I think this deserves its own post.

By now you have probably been introduced to the argument that black voters were responsible for tipping the balance on Prop 8 in California. If not, try this or this. The second link is particularly interesting in the sense that the math works out – provided, as social scientists are wont to say, the assumptions hold.

There are two things that deserve emphasis. First, one of the assumptions is tenuous for reasons that have eluded most commentators thus far. Second, even if the argument is correct, this is lapsing into an exercise in misdirected anger and scapegoating.

The linked author's first assumption is, "that the vote among black people was as reported (69% Yes on 8)." This number, which is now being treated as a scientific fact, is based on a single polling organization's exit polling. Exit polling suffers from social desirability effects to a greater degree than traditional polls. That is, being face-to-face with the poll worker and surrounded by one's peers is likely to influence responses. The classic example in the literature is that the race of the questioner affects the responses people give on race-related questions. White people are less willing to say things that could be perceived as racist when talking to a black person. It makes sense, right?

I am willing to accept that homophobia is a bigger problem in some cultural traditions than others. But why do we immediately assume that these poll numbers mean that more black voters oppose gay marriage or voted "Yes" on 8? That is not a valid assumption. What I see is proof that more black respondents told the exit pollster that they voted for it. It is an empirical fact that people give the answers they think they are supposed to give in surveys. Maybe, especially if asked in a room full of other black voters, respondents conformed to social expectations. Maybe they gave the answer that was less likely to draw attention or grief to themselves. Saying "I'm cool with teh gay marriage," depending on where the speaker happens to be standing in this country, can be greeted with praise, ambivalence, or outright hostility.

Second, let's say that "the math" is right and, in contrast to other racial groups, blacks are really against gay marriage. And the argument is that Obama turned out new and enthusiastic black voters who helped him to a crushing victory in CA but also pushed Prop 8 over the edge. It's well and good for high-income white liberals like Dan Savage to go into histrionics about those damn homophobic colored people sinking California's efforts at marriage equality, but I read this as a simple failure of the campaign. Barack Obama unequivocally took the "no" position on Prop 8, as did Joe Biden. Did these voters, who in this argument were motivated to vote almost solely by Obama, know that? Did the campaign go into "bad" neighborhoods and pitch their argument in a way that would resonate with non-upper-middle-class white people, or did they spend all their time and energy preaching to upper-middle-class white people who already agreed with them?

It seems to me that the No on 8 campaign essentially ignored the black vote and is shocked to learn that they may have done poorly with that demographic. Whether or not the broader argument is valid and black voters did sink the issue, I see this as proof that open-minded left wingers are not immune from taking a few swings in the batting cages of America's favorite pastime: finding a racial or ethnic group to scapegoat. Right now the hand-wringing and campaign post-mortems on the left sound like the embarrassed post-hoc excuses of the sitcom husband upon forgetting his anniversary.