to think about this. You cannot dictate to another community what their priorities are especially if you don't come out of that community. And you haven't done anything to work with that community. And you cannot take that community's votes for granted either. It just doesn't work.

CONAN: Let's get Calima(ph) on the line. Calima is calling us from Baltimore in Maryland.

CALIMA (Caller): Hi. Yes. I am an African-American lesbian. I work on gay rights issues and I also worked on public health issues. And frankly, gay marriage is an issue that seems to be owned by the white gay movement. The issues I see in my everyday work relate to HIV and AIDS and violence and homelessness. Issues that are not necessarily just impacting gay African-Americans but all African-Americans. And until the gay rights movement takes these issues into consideration, things like Proposition 8 are going to always be accepted and they're always going to pass.

Ms. CANNICK: I absolutely agree. I was having a discussion about that and someone brought up Maslow's hierarchy pyramid and sort of the things that, you know, to the extent of, you know what we need to survive. Los Angeles black people make up the majority of the homeless, OK. In Los Angeles, we have so many issues as it relates to African-Americans and these issues don't just impact heterosexual African-Americans, they impact all of us. But in terms of community collaborating, you know, you don't see the gay community trying to work with the black community to say, hey, you know, I understand this issue is relevant to your community and is relevant to our community too, because, you know, our community also includes black gays and lesbians.

So maybe we can work together on registering black voters, because that way if they're registered, hmmm, maybe they can vote No on Prop 8. But if they're not registered, they can't vote anything on Prop 8. There was no cohesiveness. There was no collaboration in that area. And there never has been. And as long as it continues to be that way, again you're going to always have the separation. You cannot just come into the black community during elections season and then only to the communities that you justified because you're not coming to Compton, you won't come to watch, you come to South Los Angeles and then you just expect the black vote to turn out in your favor.

CONAN: Calima, thanks very much for the call.

CALIMA: No problem, preach girl.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Ms. CANNICK: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see we get Michael on the line. Michael is calling us from Flagstaff in Arizona.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call, I really appreciate it.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

MICHAEL: Yeah. I disagree with what she's saying here. I am a Hispanic, and I am really disappointed in my own community for doing the same thing. I am in Arizona, we had a similar bill here that did not get passed and you know, we have a majority of Hispanic role(ph). I feel that religious ballots have got underway and I feel that it's just -it's hypocritical to say that this is not similar to the civil rights movement of Hugo Chavez or Martin Luther King. You know, because you just don't really know for sure how they were affected because they were always in the closet. They were always in hiding because they were afraid of getting killed and hurt themselves. You tell the gay man or the lesbian, who's partner got killed that there is no relation to civil rights for being gay. They got beaten out and killed for being gay. And there is no relation there, I just don't see that.

Ms. CANNICK: Well, to the extent that maybe you didn't understand what it was that I said. I will repeat myself. I am also disappointed in black people. I started off this conversation by saying that but that's a different conversation that, you know, black folks will have amongst black folks. But again, you have to look at what the term civil rights means for different people. And when you talk about civil rights in the African-American community, it is and is strictly connected to the black church. And as long as that is and I assume that will be till the end of time, there is always going to be this issue around religion. And what the gay community or the gay strategists who put these campaigns together don't realize is that you're not going to be able to separate it.

It's going to be a losing battle every time and so to that extent, we have to come back to the drawing board and figure out another strategy something else that works with African-Americans that they can relate to better. That will help them get it. I tell people all the time, if you're so religious and you think I am going to hell then let me go. God doesn't need your help. All right, stopping me from getting married is not going to, you know, make me straight all the sudden. So I mean, what I am saying is that, we have to think about the language that we're using with the different communities that we're trying to reach.

CONAN: We got to go. Michael, thanks very much for the call. I know you probably still disagree but we're going to have to stop here. Appreciate it. Bye bye.

MICHAEL: I will thank you.

CONAN: And Jasmyne Cannick, we appreciate your time today.

Ms. CANNICK: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Jasmyne Cannick, journalist and commentator, regular contributer to NPR's News and Notes. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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