An internal Buttigieg campaign memo on three focus groups with 24 uncommitted African American voters in South Carolina revealed that Buttigieg’s sexuality was an issue for them. “Being gay was a barrier for these voters, particularly for the men who seemed deeply uncomfortable even discussing it,” reported the Benenson Strategy Group, which conducted the focus groups. “Their preference is for his sexuality to not be front and center.”
Because the Democratic electorate in South Carolina is 60 percent African American, such an assessment is a giant red alert for Buttigieg. Because African Americans are the bedrock of the Democratic Party, and because no candidate will win the Democratic presidential nomination without their support, such an assessment also has implications for the longevity of his campaign. Because African Americans have the reputation of being more homophobic than anyone else in the United States, such an assessment would spell doom for Buttigieg.
But all the armchair pundits — and actual pundits — perpetuating the lie that blacks are more homophobic than anyone else are smearing African Americans as a whole, that blacks as a people don’t support LGBTQ equality. In fact, that’s a lie, too. Or, as Charles Blow writes with his characteristic fire in the New York Times, “It is a disgusting, racist trope, secretly nursed and insidiously whispered by white liberals with contempt for the very black people they court and need.”
The controversy over the revelations in the Buttigieg campaign memo flared when CNN’s Dana Bash asked Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) whether “Mayor Buttigieg’s struggle in the state of South Carolina [is] because he’s gay.” The legendary Palmetto State politician, who is also black, responded, “I’m not going to sit here and tell you otherwise, because I think everybody knows that’s an issue. But I’m saying it’s an issue not the way it used to be.”
Clyburn is right on both points. Only a naif would think that Buttigieg’s sexual orientation would not be an issue — not just for some African Americans, but also for the country as a whole. While the Stonewall riots that ushered in the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement occurred 50 years ago, marriage equality has only been the law of the land since 2015 when the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was protected in the Constitution. It took decades of marching and protesting to change enough hearts and minds to make that happen. Yet, in 26 states, it is still legal to fire someone because they are or are perceived to be a member of the LGBTQ community. Or to deny them credit in 35 states and the District of Columbia.
But Clyburn was correct when he said that “it’s an issue not the way it used to be.” That’s because of those changed hearts and minds because of LGBTQ people coming out, telling our stories and fighting for our lives and humanity. That’s also because of allies joining in the fight with us.
Folks harping on black homophobia conveniently ignore the four straight black men who led on gay rights during the Obama administration — most notably President Barack Obama and then-Attorney General Eric Holder. And folks harping on black homophobia ignore how the Trump administration, since day one, has been laying siege to all the Obama-era LGBTQ equality regulations and protections.
African Americans have evolved on LGBTQ equality just like everyone else. According to the Pew Research Center, only 29 percent of blacks supported same-sex marriage in 2009. Ten years later, a majority (51 percent) now does. Sure, that is lower than other ethnic groups, but not significantly so. Also, citing that gap contributes to the intellectual laziness on this matter especially while ignoring other relevant data points. A recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has a raft of data that obliterates the blacks-riven-with-homophobia myth. When looking at the numbers below, keep in mind that 69 percent of all Americans favor laws protecting LGBTQ Americans against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing.
- 65 percent of all African Americans “favor laws that would protect LGBT people from discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing.”
- 65 percent of black Protestants “support laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and the workplace.”
- 67 percent of black Protestant Democrats “support nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people.”
- 68 percent of black Democrats and 65 percent of black independents “support for nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people.”
- 73 percent of young black Americans “favor LGBT nondiscrimination protections.”
- 54 percent of senior black Americans (age 65 and older) “favor LGBT nondiscrimination protections.”
- 60 percent of black men and 69 percent of black women “favor nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people.”
Given all that data, let me state the obvious (because in the age of President Trump and Twitter one must do that): The Buttigieg focus group represents a segment of the African American community, but the 24 people who participated do not represent the entirety of the African American community. So stop with the blanket assumptions about black voters and their views of LGBTQ Americans.
Now, having said that, here’s what everyone who jumped on the black-homophobia bandwagon missed. The Benenson memo notes that the voters in the three focus groups “are not following the race and know little of the Mayor.” Yes, Buttigieg’s sexuality initially was an issue, but the memo points out, “After seeing the Mayor speak, most voters in each group seemed to be able to get past his sexual orientation.” Translation: They got to know a little more about him and liked the little bit that they saw. This appears to have been the most true among older African American women in the groups.
“For the older women, talking about faith was a real winner and pushed them past their doubts,” the Benenson memo points out. “Given their faith and strong propensity to turn out, it’s likely that focusing on older women will [be] our most effective way to make inroads with black South Carolinians.” Anyone who knows the Democratic Party knows that if African Americans are its foundation, then black women are the bedrock upon which that support sits. Ask Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) or members of the current Democratic House majority where they would be without them.
The focus group observations track with what I heard at my family barbecue in North Carolina this past summer. A couple of my older female relatives proactively and favorably brought up Buttigieg, even if they couldn’t remember his name. My own mother, a born-again Christian, likes him. They think Mayor Pete is smart and thoughtful, if not a little too young to be seeking the presidency. And their pragmatism and overwhelming desire to rid the White House of Trump had most of them backing former vice president Joe Biden, which was also the case with the Buttigieg focus group. My Aunt Gloria summed up the thinking succinctly when she said, “The way the system is set up now, there is so much racism that it’s going to have to be an old white person to go after an old white person.”
What the Benenson focus group memo really shows was that Buttigieg needs to talk directly to black voters. Yes, he has been weaving concerns specific to the African American community into his remarks for some time. The so-called Douglass Plan that Buttigieg announced in July is a comprehensive vision of racial and economic justice. His reaction to the police shooting of a black man in his city in June was a study in how his vision clashes with his own experience on the ground and how that might inform black voters’ views of him and his commitment to equity and justice.
But the focus group shows definitively that, if Buttigieg wants the black vote, he needs to go directly to them. Mayor Pete already knows this. When I asked him about his trouble gaining African American support during a live event at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in May, Buttigieg told me, “There is a huge challenge for any candidate who is A, not themselves a candidate of color, and B, not somebody who’s been known for years or maybe decades to earn in very short order the confidence of black voters in the South.”
And Buttigieg should not shy away from talking about his faith with black voters. If there is one community where this would be a plus it is with African Americans, especially when your faith is integral to who you are, as it is with Mayor Pete. “Faith can lead you somewhere besides the arms of the religious right,” he told me in May. “At a moment when solidarity is so hard to come by in this country, I think it's a really good moment for secular and religious people who believe in a more inclusive and decent future to band together.”
I’m glad the blacks-and-Buttigieg memo came out. I’m glad it caused a stir because it gave me a chance to take a sledgehammer to the intellectual laziness with regard to the African American electorate. Black voters don’t own homophobia and they are not monolithic. Black voters have their specific concerns and they have hopes, dreams and aspirations that are as American as they come. If candidates want their votes, they have to work for them continually and ask for them with sincerity. And if a candidate fails to win over African Americans, the fault is not those voters. It’s the messenger and their message. Or they simply thought someone else stood a better chance of winning.
If there is a truism in American politics today that I want everyone to internalize it is this: You want the black vote? Treat them like they and their votes matter — because they do.