Updated: November 23, 2012 9:52PM
When Californians voted to outlaw same-sex marriage four years ago, one factor -- both revealing and alarming to the civil rights community -- was African-Americans’ support for the ban. Proposition 8, which passed with a 52 percent majority, had 58 percent support among black voters.
It was a different story Nov. 6 in Maine, Maryland and Washington state, where voters endorsed marriage rights for gays and lesbians, and in Minnesota, where state law already prohibits same-sex marriage but voters rejected a Prop. 8-style ban in their state constitution.
Surveys show a majority of African-Americans now support those rights, said Ben Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which campaigned hard for same-sex marriage. In Maryland, where blacks make up almost 30 percent of the voters, their backing was crucial.
“We’re talking about it as a civil rights issue,” and people are listening, Jealous said in an interview last week during a visit to San Francisco. He also said President Barack Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage rights in May, followed shortly afterward by an endorsement from the NAACP, was a “game changer.”
If the issue reached the ballot again in California, “we would see majority black support,” Jealous said. “I’m very confident that ... we would win.”
San Francisco’s NAACP leader, the Rev. Amos Brown of Third Baptist Church, agreed. “People are enlightened,” said Brown, a member of the NAACP’s national board who took part in the Maryland campaign.
A different view came from the Rev. Maurice Scott of Oakland, one of many African-American clergy members throughout the state who vocally supported Prop. 8.
“People of African descent are very religious people,” said Scott, pastor at the Great St. John Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church. “I think that many are supportive of the president but not supportive of homosexuality.”
Even today, he said, all the parishioners with whom he has spoken “would not vote for (a) man-and-man, woman-and-woman relationship.”
Not all analyses of the Maryland vote agreed with Jealous’ assessment of African-American support of same-sex marriage. The NAACP leader said surveys just before the election found majority backing for the measure among blacks, but the Washington Post said an exit poll pegged support at 46 percent, compared with 52 percent of all voters.
The surveys agree, however, that attitudes toward same-sex marriage among African-Americans and other racial minorities have changed even more rapidly than the views of the general population.
The Pew Research Center said a Nov. 6 exit poll found that 51 percent of African-Americans nationwide endorsed the right of gays and lesbians to marry and 41 percent opposed it, slightly higher than the support level among all voters. A Pew survey in 2009 had found only 26 percent support among African-Americans, compared with 39 percent for all respondents.
Other recent polls have found Latino support for same-sex marriage as high as 59 percent, compared with just less than 50 percent for non-Hispanic whites.
In Washington state, where gay rights advocates campaigned for support in minority communities, “we saw very little opposition aside from a few very conservative black preachers,” said Andy Grow, spokesman for Washington United for Marriage. California’s experience with Prop. 8, he said, was “the grand model for all of us” in showing the need for outreach.
Jealous said Prop. 8 was also a wake-up call for the NAACP. He said the civil rights organization and its allies evidently took African-Americans for granted and were beaten to the punch by clergy who mobilized much of the black community in support of the measure.
They realized afterward, he said, that “if you want (blacks’) support you’ve got to ask for it, ask for it early and build relationships.”