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Why blacks backed Prop 8

To be surprised that they voted to oppose gay marriage is to be blind to their history.

Here's a news flash: According to recent reports, seven of 10 African American voters in California supported the state's ban on same-sex marriage. Surprised? You shouldn't be.

By now, everyone should know that most black Americans are culturally conservative. But many white liberals don't want to know.

Consider their reaction to the Nov. 4 vote on Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California. After the measure passed, opponents were quick to attribute black support to a "robo-call" featuring the voice of then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. Others said African Americans were confused, thinking they were voting to legalize same-sex marriage rather than outlaw it.

Of course, we can never know why any individual voted in a particular way. Surely, some black voters were perplexed by the strange wording of the referendum, just as other voters may have been. And since black voters turned out in unprecedented numbers to support Obama, some of them probably were swayed by the phone call using his voice.

But why would they be swayed? The answer lies in the Obama comment quoted in the robo-call: "I believe marriage is a union between a man and a woman," he said. "Now, for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union. God is in the mix."

Prop 8 critics called the robo-call deceptive because it didn't mention that Obama opposed the referendum. But he also opposes gay marriage, as the quote richly illustrates. And so do most African Americans, for the same reason Obama cited: It violates their faith. God is in the mix.

That doesn't make those black voters correct, of course. I'm personally offended by Proposition 8, which violates the fundamental tenet of my own faith: equal respect and dignity for all human beings.

But I'm equally offended by the blithe characterizations of black support for the measure. It should not be fobbed off on confusion or propaganda. To blame ignorance or the Obama robo-call is to be deeply ignorant of African American history.

On every hot-button cultural question since the 1960s - not just gay marriage - black Americans have leaned right.

Recall the 1962 Supreme Court decision prohibiting prayer in public schools. Although the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and several other civil-rights leaders supported the ruling, most African Americans rallied against it.

"In these times of disquietude, we should all pray for guidance each day," one African American reader wrote to a newspaper, "and schools are no exception." The civil-rights struggle was a deeply religious movement, she added, so how could it succeed without religious education?

To other African Americans, school prayer was an issue of democracy, not just faith: Since most citizens favored school prayer, the courts had no business depriving them of it. "As it is a 'free' country, and the majority rule, I think that they should prevail," another black reader wrote.

By putting the word free in quotation marks, the writer signaled that a majority-white America still had not granted racial justice to its black minority. In the same breath, however, he also insisted that schools should follow the wishes of the Christian majority - no matter what the non-Christian minority wanted.

Into the present, African Americans have continued to invoke both lines of argument. At times, they cite their own struggles for justice as a racial minority; at others, they cast themselves as part of the majority. But one thing has remained constant: their traditional cultural values.

In 1993, three decades after the school-prayer decision, hundreds of black and white students walked out of class at a high school in Jackson, Miss. The reason? The school had fired its African American principal for allowing the recital of a prayer piped through the public-address system.

So there's nothing exceptional about black support for Proposition 8. From school prayer and abortion to capital punishment and gay marriage, African Americans overwhelmingly tend to back the conservative side.

You might find good reason to bemoan that; I certainly do. But if you want to change it, you'll have to take black politics and history more seriously than the opponents of Proposition 8 did. Anything less would patronize African Americans, which is the worst way to persuade them.