Thursday, January 8, 2009

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Parsing the Data about Prop 8 and Minority Voters

Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish links today to a posting by his colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates yesterday at the Atlantic blog site ( Coates deals with a recent report by the Haas Fund that gives a fine-toothed analysis of the statistical breakdown of the vote of various groups for or against prop 8 in California. (Ta-Nehisis Coates has a link to the Haas report in his posting.)

Careful analysis of the data suggests that, contrary to reports in the mainstream media following the election, the African-American vote for prop 8 was not anywhere near the 70% figure bandied about in the wake of the passing of prop 8. At 58%, it was closer to the 59% figure of Latin American voters for prop 8.

And as with other groups, the vote of the African-American community can be further broken down by church affiliation and attendance: voters who are churched and attend church regularly tended to vote in higher proportions against gay marriage, although the data show that African-American church-attending voters voted in a lower percentage against gay marriage than did churched voters of other communities.

Coates rightly expresses consternation at the large number of commentators who were willing immediately to lay the prop 8 victory at the feet of black voters. He suggests that in expressing this consternation, he is not glossing over or apologizing for the homophobia of some African Americans. As he notes,

Homophobia is bad for my community. I support gay marriage because I believe it is a moral imperative, and the marker of a just society. I support it because, as a black man, I have seen first-hand the value of all kinds of family. In other words, it's in my interest. It's in my son's interest. It's a part of a world, that I hope to live in.

And then he goes on to make the following observations, about which I've been scratching my head all day, as I wondered if it's worth trying to reply or to make sense of these remarks--or better just to shake my head, mind my own business, and go my own way:

But frankly, I have no use for people--gay, straight, white, red, rich, poor--who feel like black people "owe them." I have no use for people who like to trot out their history of supporting "black causes." I have no use for people who want to compare gay racism with black homophobia. With friends like those...

I'm sorry. I have to be frank, knowing that as I state my views frankly, I make myself--a white gay man living in the American South and descended from ancestors who held slaves--a big target for anyone who wants to play the racist card against me. But a white gay man who, precisely because of both the weight of his history and his sexual orientation, has found it impossible to ignore the claims of people of color on him.

Who has taught in HBCUs (and who chose to do so at a certain cost), and participated in civil rights demonstrations. Who has written over a period of more than 20 years about the obligation of the academy to incorporate the voices of people of color and to give works by African Americans canonical status.

There is a way in which I understand what Ta-Nehisi Coates says in the preceding passage. There is a way in which I completely agree with his points. If he means to say that many of us who enjoy privilege because of the color of our skins play with black causes, slide along with those causes when it is fashionable to do so, and then expect kudos for our "involvement," he is absolutely correct.

If he means that it is less than gracious to remind anyone that you have worked to assist them--less than gracious to expect to be rewarded when you have given freely out of the goodness of your heart--he is right. No one who has given to the cause of civil rights because she or he knew it was right to give should expect people of color to owe her or him.

But. But my years of teaching in HBCUs have given me insights into the rhetoric Coates is using here, which cast that rhetoric in a different light. For me, at least.

In my years of teaching African-American students, in years in which I had no possibility except to broach issues of gay rights, because I taught ethics classes in which textbooks invariably brought up that topic, I heard over and over things like the following: Gays just want to tag onto our coattails with civil rights. Gays can hide their identity; blacks can't. Why do I owe gays anything? They aren't black and I'm not gay.

At a more sophisticated level, I worked for a number of years with a top-level university administrator, a churched woman who has held high positions in her church, who repeatedly stated that she resented being asked, as a black woman, to support the rights of gays in society and in her church. Her position was that she had worked on her own for her rights as a woman and a person of color. Gays needed to do the same.

Hidden in that rhetoric is a boatload of toxins, of plain old homophobia. Because I happened to know the person making those remarks rather well--because she was someone I considered a friend and whom I supported precisely as a woman of color--I knew what she meant when she spoke about resenting gays who sought to ride on her coattails as a woman of color. And I chose to overlook what she meant, out of solidarity with her as a woman of color.

What she meant was that she was not comfortable with the cause of gay rights. What she meant was that she did not place the rights of gay human beings on the same level as the rights of women and people of color. Because she did not place the humanity of gay human beings on the level of her humanity as a black woman.

What she meant in excluding gays from "her" civil rights movement is that gay rights are insupportable because gays choose to be gay and are condemned by the bible for making that choice. Whereas blacks and women do not choose their pigmentation or their gender . . . .

Just as it is ungracious (even inhuman) to ask people to reward you when you assist them out of the goodness of your heart, it is also ungracious and inhuman to absolve yourself of any responsibility to feel gratitude when people do genuinely seek to make solidarity with you in your struggle for human rights. When I hear the language of owing nothing at all to those who have participated alongside people color in the civil rights struggle, I hear both a valid complaint that those who chose to participate should not expect gratitude, and I hear shameful ingratitude.

Perhaps I think (or feel, may be more accurate) this way because I was raised in an Anglo-American world of privilege that has strong codes governing the necessity of gratitude that have shaped my mentality? But don't other cultures around the world also have deeply rooted codes that require us to be grateful when others extend a helping hand to us? And don't those cultural codes around the world tell us that ingratitude is not something to trumpet, but to hang our head in shame about?

I'm asking, to put the point bluntly, if people of color have no obligation at all to be grateful for the contributions of others--including privileged whites who have no experiential sense of what it is like to live in this land with a darker skin--to the African-American civil rights struggle? Not because gratitude is owed or demanded by those who have assisted. But because the inability to be grateful dehumanizes the one who has taken and then cannot express gratitude. Because the inability to express gratitude communicates that one was owed what was freely offered.

This is a question that I have to ask constantly, because I happen to live in a city in which horrific things were done by white people to black people as the white high school in this city was integrated in 1957. I have to ask that question because I am living through a period in which white women who risked a great deal to assist those black families seeking to integrate the schools are now dying, as they reach advanced years.

One of those white women just died this past week. Studies of their involvement in the local civil rights struggle published in the last several years--when it became safe for the first time for these women to make their identities public--say that they involved themselves (in many cases, against their husbands' wishes) when black women approached them to ask for their support.

Those black women informed the white women whom they asked for support that, as black women, they could not accomplish all that they wanted. They knew that the women to whom they were turning had the ability, the social clout--yes, the power and the privilege--to lean on local merchants and clergy and try to keep the schools open and integrated.

And despite their power and privilege, those white women did pay a price. When they met to strategize, the FBI showed up to photograph their license plates. They received threatening letters. They were bullied. They were told to stop their agitation or face the consequences.

And most of them refused to stand down. They continued in their fight for integration. And the schools were integrated, with their considerable assistance.

Did they want rewards or fame? I don't think so. Would they be satisfied with slaps in the face, with rhetoric about how they were "owed" nothing for putting themselves on the line--yes, admittedly with power and privilege shielding them? I don't know. I cannot speak for them. I can speak only for myself. And I am probably less gracious than many of those women were and are.

I have my own story of not only astonishing ingratitude, but outright hatefulness and evil, on the part of some people of color to whom I have given of myself and my talents, to frame my thoughts about the dynamics between the gay community and the black community today.

Against the backdrop of that story, I cannot help thinking that there is something astonishingly ungracious about the insistence of some people of color that gay Americans who have supported the cause of civil rights are owed nothing, that we illicitly seek to hold onto the coattails of people of color. This rhetoric is particularly ungracious when it masks, as it too often does, homophobia, the judgment of some people of color that gay folks are second-class human beings not deserving of the same rights African Americans enjoy. When it enfolds a nasty hidden assumption that gay people are the lowest form of life on the human food chain, to be targeted and kicked by those who themselves suffer absolutely unjustifiable prejudice because of the color of their skin, it is vile.

When I read comments like Coates', part of me wants to shrug my shoulders and to be happy that I was expelled from an HBCU in an act of ungrateful savagery, by someone who thinks my humanity is so beneath hers that she willingly took what I offered to her and her institution, and threw it back in my face (having benefited from my support and hard work), as if she was owed everything I had to give and I had no right to anything--including my reputation, fair treatment, an honest evaluation of my work. When she accused me of not doing my job after I had worked to the utmost of my ability to do my job, and had done it well . . . .

After a decade of hard work on behalf of this woman of color, I have a ruined reputation; I have her lies heaped on my head, even as I continue to hear new reports the lies still roll forth from her; and I have a house to pay for, which I bought only because I trusted and believed in this person and wanted to make my talents available to her, even if I paid a price for doing so. I wanted to help her. Because she is a black woman. Who believes that she can treat another human being with a conspicuous lack of respect solely because he is gay.

Historians have rightly expressed horror at people who have been abused and oppressed, and who then turn around and abuse and oppress others, having learned nothing from their oppression. Nothing, that is, except how to pass on oppression to the next group down the human food chain. This is a sad, predictable human dynamic. When one expects people to learn from oppression, to enlarge their hearts and to be determined not to inflict on others the unmerited pain they have endured themselves, one is all too often bitterly disappointed.

As I say, I'd like to shrug my shoulders after my own experience with this tragic human dynamic, and say fine, now that I know my contributions weren't valued and wanted, I'm free. I can go on my way. I never expected honors or rewards anyway. (I certainly didn't expect slaps, though).

Fine. The cause of black civil rights and the damage of racism are problems for African Americans to solve. Not my problems. I have enough on my plate as a gay man. A gay man with no job or health insurance due to the discrimination of a homophobic black woman. A gay man with two houses to pay for, one for which he is paying solely because he believed a homophobic black woman was truthful when she said that she needed his talents and that he would have a job up to his retirement. I have enough on my plate with those financial burdens and a combined income that cannot cover the two house notes, because of the discrimination of a homophobic black woman. Fine. I have my problems to deal with, black folks have theirs.

Unfortunately, I cannot think that way, because to do so is to diminish myself as a human being. Many African Americans may well not want solidarity with me as a dirty, immoral gay man. I cannot reciprocate the demonization and prejudice. I may fail at it again and again, but I have an obligation to care, and I intend to keep caring, even when I'm slapped in the face for doing so, as I was in what is perhaps the greatest act of evil inflicted on me in my life journey up to now.

By a black woman. Whom I supported and assisted and to whom I gave freely because she is a black woman.

And people of color and women deserve to be treated with dignity and to have their human rights respected.