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.

9 thoughts on “AMERICA'S PASTIME”

  • I agree with your first point that there isn't much to go on that 70% is an accurate number – it's even worse that it is a relatively small number of people, making the sampling even harder to do – the fact that it isn't sliced-and-diced by age/education/etc. etc. is telling to me.

    I still think that the 70% shocked a lot of people. Most groups were 50-50 on the whole, with older and poorer tending towards 60%. The 70% for the demographic as a whole (including younger, college educated, women, etc.) caught people really off guard. If I remember right, 65-and-older Hispanic men were only at 65%. So there's a lot of disappointment and anger there.

    I didn't follow the execution that closely, but I know there was a Rovean "get out the base" approach to a lot of it (Newsom campaigning in the Haight was the image that comes to mind) – however at 70%, one wonders if Dan Savage passing out leafets is going to make much of a difference.

  • I agree with you about the dangers of exit polling. It is a narrow measure of voting patterns. But, I'm still confused about this outreach to black voters bit, mostly because it assumes that the people doing the outreach were all white gay men, like Savage. Not true, there are POC involved in GLBT groups, they're just invisible (no surprises there).

    What Savage was trying to say (and I agree with him) is the disconnect between blacks voting for Obama and against equal marriage rights. One move is a nod to the civil rights movement and the other is a denial of it. This is not about outreach but about something more deep seated and I'm afraid that all the outrage is obscuring the issue of homophobia in minority communities. I have to say that it disheartening to read some of the commentary published by minority activists and their efforts to create a false hierarchy of oppression…this op-ed is a good example-,0,3669070.story

    Savage was not trying to blame one group for prop 8…he was only trying to expand on the frustrations within the GLBT community.

  • I thought your objection to exit polling was that people intentionally fuck with pollsters.

    And that single exit poll that had black people hatin' on Gay Marriage? Yeah, maybe it's an outlier. I wish there were more data on this. I was surprised that exit polling was so accurate regarding almost every other case.

    And whatever the reason (you're asserting that it was a godawful—see what I did there—terribly run "no on 8" campaign), I'm still livid. Regardless of what they were told by ads and churches and what have you, the fact that >50% of the people who vote chose to hurt another group of people, without even a pragamatic reason—helping themselves makes me angry.

    Angry. It's mind-boggling. I don't ever remember being angry about a vote before. I was dumfounded when W got another 4 years. I've been disappointed, saddened, frustrated….but here I am, ANGRY, not at the vote, but at what it says about the mongoloid masses I pass on the street every day. (And shoot, I am not even certain I have any gay friends, right now.)

    Sorry for the tangent. Political campaigns have an effect. And "No on 8" was run more poorly than "Yes on 8." One of the ways in which it was run poorly, was to not focus on the black community.

  • Here's another bit of trivia. If I'm not mistaken (and unfortunately, I don't have my source handy, so I may very well be) one the only liberal-tending groups that Obama did worse with than Kerry did was gay people. It was only a drop of a point or two, but considering that Obama had significant gains, often double digits, with other demographics, that's pretty significant.

    So maybe it goes both ways; maybe black people don't like gays, but maybe gays don't like black people, either. I think a lot of the response to this prop 8 debacle seems like it might work with that narrative. I wouldn't even begin to suggest that it's definitely true, but it's worth considering. When one side makes any number of mistakes in their campaign that was this close, there are many factors that – if one were removed – would have changed the outcome. The number of people who are saying, "It's all the black people's fault!" strikes me as, well, racist. Which is really a shame, considering the other racial milestone that we just crossed…

    So I guess an Obama victory doesn't mean that racism is at last vanquished across the land, once and for all.

  • I think another reason that so many black folks turned out in California were Prop 6 (the "Safe Neighborhoods Act") and Prop 9 (the "Victims' Rights and Protection Act"), both of which would have had the effect of putting more lower income people in jail for longer sentences.

    Also, in 2004, Oregon voters upheld a gay marriage ban there, and I think that was mostly white people. A lot of Oregon is rural farmland. Just like a lot of California. I know we midwesterners tend to think of CA as being one long stretch of LA and SF/Oakland, but that's simply not true. There are also places like Bakersfield, where fatalities from hate crimes aren't unheard of.

  • David, people do intentionally fuck with exit polls. I'm not sure they do so any more or less than traditional polls. 2004 suggests that it might be a little more. Not sure, though.

    The exit polls did generally get one thing right – the election outcome – but that doesn't speak to their validity. *Everything* got the outcome right this time. That does not mean that demographic splits within said poll are reliable.

    Mike, 70% is a shocking number but I would not at all be surprised if it is exaggerated worse than you may be thinking. Experiments on voter validation (asking the question and then checking public records to verify) show that polls exaggerate their turnout by as much as 25%, and black respondents are far more likely to exaggerate than whites. One of the most persistent problems in political science is that social desirability effects in surveys are large overall and even larger among blacks and hispanics.

  • I have heard that blacks are strongly anti-gay while at the same time doing the DL (Down Low) having sex with other men. It doesn't make sense, but a lot things that people do don't make sense. If you ask people about issues a lot will agree with progressive policies while voting and calling themselves conservative. So, go figure!

  • Scapegoating is obviously a misguided strategy, first, because it won't win any new converts to the cause, and second, because it's probably correct that the black vote was not the deciding factor that shifted the vote into the Yes column. But I do have just a couple of observations. You might be correct about social desirability effects influencing the exit polling. But if that is true, doesn't it say something that the social pressure to tell pollsters they voted yes varied among different groups? I'd think that these effects would have been stronger among Latinos, which are typically regarded as a socially conservative group. Second, while I am not an expert on this issue, I do seem to have seen survey data (unfortunately, I don't have the links) prior to this election demonstrating that the African-American community is pretty strongly opposed to gay marriage. Presumably these surveys would have avoided the social desirability effects. But again, I don't have the data in front of me, I just remember reading something to that effect a few months ago. Finally, if we can all agree that scapegoating isn't the answer, the question is what to do next. I agree that the gay rights movement needs to do a better job of outreach and not ignore the black vote. But I still find it interesting that we never have this conversation about the failure to "reach out" to gay rights opponents when a when a rural white state passes one of these measures. There seems to be this assumption that those people are a lost cause, so hard set in their bigoted beliefs that they're beyond redemption. But the social conservativism of black churchgoers, on the other hand, isn't genuine, and we can make them see the light if only we try.

  • Votes ultimately decide what passes or fails. Understood.

    However, it's not a deflection to "out" those who spearheaded this movement. If these figures are correct, it's pretty scary as a whole:

    Kulkuri makes an interesting point though. I've long since believed something to that extent as well. But, the list provided predominantly features paranoid white people (as usual).

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