May 10 2012

Race and gay marriage: the story of a proposition

It’s been a weird week for Americans who support equal marriage rights for gay people. On the disappointing side, there was the more-or-less inevitable passage of an amendment to North Carolina’s state constitution that doubly extra-bans gay marriage (while smuggling in a bunch of other assholish nonsense for good measure). It also appears that Colorado would rather dither and adopt a faux-libertarian posture than see gay people achieve even second-class status. On the other hand, the President finally decided to alight from his perch on the fence* and state, finally, that he supports gay marriage. Of course, marriage is not the be-all-end-all of the gay rights struggle, but it has become a proxy for general acceptance of gay Americans as full-fledged citizens.

Whenever the gay marriage issue comes up, there is always someone in the conversation (and sometimes it’s me) who brings up the intersectionality between race and homophobia – pointing out that in California’s notorious “Proposition 8″ battle in 2008, black Californians voted 70% in favour of denying marriage equality to gay people. It is often raised in discussions of the seeming hypocrisy in a group that was so long denied civil rights using those freshly-granted rights to deny others the same. I stumbled across an interesting analysis of actual voting data (rather than exit polls) that examines this exact question, and I thought it would be worth taking a closer look.

The Claim:

Black Californians, spurred on by the machinations of the Mormon church and their own homophobic zeal, voted overwhelmingly in support of a ban on gay marriage. This wide margin played a significant role in the passage of the proposition.

The Prediction:

If it were true, we would see race (particularly being African-American) emerge as a significant factor in a statistical model trying to predict voting patterns from demographic data. After all, if race is the deciding factor explaining the exit polling (rather than due to some confounding effect), it should be possible to observe and measure its effect size.

The Test:

In order to populate the model, the authors analysed a poll of over 1,000 California voters conducted immediately after the passage of the Proposition. In addition to basic demographics (age, gender, sex), participants in the survey were asked to identify their political affiliations (Democrat, Republican, Independent), their political alignment (liberal, moderate, conservative), their level of religious involvement (frequency of church attendance), whether they had any gay friends, and their race. All of these variables were loaded into a multivariate regression model** to see what the effect of each variable is when all the others are held constant.

The Findings:

When controlling for all other variables, race (being African-American or Latin@) contributed significantly to one’s likelihood to oppose marriage equality. However, so did age, religiosity, party identification and alignment:

Table 1 showing regression analysis results

Click to enlarge

It is important to note that (look in the last row of the table) that even when you know all of this information about a person, you only have a 76% of accurately predicting which way ze voted. It is also important to note that if you control only for age, gender and religiosity, the significance of race disappears. What this suggests is that black religious conservatives/Republicans voted very differently form black religious liberals.

If we look at the extent to which the different variables influence voting intention, we get a much clearer picture:

An ordered bar chart of the different modeled variables

As you can see from the above figure, race was less important than political party, ideology, religiosity, and age. Only gender and personal association with gay people were less likely to play a role in predicting which way someone would vote.

So the question becomes how did the pollsters get the answer so wrong? If race wasn’t the big deal that the news reported, why did we see such a huge effect of race in the exit polls? Well, it turns out that new organizations are pretty much exactly as skeptical as you’d expect:

On average, the difference in support between African Americans and all voters in these four surveys was just two percentage points. The NEP exit poll finding—that black support for Proposition 8 was 18 points higher than Californians as a whole—is most likely an “outlier,” a result that is very different than what concurrent data trends suggest to be the case.

A bar graph showing a number of different poll resultsSo the news channels took one poll with a particularly sexy finding and ran with it. Based on the other polls, it looks as though black voters were only slightly more likely to vote for the Proposition as they were to vote against it. While it makes for a good story (and fits neatly with the image of the black community being rife with homophobia), it does not appear to be the case that race played a meaningful role in the results of that particular vote.

There was, however, a very interesting result that fell out of the analysis that I think is worth a sentence or two of exploration:

Also, we note, that precincts with very few black voters supported Proposition 8 at levels about as high as those precincts with many black voters. That is, support for Proposition 8 was greatest in precincts that are the least racially diverse.

I find this particularly fascinating because it tracks well with the idea that exposure to people from a variety of backgrounds (be they racial or otherwise) makes people more pro-social. It is harder to suppress empathy for others in general when your home environment gives you constant reminders that not everyone experiences the world the way you do. Now, I may be reading way too much into this finding – there are a variety of other potential explanations for this phenomenon, but it is worth taking a closer look. Does heterogeneity breed tolerance, or is there some other force at work here?

One last finding, that I think might cheer you a bit:

The idea that gay rights acceptance is only a matter of time is a fairly popular meme, and analysis of the data suggests that it has some merit. Not only did fewer people vote for Proposition 8 than voted for a similar amendment that was passed previously, but young people were far more likely to support equality. Not only are the young more supportive, but as time goes on even those who are not necessarily ‘young’ are coming around to the idea that gay people might be human too.

The Conclusion:

Despite much protestation to the contrary, the passage of Proposition 8 in California cannot be chalked up to a racial issue. Black Californians were not much more likely to vote to withhold recognition of human rights than non-black Californians. While it is still disappointing that they didn’t see the hypocrisy any more than other groups, it is at least comforting to know that, far more than race, it was party affiliation far more that explains what happened that day in 2008.

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*This is a decidedly unfair characterization, given that the President has worked pretty hard to repeal DADT and finally put DOMA out of its misery. I just find the “well I believe people should have rights, I just don’t personally think they deserve them” attitude adopted by many ‘centrist’ Democrats to be so cowardly as to beggar belief.

**The trick to understanding what a multivariate regression model is, is to think about the y = m(x) + b equation for a line that you remember from high school math. Now imagine that instead of just a y- and x-axis, you have multiple axes, such that y = m1(a) + m2(b) + … + b. Solve for y.


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  1. 1

    Great article. Every time I come here, I get food for thought. I constantly find myself going “yeah!” and wanting to share everything you say with my friends. Thanks for consistently being sober, thoughtful, and insightful!

  2. 2
    James Sweet

    I think it’s a little bit unfair to completely dismiss the not-adjusted-for-religiosity results. If you don’t bother to correct for any other factors, African-Americans did disproportionately vote in favor of Prop 8 (though not nearly to the margin that initial reports suggested, and not nearly enough to have swung the vote, FWIW), and I would argue that the primary reason for this is the high religiosity of African-Americans.

    In other words, it’s not that blacks are inherently more homophobic (how would that even work?), or even that African-American culture is more homophobic — but rather, it’s a manifestation of the fact that (as folks like Sikuvu Hutchinson have pointed out) the church is a cancer on the African-American community. This is just one more way that the complicated relationship between Christianity and African-Americans is screwing everything up.

    I know it’s treading in dangerous territory to say so, because there are lots of people who want to reduce it to “Prop 8 would have passed if it weren’t for all them homophobic brown people!” (which is wrong on multiple levels) But at the same time, I don’t want to shy away from the ways in which religion is partly interfering with what should be a no-brainer civil rights alliance.

    (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the NAACP has been stellar when it comes to supporting LGBTQ rights, as have several prominent black civil rights leaders in America.)

    Also, we note, that precincts with very few black voters supported Proposition 8 at levels about as high as those precincts with many black voters. That is, support for Proposition 8 was greatest in precincts that are the least racially diverse.

    Now that is really interesting… thanks for highlighting that!

  3. 3

    Let me put my point more succinctly: This data shows there is no reason for the gays and blacks to get all mad at each other, as some people seemed to be implying based on the initial (wrong) exit poll numbers. But I think the data does show there is plenty of reason for both gays and blacks together to be pissed off at Christianity’s intense influence on the African-American community.

  4. 4

    Any comment on the same kind of thing in North Carolina, or the polling data suggested here (which, in fairness, puts white evangelicals as the group most opposed to gay marriage), or the political speculations?


  5. 5

    I can’t help but think of a cheesy ad campaign inspired by “food for thought”:

    “My brain feasts upon Crommunist Manifesto!”

    “The best brainfood this side of the Hudson Bay!”

    “When my brain is looking for a knowledge fix, I look no further than Crommunist’s Cornucopia of Consciousness-Raising!”

  6. 6

    “Is your brain’s stomach empty? Cram in some Cromwell wisdom!”

  7. 7
    Rutee Katreya

    I’d like to point out that Obama also stated that Gay Marriage is a states rights issue, so there’s really not enough shit to say about his, personally, being a jackass on this issue. He is president, and before that was a constitutional law professor, he knows damn well what it means to say the states have a right to choose.

    That said, thanks for the rest.

  8. 8

    @James Sweet

    While I’m not naturally predisposed to challenge your conclusions (since the jibe pretty well with my own atheist prejudices) I feel I ought to point out that the data above do not have the resolution to support your argument. Ironically enough, you are as guilty as the media in drawing conclusions based on correlations without looking deeper… It could be (note: I’m certainly not asserting this as a fact!) that African-Americans are more homophobit and hence tend to gravitate to the more homophobic churches, for example – in which case the religiosity variable would be a non-causative correlation.


    Actually, I think the correlation is even more complex than Crommunist argues. Just for shits-n-giggles, I ran the variables MARHOMO (HOMOSEXUALS SHOULD HAVE RIGHT TO MARRY), RACE (RACE OF RESPONDENT), and PARTYID (POLITICAL PARTY AFFILIATION) through the Gereal Social Survey (note that this yields national findings, not those local to California). I won’t post everything here (you can run the numbers yourselves) but the most surprising finding was that black Americans tend to be disproportionately more intolerant of gay marriage the further left they go: that is, black Americans who identify as strong democrats tend to be very miuch more likely to disapprove of gay marriage than their white counterparts, while the reverse is true among strong Republicans.

    I also ran the data using the MARHOMO, RACE, and BIBLE variants (the latter being a measure of Biblical literalism in belief). There, again, the results are surprising: among those claiming to see the Bible as ‘the word of God’, whites prove significantly more hostile to gay marriage than blacks; the ‘bigotry spread’ is pretty much even among those claiming to believe in the Bible as ‘inspired’; and among those seeing the Bible as a ‘book of fables’, blacks are significantly more homophobic than whites. There’s a large ‘other’ variable, though, which rather skews the data (here blacks are very, very much more open to gay marriage than their white counterparts… I wonder what biblical views that ‘other’ encompasses?).

    Findings based on the variable RELPERSN (‘how religious do you see yourself?’) mirror those for BIBLE very closely.

    Lastly, I ran data on parental church attendance – just in case a different pattern emerged with cross-generational religiosity. But that produced little more than noise.

    Not drawn any conclusions from this. But… it’s complicated, I think. And nothing here readily fits my personal prejudices:)

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