May 21, 2012
By Jacob Combs
The conventional wisdom on African-American voters and marriage equality goes something like this: because of deeply held religious beliefs, a commanding majority of black voters oppose marriage rights for gays and lesbians, and when such rights are put up to a vote of the people, African-Americans consistently turn out to vote against them. That narrative was frequently put forward in the analysis that followed the passage of Amendment One in North Carolina, including coverage by NPR and the Charlotte Observer.
But as Barry Yeoman pointed out last week in an article for The American Prospect called “Town and Country,” the real divide in North Carolina wasn’t along racial lines, it was urban vs. rural. As Yeoman points out, it’s impossible to know exactly how how black voters in the state voted on the amendment, since no exit polls were conducted and precincts are almost never single-race. But when you take a closer look at the data, what becomes clear is that urban voters broke against the amendment and rural voters broke for it, and those breakdowns, it turns out, cut across racial lines:
In each of North Carolina’s five largest cities, voters in majority-black precincts rejected the measure: Charlotte (52 percent), Raleigh (51 percent), Greensboro (54 percent), Winston-Salem (55 percent), and Durham (65 percent). Durham’s results were dramatic: Not a single majority-black precinct supported the amendment. Several crushed it by margins of 3-to-1 and even 4-to-1.
Once you move out of the Research Triangle of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, and North Carolina’s other major cities, like Charlotte, the state’s electoral geography is very different, comprised primarily of small, rural towns which voted overwhelmingly for the amendment. Many of these towns are isolated and have low levels of education but, as Yeoman describes, they differ dramatically when it comes to race. Eighty-nine percent of Graham County, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains and containing exactly one black voter, voted yes on Amendment One. Bertie County, with a 60 percent black population, voted 73 percent yes.
But even in rural North Carolina, Yeoman writes, there were “islands of resistance”:
The amendment failed 2-to-1 on the African-American side of Scotland Neck, a village that has witnessed forty years of civil-rights struggles stretching from a landmark school-desegregation case in the 1970s to the recent stun-gun death of a black bicyclist. The result, says former Mayor James Mills, is an “organized and sophisticated” black electorate. “We were able to communicate was that this really had nothing to do with same-sex marriage,” he says. “What this has to do with is hate.” The measure also failed, albeit narrowly, in a black precinct of nearby Warren County, where in the 1980s hundreds were arrested during protests against a PCB landfill that sparked some of the earliest discussions about environmental racism.
When Proposition 8 passed in California in 2008, exit polls showed that a full 70 percent of black voters in the state voted yes on the ballot measure, even while supporting Barack Obama’s bid for presidency. The only problem was that those exit polls greatly over-exaggerated the numbers. An analysis of precinct level voting in Alameda, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego and San Francisco counties (which collectively account for almost two-thirds of the state’s African-American voters) showed that black support for Prop 8 was more likely somewhere around 58 percent. That was still higher than the average 52 percent support for the measure amongst all voters, but it’s a far cry from 70 percent.
What this demonstrates is that there is an opportunity for marriage equality gains to be made through outreach with urban black communities and perhaps even the religious leaders of these communities. Yeoman’s analysis muddies the pat logical conclusions that argue that African-Americans are predominantly opposed to marriage equality, and reveals that the true divide for these type of ballot questions is one of geography and not race. That could make a difference going forward, especially in states like Maryland, where the African-American community is likely to have a great impact on the success of marriage equality later this year.