Are Black People Really That Obsessed With Gay Marriage?

(x-posted at U.S. of J.)

At Secular Right, Heather Mac Donald tries to argue in support of one of the most common objections to same-sex marriage: the fear that legitimizing same-sex marriages would come at the cost of sullying the institution of “traditional marriage.”  Interestingly, she doesn’t focus on marriage as an institution so much as she does on the impact of same-sex marriage in the African-American community, where marriage rates are very low.  From what I can tell, Mac Donald is afraid that the unintended consequence of legitimizing same-sex marriage could be to stigmatize marriage among African-American males, who – on average – hold intensely negative views on homosexuality.  

Here it is in her own words:

If the black illegitimacy rate were not nearly three times the rate of whites’, I would have few qualms about gay marriage. Or if someone can guarantee that widespread gay marriage would not further erode the expectation among blacks that marriage is the proper context for raising children, I would also not worry. But no one can make that guarantee.

Why might it further depress the black marriage rate? There is a logical reason and a visceral reason. First, it sends the signal that marriage is simply about numbers: it is an institution that binds two (for the moment) people who are in love. It erases completely the significance that marriage is THE context in which the children of biological parents should be raised. And there are undoubtedly many other subtle meanings and effects of gay marriage that we cannot even imagine at the moment—which institutional shift is something that conservatives should be most attuned to.

As for the visceral reason: It is no secret that resistance to homosexuality is highest among the black population (though probably other ethnic minorities are close contenders). I fear that it will be harder than usual to persuade black men of the obligation to marry the mother of their children if the inevitable media saturation coverage associates marriage with homosexuals. Is the availability of homosexual marriage a valid reason to shun the institution? No, but that doesn’t make the reaction any less likely.

What are the chances that gay marriage would further doom marriage among blacks? I don’t know. Again, if someone can persuade me that the chances are zero, then I would be much more sanguine. But anything more than zero, I am reluctant to risk.

I don’t know what’s more problematic about this post: the fact that MacDonald offers an extremely unrealistic view of how African-Americans react to social forces, the fact that Mac Donald (even though she pooh poohs the suggestion) is essentially arguing for the restriction of LGBT rights in order to placate the prejudices of a vocal minority, or the fact that MacDonald’s entire post relies on a narrative of the African-American community which is as troubling as it is historically obtuse.

Mac Donald’s picture of how African-Americans would react to same-sex marriage is curiously lacking in humanity; she seems to think that black people are intensely preoccupied with gay people to the point where it would have a hugely disruptive effect on their personal lives.  But that doesn’t make any sense!  Even the most dedicated white homophobe has things to worry about besides what gay people are doing in their free time – he’s worrying about losing his job, paying his mortgage, and making sure that he can afford to send his kids to a decent college.  The same is exactly the case for most – if not all – African-Americans.  Even if your average black person despises gays, she has a hell of a lot more to worry about than whether or not they’re getting married, and this is even more true when you consider that a good chunk of black people (but not, and this important, a majority) live in hyper-segregated areas of hyper-poverty where fresh vegetables are either unavailable or too expensive, and the police hardly deign to protect you.  In a situation like that…gay people getting married is the least of your worries, and will probably have zero impact on your daily life or – more pertinently – your decision to get married.

Which is a nice segue into my second point, which is this: MacDonald’s reading of what is responsible for “the crime and academic achievement gap between blacks and whites” relies on a narrative which conveniently ignores the dramatic social, economic and cultural legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and other systematic, state-sanctioned attempts to marginalize African-Americans.  It’s actually very strange; Mac Donald reverses the causality of events, so that a poor urban economy is the result – and not the cause – of black criminality:

Black males commit homicide at ten times the rate of white males; in New York City, a representative locality, any violent crime is 13 times more likely to be committed by a black perp than by a white one. This crime gap results in depressed urban economies, huge incarceration costs, and the unjust demonization of the police as racist for merely going after criminals and of inner-city employers who worry about black thieves coming into their stores.

Alternatively, economic oppression, white flight, ghettoization and the long-term effects of various drug “epidemics” could be responsible for depressed economic conditions in inner-city and predominantly black areas!  What’s more, those same conditions might have more to do with the “gangsta” persona (and the implicit, desperate desire for status) than low marriage rates.  Now, I do think marriage is a good thing; as a social institution, it’s an impressive generator of wealth, security and stability.  But where I differ from Mac Donald (and conservatives more generally) is in thinking that marriage can do any of those things in isolation.  The simple fact is that African-Americans have had the deck stacked against them for a very long time.  And while we have made impressive gains, it’s still the case that there is a large percentage of black people laboring under conditions which were specifically designed to limit socio-economic movement, and in turn, breed behaviors and habits of mind which aren’t conducive to socio-economic advancement.  For those communities, marriage may provide some stability and some security, but it won’t solve the problem, and pretending otherwise is only counterproductive.




Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • t. o. a n.

    This, right here, is a very interesting argument. I read it a few times and I still don’t understand the logic behind it, I even went to Secular Right to read it and that did not shed any additional light. When she says that “marriage is THE context in which children of biological parents should be raised” I guess that it is not the context in which adopted children should be raised (???) and as stated in the above post, I don’t think that gay marriage is going to affect someone else’s willingness to get married. Where is the argument point on the academic achievement gap? What is the cause of that? What is the proposed solution for that? Where does marriage and joining gangs intersect? Why is the argument save black boys or allow gay marriage?

  • I can’t even call her argument interesting. It’s actually racist padded to sound as though her views empathize with black people. Is she implying that black people are so weak that with gays getting marriage the would deem marriage as no longer an institution “for” them. It’s such a ridiculous claim, I’m beginning to think conservatives come out with this stuff for us to help them shape their argument into something viable. This was the first round.

  • Jonathan

    I find her position that Black men are disproportionately more homophobic than any other group of people to be highly problematic, she states that as though it were just an essential fact, without any further insight into why she seems to think that. If she had, perhaps her entire argument would have had to be repositioned, because she would have had to deduce that Black men probably are not so preoccupied with hating Gay men, as much as they are with attempting a type of hyper-masculinity that is demanded of them in a culture that currently and historically has degraded and emasculated them. In fact, a lot of homophobia could probably be attributed to the fact that we live in a patriarchal world that demands and rewards masculinity above all else, and not, as she seems to believe, that it just-so-happens in the minds of certain peoples or populations.

  • Wow! I really like this blog post, and I am very excited to have found PB.

    Heather MacDonald is a well-known conservative right hack writer, who in my experience has often promulgated arguments bolstering conservative positions on societal flashpoints with barely veiled racist premises.

    It’s unsurprising to me that she would try to reinforce stereotypes about black male hypersxuality as well as overstating Black homophobia, especially if that helps make her argument against same-sex marriage.

  • Yeah, spot-on Jamelle. There’s a lot of problems with MacDonald’s piece and you pretty much addressed them. As Ta-Nehisi Coates often says, MacDonald’s argument only works if you don’t believe that black people are human – that we’re just statistics, talking points, a monolith.

    For instance:

    “What are the chances that gay marriage would further doom marriage among blacks? I don’t know. Again, if someone can persuade me that the chances are zero, then I would be much more sanguine. But anything more than zero, I am reluctant to risk.”

    I’m not even sure that I know what this means.