September 26, 2006
On Monday, Senator George Allen (R-VA) publicly denied allegations that he frequently used racially offensive language back in his days as a University of Virginia football player. It was the most recent in a series of accusations of racial insensitivity made against Sen. Allen during his current reelection campaign.
The senator made the denial after holding a press conference with a group of pastors, most of whom were Black.
Buried in most reporting about the event was the main purpose of the press conference: to promote Virginia’s November ballot measure that would create a constitutional ban on legal recognition of same-sex couples.
Some observers will find it ironic that Sen. Allen piggy-backed his assertions that he’s not racially prejudiced onto an event whose focus was to promote discrimination against sexual minorities. Others won’t see any irony at all because they don’t put sexual prejudice on a par with racial prejudice.
Irony aside, Sen. Allen’s joint appearance with black clergy was politically shrewd. Not only might it help to counteract some of his own image problems, it also is likely to reinforce support for the constitutional amendment among black heterosexual Virginians.
While most of the US public opposes marriage equality for same-sex couples, opposition is stronger among African Americans than among Hispanics and non-Hispanic Whites. My own research suggests that the source of many black heterosexuals’ opposition to marriage equality is their moral condemnation of homosexual behavior: They are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to regard same-sex sexuality and relationships as sinful, and this attitude strongly informs their opinions about marriage.
Capitalizing on this pattern, opponents of gay rights have targeted African American communities in their campaigns against marriage equality. Members of the clergy have often been enlisted to make salient the moral dimension of heterosexual Blacks’ attitudes, as was the case at Sen. Allen’s press conference.
The tactic may well be successful this year in Virginia, where a Mason-Dixon poll earlier this month showed the ballot measure was supported by 54% of likely voters, versus 40% who opposed it.
Advocates for sexual minority rights shouldn’t write off the African American community, however. Although most heterosexual Blacks don’t favor marriage equality, many support gay rights in other arenas. For example, strong majorities favor outlawing job discrimination based on sexual orientation and support hate crimes legislation.
One explanation for this seeming inconsistency is that marriage is closely linked with religion in the minds of many Americans, black and non-black alike, whereas job rights and hate crimes aren’t. Thus, attitudes toward the latter aren’t based on religious beliefs to the same extent as opinions about marriage. Given their history and their own experiences with prejudice and discrimination, many African Americans are strong supporters of antidiscrimination laws. However, that support currently doesn’t translate into support for marriage equality.
Sen. Allen’s press conference with black pastors may not help him avoid the political fallout from his recent campaign stumbles. But it exemplifies conservative Republicans’ potent strategy of appealing to heterosexual African Americans in their fight against marriage equality.