08 June 2015

The social conservatism of black America

Recently Gallup ran this poll, looking at attitudes toward sexual issues across political, religious and racial lines. Though levels of support for same-sex marriage and homosexual relations across the board are markedly, drastically increased from what they were even seven years ago, it is still very much the case that black Democrats are far more likely to oppose same-sex marriage than non-black Democrats, and among the African-American population at large, support for same-sex marriage is four percentage points below the national average. A Pew Research poll, marking changes in support of same-sex marriage over time by demographic, points to a similar trend.

The explanation offered by Gallup, and shared by Pew Research, for this social conservatism in black communities is simply (maybe too simply?) that black folks tend to be more religious than white folks. For the record, I don’t doubt at all that there is an important correlation there. Black people have been and remain the single most devout element of America’s demographic landscape, and this has some fairly obvious consequences regarding their stances on sexual ethics. But I do indeed have to wonder (as any good statistician ought!) if there is actually more going on here.

For one thing, the fact that African-American communities have been and in many ways still are actual physical communities of people, ones whose members’ means of physical mobility are limited by deliberate lack of investment, housing discrimination (particularly redlining), underfunded schools, over-aggressive policing and many other factors, probably makes a very significant difference. Being denied this access to the mainstream meant African-American communities had to develop, often ad hoc, their own alternative institutions and social capital. These are not necessarily communities of choice, but black people do tend to be invested more heavily in the places they live (because they live there and because they have to live there) than are white people, for whom the option to simply pack up and move out is not as prohibitively costly. That can give a powerful localist motivation to activists in the black community, such that they are more likely to be concerned with bread-and-butter issues that affect everyone in the community rather than protections for certain sexual behaviours that are necessarily private and exclusive.

Discrimination may factor in other, less obvious ways. The ‘white’ American mainstream, and particularly the broadcast news media, still tend to portray black American men as aggressive, brutish, susceptible to vice, sexually predatory and voracious, a stereotype that was born out of the ideological needs of the slave system and which unfortunately has never quite gone out of style since. Black American women are likewise, for the same reasons, still often stereotyped as sexually-incontinent (the Jezebel canard) and lazy (the ‘welfare queen’ canard). Sexual conservatism among black people may also be seen as a technique of actively rebelling against these destructive stereotypes, as well as a means of potentially asserting independence from the social structures and expectations imposed on them from outside.

There may also be another explanation for why black people tend to poll as conservative on social issues, and that is a distrust of the ‘white’ cultural mainstream (a distrust which, considering the current circumstances of that mainstream and particularly its history with black people, is actually fairly healthy). This includes the news media, the judiciary, the police, the education system and the producers of mass culture. When the Zeitgeist of the American mainstream is dogmatically non-judgemental, deracinated, hyper-globalist, therapeutically-deist, sexually-permissive and obsessed with straining after a fictitious fact-value distinction, chances are the black people who have been left out of this mainstream for so long will be actively looking for something more solid to build upon.

As for us – that is, those of us non-blacks who are interested in building a philosophically-cogent political project on the nexus of economic populism and social conservatism – we need to recognise that black activists, black religious leaders and black communities are our natural allies. By and large, African-Americans share concerns which are both pro-poor and pro-life (meaning equally anti-torture, anti-war and anti-police brutality in addition to anti-abortion). But we can’t afford to be deaf to their genuinely-held concerns, the way ‘white’ American social conservatives have been since the 1700’s. We need to be at the forefront in combatting the racist legacies of redlining, predatory housing speculation and double standards in public education.

Also, I remembered this chart looking at various political attitudes toward morality and the proper role of government amongst various religious groups in America. I’m a little bit iffy on the methodology used to produce it, but it is an interesting graphic all the same. Note that the historically-black Protestant churches are nearly all concentrated in the upper-left corner along with Islam and Hinduism, whereas the white mainline (as well as the non-religious) tends to be far more libertarian in outlook.

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