By Joseph Willliams
African-Americans voted 2-1 in favor of the North Carolina amendment banning gay marriage Tuesday, but the White House is betting that black voters there and beyond will stick with the president, despite broad resistance to legalization.
While there’s faith that African-Americans will turn out strong at the polls to protect Obama’s legacy, pollsters point out that while opposition to same-sex marriages has fallen in the black community, it’s still just a point shy of 50 percent — enough to affect black turnout, at least theoretically, in an election where every vote will matter.
Obama’s statement rocked the political world. But it also underscored a widely held belief that African-American voters are closer to Republicans than Democrats when it comes to gay marriage.
“A lot of the people that I have spoken to that are self-identified Democrats are completely and totally against gay marriage — they believe it’s a sin,” said Michelle Bernard, president of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy.
In North Carolina in 2008, black turnout was the engine that propelled Obama to a key swing-state victory; the president captured over 95 percent of that vote, according to exit polls. On Tuesday, however, reports from North Carolina indicate a majority of black voters cast ballots for Amendment 1, defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman, and effectively nullifying the rights of same-sex partners.
A coalition of conservative activists and African-American ministers helped drive black turnout, according to reports. Ad campaigns on both sides compared the vote to African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights — a move that many black voters opposed to the initiative saw as offensive.
Yet a Pew Center poll released in April showed that the African-American community has softened in its opposition to gay marriage: In a 2008 survey, 67 percent of respondents said they didn’t approve of it, but in 2012 that number had dropped to 49 percent.
Aisha Moodie-Mills, an African-American and gay rights activist who spearheaded a movement to legalize gay marriage in Washington, D.C., thinks the community’s evolution was actually ahead of the president’s.
“I do not believe the black community is any more homophobic than any other community. It is not in my experience,” said Moodie-Mills, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who noted that the amendment was part of the state’s Republican primary, drawing more black conservatives.
Still, “there is an education process that needs to happen” that’s reflected in the North Carolina vote, and Obama’s change of heart, she said.
Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher said Obama shouldn’t worry about black voters abandoning him over the issue.
“The fairness argument — that gays are being discriminated against — is one that gives African-Americans a great deal of pause,” said Belcher, noting that African-Americans have remained firmly behind Obama even though the black unemployment rate is nearly double that of whites. “The history of black people in this country had been one of fighting for fairness and equality.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s a nonissue,” he said. “But on the list of things that keep me up at night worrying about Obama’s reelection, it’s really low on the list.”