Groups are fanning the flames of conflict -- by accident and by design.
As North Carolinians head to the polls next week to vote on the fate of a state constitutional amendment to bar gay marriage and civil unions, the controversial measure can already claim at least one clear winner: The National Organization for Marriage. Exposed in March as seeking to drive a wedge between African-Americans and gay rights groups, the conservative group has found North Carolina -- which is 21 percent black -- a fertile playing field for its divide and conquer tactics.
Armed with both NOM money and strategic know-how, state level groups such as Vote FOR Marriage NC have deftly deployed the race debate to court black clergy and voters in their attempt to ensure that North Carolina is no longer the only Southern state whose constitution does not bar same-sex marriage. Passed by the legislature in September 2011 as "An Act to Amend the Constitution to Provide That Marriage Between One Man and One Woman is the Only Domestic Legal Union That Shall Be Valid or Recognized in This State," the measure goes before voters for ratification on May 8 as Amendment 1.
"Our efforts have certainly involved a broad coalition of individuals and organizations, including African-American pastors," said Rachel Lee, a spokesperson for Vote FOR Marriage NC. Although pro-equality forces have mounted an aggressive fight against the amendment, NOM's cynical blend of rhetoric and religion has successfully placed ethnicity -- as much as equality -- at the heart of the pro-Amendment 1 campaign.
"NOM has injected race into this conversation as an explicit strategy to drive a wedge between blacks and gays," said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, the nation's leading marriage equality advocacy group. "Anti-gay forces have deliberately funneled money into North Carolina [African-American] churches to enlist their leaders as messengers of their agenda."
Anchoring the push are pro-Amendment 1 black clerics from North Carolina and around the nation with strong ties to NOM, such as Maryland's Bishop Harry R. Jackson, who's also leading the effort to overturn his own state's recent law granting gays the right to marry, and Philadelphia-based Rev. Herbert Lusk, who appears in one of NOM's latest video campaigns, "Is Gay Marriage a Civil Right? African-American and Latino Leaders Speak Out." In April, Rev. George D. McKinney of San Diego helped launched an initiative for NOM with the Coalition of African American Pastors to collect 100,000 signatures around the country on behalf of keeping marriage something restricted to opposite-sex couples in North Carolina.
No pastor, however, has advocated as strongly for Amendment 1 as Rev. Patrick Wooden of The Upper Room Church of God in Christ -- a 3,000-member African-American congregation in Raleigh, N.C. Appearing everywhere from NOM-led rallies to its latest video, Wooden -- who has an extensive history of homophobic outbursts -- has become an eager public face for NOM's divisive strategy. Along the way, he's become a sound-bite ready foil for the large number of prominent black pastors campaigning against Amendment 1 -- including Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP.
While many of Wooden's main messages -- homosexuality is a sin; heterosexual marriage is the only Bible-sanctioned union -- are rooted in ancient scripture, Wooden's rhetoric also borrows heavily from African-Americans' own social justice struggles. But whereas the NAACP's Barber preaches that black and gay civil rights "share a common DNA," Wooden is infuriated to see black history marshaled on behalf of another civil rights fight. "African-Americans are appalled that their Civil Rights movement has been co-opted by the so-called Civil Rights movement of the homosexuals," he said in an interview. "It is an insult, it is angering when LGBT groups say there is no difference between being black and being homosexual."
Wooden's sentiments may resonate with many blacks, but they appear to be losing political potency: African-American support for Amendment 1 had fallen to 51 percent by the end of April from 61 percent in March, according to the latest report from Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm.
With prominent African Americans, including President Obama and former Charlotte mayor and Jesse Helms opponent Harvey Gantt, publicly opposing Amendment 1, black gay leaders such as Sharon Lettman-Hicks aren't surprised at its waning popularity.
"While some black clergy have been pulled into this debate, our black churches are smarter than that," said Lettman-Hicks, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC). "They won't simply be used as pawns to push NOM's hate."
Conservative groups have caught the most fire for fueling race-based animosity toward gay marriage, but progressive leaders have also played a role in stoking discord between the leaders of black and gay activist groups. The race question regarding same-sex marriage first cropped up in 2008, when California blacks -- a mere 6 percent of state voters -- were blamed by some gay leaders for the passage of Proposition 8 in the wake of reports in The Washington Post and CNN that exit polls showed seven in 10 black voters backing the measure barring marriage equality.
Although subsequent analysis found black support for Proposition 8 was only 6 percent higher than on average -- instead of nearly 20 percent -- the specter of black homophobia has loomed over the marriage equality movement ever since. "I certainly think the black community got a bum rap following the Prop. 8 vote," observed veteran activist Stuart Campbell, executive director of Equality North Carolina, the state's leading pro-LGBT non-profit. "And we had no one to blame but ourselves for not more effectively conveying our message to communities across the state."
Four years on, equality activists concede that the legacy of Proposition 8 has directly influenced their anti-Amendment 1 initiatives. Partnerships with clerics like Barber -- along with specialized media campaigns targeting African Americans -- were identified early on as essential tools for engaging black voters. Also important: avoiding the type of civil rights comparisons that so outrage pastors like Wooden. "There's no longer any question that using civil rights rhetoric and language infuriates black people," said Aisha Moodie-Mills, who helped lead Washington, D.C.'s, successful same-sex marriage initiative before joining the Center for American Progress.
Barber takes care to presents Amendment 1 in terms of social justice and legal sanctity. If the Amendment passes, he warns, blacks could be the next target of regressive referendum campaigners."It's a dangerous precedent to allow the majority to vote for the rights of a minority," he said, "even if you agree with that majority." Moodie-Mills, meanwhile, frames the debate "as an economic issue, a quality-of-life issue; people will actually suffer if these policies become law."
Nonetheless, an anti-Amendment1 ad campaign by the group Every1Against1 confrontationally compares the battle for gay rights to the one by African Americans for civil rights in the segregated South. With its stark images of a water fountain, a lunch counter, and the back of a bus, the campaign brazenly re-imagines central scenes in 1960s Civil Rights fight. Insensitive -- if not downright offensive -- messaging such as this, said Moodie-Mills, "shows just how disconnected some LGBT groups still are on the ground." Last week's television campaign from pro-equality group The Coalition to ALL Protect NC Families featuring solely white faces didn't help much either to bridge the divide. Coalition Campaign Manager Jeremy Kennedy acknowledged the omission, but attributed it to "limited economic resources" rather than an intentional attempt to put a white face on gay rights.
Whatever the cause, Kennedy's commercial only reinforces efforts by NOM -- which declined to comment for this story -- to paint marriage equality as a white issue. Yet with recent Census datashowing that in the majority of LGBT couples, one or both partners is an ethnic minority, African-American gays and lesbians may actually have the most to gain from Amendment 1's failure. And with politics ultimately a numbers game, that may be the most potent anti-NOM argument of all.