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Obama's effect: Are gay 'rites' a black thing now?

Posted: May 30, 2012 9:25 a.m.
Updated: June 1, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Conservatives warned, often with glee, that President Barack Obama’s support for same-sex marriage would spark a backlash from African Americans. But less than a month later, guess what? Polls show black voters dramatically swinging the other way, closer to Obama’s view.

Black voters, for reasons heavily related to conservative religious views, have been more conservative about same-sex marriage than national averages -- until now. New polls indicate that Obama’s gay-marriage support may do more to help the cause than hurt his popularity.

A new ABC/Washington Post poll released May 24 found a new high of 59 percent of African Americans who said say gay marriage should be legal. That’s up from an average of 41 percent in polls leading up to Obama’s announcement that his position had “evolved” into support for the right of gays and lesbians to legally marry.

That surge among black voters helped push support among Americans overall to 53 percent, a dramatic increase from six years ago when only 36 percent thought so. Only 39 percent overall maintained that gay marriage should be illegal.

The polltakers cautioned that the results, though statistically significant, were based on a relatively small sample of black voters, a fact upon which conservative critics pounced. Yet statewide polls taken by Public Policy Polling (PPP) have found a similar pro-gay-marriage swing in Maryland, North Carolina and Pennsylvania before and after Obama’s pronouncement. Almost all of the movement was driven by black voters.

The state to watch is Maryland, where voters will be asked in November to approve or repeal a new state law that legalizes same-sex marriage. A poll released Thursday by PPP finds 55 percent of black Maryland voters now say they will support the new law and only 36 percent oppose it. That’s a complete flip since March, when 56 percent, told PPP that they would vote against the measure.

Overall, 57 percent of likely Maryland voters say they will vote for the referendum and only 37 percent intend to vote against it, the poll shows. That’s a big gain since a poll in early March found the measure winning by a much closer 52 percent to 44 percent margin. Again, almost the entire shift came from African Americans, who the Census Bureau says comprise 30 percent of the state’s population.

“The media’s been asking the wrong question,” said Dean Debnam, Democratic pollster and president of Public Policy Polling. “The big issue isn’t how Obama’s stance will affect his re-election hopes. It’s how Obama’s stance will move public opinion on gay marriage.”

More questions: Why has black voter opinion moved so quickly? Will it continue to do so? As someone who knows happily and legally married gay and lesbian couples -- and who has lived with churchgoing African Americans all of my life -- I can think of several reasons for this opinion evolution.

Much of it has been building for years. Today we see an array of black leadership as diverse as Colin Powell and Jay Z lending their support to Obama’s position.

There are those who think, as I do, that the conservatives overreach when they call gay marriage a “war against marriage.” One outstanding example: My wife and I have just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, I am happy to report, without any noticeable scratches inflicted on our marriage by the rights of gays and lesbians to enter the same marital rites.

Still, black Americans are divided over the issue as much as other Americans are. There will be some, no doubt, who choose as one caller told my friend Barbara Reynolds, a columnist for The Root website and an ordained minister, “I can stay home and ... vote for Jesus.”

But many more, I believe, will decline to scrap their other political concerns for the sake of this single issue. After all, not voting is the same as casting a vote for whomever -- or whatever -- you would have opposed.

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