HRC: National Organization for Marriage Strategy Documents Reveal Race-Divisive Tactics
The Human Rights Campaign recently obtained and released confidential strategy documents by the National Organization for Marriage, the most prominent national anti-gay marriage organization. The documents, all from 2009, outlined plans to roll back same-sex marriage in some states, “keep [it] controversial” in others, and organize to stop gay marriage in more, using—among other tactics—strategies rooted in race.
Given that the organization’s plans failed in Iowa, New Hampshire, New York, and the District of Columbia, the bulk of media attention has focused on the racial strategy, wherein NOM plans to “make support for marriage a key badge of Latino identity” and “drive a wedge between gays and blacks.”
“Divide and conquer is not a new strategy,” wrote policy analyst Julie Ajinkya of the Center for American Progress, Campus Progress’s parent organization. “Historically it is used by those in power who fear that the marginalized will unite behind common grievances, revolt against oppression, and overthrow the ruling forces.”
So how to best drive wedges between the gay and black and gay and Latino communities? NOM called for finding and equipping racially diverse spokespeople, positioning them to be labeled “bigots” by white gay men and lesbians—in other words, setting gay activists up for their own race-baiting, an act contingent upon their documented difficulties building interracial coalitions.
While perhaps a reprehensible strategy, it was at least effective in framing the struggle over California’s Proposition 8.
Though later debunked by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, an exit poll initially claimed that an overwhelming percentage of black voters cast their ballots for Prop 8, prompting a spate of news articles exploring a “divide” between black and gay voters. Gay icons Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan alleged something akin to treachery on the part of black voters, who voted against gay rights when interracial marriage was only affirmed in the last century.
The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates rightly contested these articles, pointing out that church attendance was a better predictor of Prop 8 votes than race—and that blaming black voters for Prop 8 is a problematic practice:
There are people in my business who took to the highest hills to decry the betrayal of black Californians, and to this day, are giddily noting that blacks sunk marriage equality in California, who foist the failure of marriage equality on seven percent of the electorate. I will not speculate on their motives.
In a piece for Colorlines, Kai Wright interviewed organizers who felt that the opposition to Prop 8 didn’t reach out to communities of color:
Lawrence Ellis is among the LGBT organizers of color who saw the failure [No On 8 leader Kate] Kendall describes up close. He says that as he watched the campaign unfold from his perch in the Bay Area’s grassroots, he got mad: “The thought came into my head, ‘I don’t want to be a part of the world they are creating.’ ” So he took off work and began building connections among the small gay and lesbian organizations already active in Black, Latino, Asian and Native-American communities. They looked at data showing Blacks and Latinos to be a trouble spot and rounded up big names, including people like [United Farm Workers cofounder Dolores] Huerta, to speak out in ads.
When the campaign declined to air those ads, they turned their attention to doing get-out-the-vote work in their communities. “With two days notice, we got hundreds of volunteers,” says Ellis, suggesting what would have been possible had the No on 8 campaign resources been better used. “Any campaign has to make strategic choices, but not building a true coalition, where you get to leverage existing networks—that is a fatal flaw.”
It is a fatal flaw that NOM recognized in 2008 and has seized on as a crucial part of the organization’s strategy.
“Fanning the hostility raised in the wake of Prop 8 is key to raising the costs of pushing gay marriage to its advocates and persuading the movement’s allies that advocates are unacceptably overreaching on this issue,” NOM Depo Exhibit 25 reads.
As CAP’s Ajinkya notes, black civil rights leaders like Cornel West, John Lewis, and Wade Henderson are outspoken advocates for gay and lesbian rights, including marriage equality. The NAACP and the National Black Justice Coalition issued statements shortly after the documents’ release condemning NOM’s use of blacks as “pawns”—prominent African-Americans are unwilling to cooperate with the organization’s cynical politicking. And Eric Rodriguez wrote on the Huffington Post that NOM’s attempt to re-brand opposition to gay marriage as “anti-assimilation” demonstrates the organization’s complete ineptitude at manufacturing a racial divide.
But the organization did get one thing right: The mess around Prop 8 provided a shameful opportunity for sowing divisions between white gay activists and people of color, both gay and straight.
NOM knows that the marriage equality movement’s weakness is all too often a failure to engage African-Americans and other people of color. If same-sex marriage advocates want to counter these divisive strategies, the movement must rely on more than targeted outrage: It must work to strengthen its interracial support, and overcome past tension between white gay communities and communities of color.
Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.