The state-sanctioned terrorism perpetrated against blacks in America for the better part of two centuries will forever be America’s greatest shame; conversely, the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement over the past fifty years are a profound testament to society’s ability to change for the better.
But the larger civil rights struggle in America didn’t end with equality for blacks (nor is it over with respect to blacks). Today, gays face discrimination in all facets of society, sometimes suffering physical violence from those so virulently anti-gay that they resort to brutality.
By any reasonable estimates the obstacles faced by gay people in America in the 21st century in no way approximate what blacks suffered for the majority of the nation’s existence. This is to be expected; historically, nations address the worst grievances first and then refine their moral compasses as time goes on.
One might expect that given their history of discrimination, blacks would rise to the defense of gays and stand at the forefront of the efforts for gay equality. In fact, the reality for the most part is just the opposite. The black community has a dirty secret that few are willing to discuss: blacks are some of the most stridently anti-gay in America. Animosity against gays seems most marked in the South, and is probably strongest among Caribbean blacks. (There are notable exceptions: Coretta Scott King has spoken out strongly in support of gay rights, but her words have largely fallen on deaf ears.)
Why are blacks in America so often intolerant with respect to gay rights? Much of it is due to religion. Whereas the Civil Rights Movement gained much of its inspiration from Southern evangelical churches, these churches are extremely socially conservative. In addition, it angers many blacks to hear their struggle against slavery, Jim Crow and the KKK compared with discrimination against gays.
The GOP senses that it can exploit the issue of gay rights to weaken the strong bonds between blacks and the Democratic Party, and has made this a part of their larger strategy. With the Iraq War and terrorism dominating the news, they have so far not been successful; all the same this is something to watch.
This brings me to the current Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who are competing for the “black vote”. I am curious to see what they have to say with respect to gay rights, especially in South Carolina where one of the first primaries will be held. Unfortunately the issue never came up during the first Democratic debate. Barack seems perfectly positioned to finally address the dirty secret of black animosity towards gays head-on. If he has the courage, he can make a forceful case that blacks should be sympathetic to the plight of gays and be working to extend civil rights to this disenfranchised community. That would truly be revolutionary.